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Clemente and Munson: A Look Back at Baseball’s Loss


Clemente and Munson: A Look Back at Baseball’s Loss

Over the decades, Major League Baseball has sadly lost many players who died while on their team’s active rosters. 

Even as Spring Training 2017 is underway, many baseball fans are still mourning the recent deaths of two young rising stars: Yordano “Ace” Ventura, age 25. Kansas City Royals. José Fernández, age 24. Miami Marlins.

As we look back at some of the great losses Baseball has gone through, 2 legends also come to mind.

The loss of legends Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson.

Decades after their deaths, two of baseball’s all-time greats—Thurman Munson and Roberto Clemente—are remembered for the joy they brought to their fans, their contributions to the game, and the way their careers were cut short due to untimely and unforeseen deaths, both in tragic plane crashes.

August 2, 1979. Thurman Munson, catcher, age 32. New York Yankees.

Thurman Munson was a scrappy, tough and talented baseball player who played the game the way it was meant to be played—all out and always to win. He played for the Yankees during the 1970s and led the team to two World Series Championships (’77, ’78). He was also a devoted family man to his wife and three children.

Beloved by fans and teammates and respected throughout the League, he was named team captain at the beginning of the 1976 season by manager Billy Martin…the first Yankee to be named captain since Lou Gehrig. Martin had said of Munson, “He has just the right cockiness. He’s a born leader.”

Munson played 11 seasons with the New York Yankees, from 1969–79. The seven-time All-Star finished his career with 1,558 hits, 113 home runs, 701 RBI, a .292 lifetime batting average, three Gold Gloves and two World Series rings. In 1998, the Sporting News selected Munson as their starting American League catcher for the decade of the 1970s. Munson might even be one of the best playoff performers in baseball history, hitting .357 lifetime in the postseason and helping make the Yankees one of the best teams of the late 1970s.

Late in his career, Munson asked the Yankees to trade him to the Cleveland Indians so he could be closer to his family in Ohio. However, because the Yankees wouldn’t let him go, he chose to buy a plane and he learned to fly. His plan was to fly himself home to Ohio whenever the Yankees’ schedule permitted.

During some time off between games in the middle of the 1979 season, Munson was practicing takeoffs and landings in Ohio when his plane crashed outside Canton. Munson died in the fire that followed.
The Yankees had lost one of their most popular players ever, and every baseball fan in the country mourned the loss of a genuine competitor.

In tribute to their fallen star, the Yankees placed a plaque with Munson’s image in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Munson’s locker was never assigned to another player, and it was transported from the old Yankee Stadium to the locker room in the new stadium in 2009. A replica of the locker—which includes Munson’s catcher’s gear and jersey—is on display at the Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.

December 31, 1972. Roberto Clemente, right fielder, age 38. Pittsburgh Pirates.

Roberto Clemente was one of baseball’s greatest stars in the ’60s and ’70s. His performance in the 1971 World Series against the powerful Baltimore Orioles showcased the incredible depth of his talent for fans across the country.

Most likely, few fans know Clemente was on the Pirates team with Bill Mazeroski when Pittsburgh won the World Series in 1960 against the Yankees. In that Series, Clemente hit .310 in 29 plate appearances (he’d hit .316 for the season). Clemente wasn’t a rookie then—in fact, he’d been in the League for six years. But after 1960, his talents and fame soared.

Over the ensuing seven years, Clemente took four National League batting titles and started a streak of 12-straight Gold Glove Award seasons as a right fielder. He was the National League MVP at the end of the 1966 season, hitting .317, combined with 119 RBIs and 29 homers.

In 1967, he registered a career-high .357 batting average to go with his 23 home runs and 110 runs batted in. During the ’60s, his average only once dropped below .300 during a season.

Clemente seemed to get better with age. At age 37, he was the star of the ’71 World Series. He hit two home runs, a triple, two doubles and six singles, compiling an average of .414. Clemente was named the Series MVP and, thanks to national TV exposure, he was finally recognized by the nation as one of the game’s best.

He was a fifteen-time All-Star with an All-Star Game average of .323.

Late in 1972, in what would become his final season (his 18th), Clemente attained his 3,000th career hit—at the time, just the 11th player to reach that milestone.

He would not get another.

A few months later on December 31, 1972, Clemente—a humanitarian by nature—boarded a small plane flying from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua to offer much-needed supplies after a huge earthquake. The heavy, overloaded plane crashed just off the Puerto Rican coast. Roberto Clemente’s body was never recovered.

The following year, as a tribute to his greatness and the enormity of the baseball world’s loss, Clemente was elected to the Hall of Fame by a special election committee that waived the standard (and mandatory) five-year waiting period for consideration.

That same year, Major League Baseball renamed its annual humanitarian prize The Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player every year who best demonstrates sportsmanship, community involvement and contribution to the team.