Forty years after his death, those who knew him well remember the man Munson was in life

If Thurman Munson had lived, would he have kept Canton as his home?

It would have been difficult. The All-Star catcher was manager material, and he would have wanted a job. That would have meant settling somewhere other than his hometown, unless maybe the Indians would have hired him.

Munson's widow, Diana, still lives in the Plain Township home she shared with Thurman prior to his death 40 years ago.

"No matter where he might have worked," she says, "we always would have maintained a home in Canton."

Most likely, he would have become a manager of the Yankees, for whom he played from 1969-79.

"(Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner and Thurman were very close," Diana Munson says. "George was grooming Thurman to be a manager.

"The question I always had was how many times George would have fired Thurman and rehired Billy Martin."

Steinbrenner was famous for playing musical managers, with Martin in and out of the hot seat. Munson's final season of 1979 began with former Indians great Bob Lemon as manager, only to be replaced by Martin in June. Martin attended Munson's funeral in Canton on Aug. 6, 1979, four days after the tragic plane crash near Akron-Canton Airport.

When Canton built a stadium to house the Cleveland Indians' minor-league Class AA affiliate, it opened in 1989 as Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium.

Munson became a tremendous favorite in New York, where he starred on Yankees teams that reached World Series in 1976, '77 and '78. His heart was in Canton, where a big part of his legacy remains.

In the summer of 1964, Munson was with an American Legion team practicing at Malone College, just up the street from his house on Frazer Avenue.

Ralph Miller was waiting for the practice to end so he could take the field with his team from the local adult league. Munson was between his junior and senior years at Lehman High School, but Miller saw that he was old enough to play with the grown men.

John Biskup, Miller's aging catcher, saw the same thing.

"Thurman thought he was a hotshot shortstop," said Biskup, who was more than twice Munson's age at the time. "I was still catching but I was getting too old for it, and I wanted Thurman to do it."

Munson was an All-Ohio shortstop at Lehman. His reputation for being good at everything (he starred in football and basketball, too) led to the conclusion he could do what no one else could do, catch Lehman's sensational pitcher, Jerome Pruett.

Munson made the all-star team in the adult league as a second baseman in 1964, then moved to shortstop in 1965. He was 18 years old.

"One night there was a ground ball to shortstop," Biskup said. "There was a runner on third. Thurman threw home, a little wide. I dove and caught the ball and tagged him out, but I broke my hand."

Biskup had found a way to get Munson catching.

Miller was friendly with Kent State baseball coach Moose Paskert, who persuaded Munson to join the Golden Flashes.

Doug Miller, Ralph's son and now one of Ohio's best-known high school baseball men, said Munson's uncommon confidence carried from Canton to Kent.

"Freshman were not allowed to play varsity when Thurm was at Kent," Doug Miller said. "Kent had a good catcher named Art Kusnyer. He was going to be a senior the following year.

"He was drafted by the White Sox. He didn't know whether to sign or come back his senior year. Thurm told him to sign because he would be the catcher for Kent in 1967."

Kusnyer went pro and eventually caught one of Nolan Ryan's no-hitters. Munson was an immediate hit as a college catcher and was drafted by the Yankees in 1968. He was in the big leagues by 1969.

He became a big star who always seemed to be at his best against Cleveland.

"Thurman was an unconventional catcher who approached his job differently than most," said Ron Hassey, the former Indian who caught Lenny Barker's perfect game. "He did it his way, and he was very successful doing it. He was the tenacious type ... a bulldog."

Biskup, the A League catching mentor, became one of Munson's closest friends. Munson learned to fly and began making runs to Canton during Yankee seasons.

According to Biskup, Munson obtained Steinbrenner's permission, but practiced his flights home quietly. One time Munson invited teammate Lou Piniella to fly to Canton with him.

"I didn't know you were doing this," Piniella said.

Biskup became Munson's regular flying buddy. Munson would fly the old catcher to New York and have him as a guest at Yankees games.

"One winter Thurman called me in the night and said, 'I got permission to land on ice. Will you go with me?' I said, 'You've got to be kidding. I asked my wife. She looked at me and said, 'Go.'"

Diana Munson said she wasn't the only one who worried that Thurman's flying amid the rigors of a 162-game schedule was risky. He was piloting a Cessna Citation jet when he died in a crash short of an Akron-Canton Airport runway.

Joe Gilhousen recalls Aug. 2, 1979, "very clearly."

"I was still in the A League," he said. "We were going to play a tournament game at Warren. Somebody called the house with the news.

"I was devastated. We played the game. I remember being just kind of numb."

Gilhousen knew Munson from the playgrounds of Worley School from fifth grade on. They were football, basketball and baseball teammates at Lehman and then baseball teammates at Kent State.

"Thurman played with a great belief in himself and in his abilities," Gilhousen said. "When somebody got him out, he thought it was an accident."

The Yankees made Munson the fourth overall pick of the 1968 baseball draft and first called him up in September of 1969.

His first road trip with the Yankees was to Cleveland, where the Indians had one of baseball's great strikeout artists, "Sudden" Sam McDowell.

"A bunch of us went up to watch Thurman," Gilhousen said. "He faced McDowell and hit him hard and talked as if it wasn't any big deal."

Munson soon was the toast of New York City. He caught with the approach of a middle linebacker, hit in the clutch, and became American League Rookie of the Year in 1970.

Canton was home, and Munson was home as often as he could be. A strike lasting from April 1-13 interrupted the start of the 1972 MLB season.

Gilhousen was then coaching baseball at Oakwood, which later merged into GlenOak.

"Thurman calls and says, 'I need someplace to hit ... can I come over?','" Gilhousen said. "He came over and took batting practice. A bunch of 15- and 16-year-old kids were in awe.

"After his first couple of swings, nobody was still in the infield."

As time passed, the old friends would bump into each other here and there. Munson would always ask how coaching was going. It went pretty well. Gilhousen coached GlenOak teams to back-to-back state titles in the 1990s. Munson's son Mike played for Gilhousen and was a senior in 1993.

Thurman and Diana parented Mike and two daughters, Tracy and Kelly. Seven grandchildren are part of the legacy.

"He was such a unique, wonderful man," Diana Munson said. "I believe it is best that people celebrate his life and not dwell on the tragedy."

 

Reach Steve at 330-580-8347 or steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP