Dead Player of the Day #22 (Thurman Munson Edition)
Thurman Munson C 1969-1979 (1947-1979)
Due to his untimely death and his place as a strong personality on one of the most obsessed-over teams of all time, Munson has received more ink than some Hall of Famers. As such, I’m not going to give you a thoroughgoing Munson bio, but instead want to pick on just a couple of aspects of his career, one a somewhat trivial aspect of his offense, another concerning a hypothetical trade.
First, the small matter of his 1975-1977 seasons. At the time, it was considered to be a big deal that Munson had had three consecutive .300 average/100 RBI seasons as a catcher. That combination means less to us now than it did then, what with our appreciation of on-base percentage and RBIs as a function of opportunity. Still, Munson did deserve some of the applause. He was legitimately dangerous with runners on in those seasons, driving in 20 percent of his baserunners in each of them, then and now a high number.
Still, how rare is that combination in a catcher? It’s kind of rare, or at least was until recently. Using a baseline of 450 plate appearances and 100 RBIs we get a collection of just 31 catcher-seasons that reach Munson’s numbers. Bill Dickey got there in four straight seasons, 1936 through 1939. Those were his only 100-RBI seasons. In our more forgiving time, Mike Piazza got there in five consecutive seasons, from 1996 through 2000. He, Dickey, and Munson are the only catchers to hit .300 with 100 RBIs in more than two consecutive years.
After the 1977 season, Munson was so fed up with George Steinbrenner, Reggie Jackson, and Billy Martin that he loudly demanded a trade to his home-state Cleveland Indians. Steinbrenner shrugged this off, saying that he could never get equal value for Munson, to that point a career .291/349/.418 hitter (120 OPS+), three-time Gold Glover, six-time All-Star, former Rookie of the Year and MVP award winner, and the team captain. Certainly Munson was an important player to the Yankees, especially since, despite some game efforts, they hadn’t succeeded in finding a viable back-up, let alone an adequate replacement. From 1973 to 1978, Munson’s caddies had included Rick Dempsey (.231/.308/.296), Fran Healy (.250/.305/.293), Cliff Johnson (.234/.351/.465, but he didn’t want to catch), Mike Heath (.228/.265/.283), Ed Herrmann (.255/.309/.410), and Elrod Hendricks (.234/.265/.453). Parenthetically, none of these catchers were in the Yankees organization at the time that Munson died.
What if Steinbrenner had tried to honor Munson’s request? We can make some informed guesses about the outcome beyond the obvious, namely that Munson might still be alive today. First, the Indians would probably have gone for a deal and they probably would have been snookered. They had no catcher, the incumbent being the replacement-level hitter Fred Kendall, daddy of Jason Kendall. They had a well-established history of trading for middle-aged players, so a 30-year-old catcher coming off of a .308/.351/.462 season wouldn’t have given them pause. They also had a gigantic stadium that they weren’t coming close to filling, or half-filling, and picking up a local hero might have put a few extra buttocks in the seats.
The Indians’ GM from 1973 through 1985 was Phil Seghi, who spent much of his career working under Gabe Paul. His was not an especially successful tour, as the club went 943-1090 (.464) with an average record of 74-88 and just two (barely) .500 seasons. Consider some Indians trades from this period:
April 3, 1974: Traded Pedro Guerrero to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Bruce Ellingsen. Sure, Pete was 18 at the time and had been in the Indians’ system so briefly that they probably had the barest sense of what his abilities were, but that’s the whole point—you’re supposed to know why you signed the kid and what his potential is. Obviously the Dodgers knew. What the Indians thought they knew is that Ellingsen, a former 63rd-round pick coming off of a 6.71 ERA at Albuquerque, was somehow an important get.
April 26, 1974: Traded Chris Chambliss, Dick Tidrow, and Cecil Upshaw to the New York Yankees for Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, Steve Kline, and Fritz Peterson. Chambliss personally kept the Yankees out of the postseason in ’74, but was valuable thereafter, while Tidrow was an important part of the bullpen (and a reliable spot starter) for four years.
June 13, 1975: Traded Gaylord Perry to the Texas Rangers for Jim Bibby, Jackie Brown, Rick Waits and $100,000. Perry, 36, had another 274 starts, 110 wins, and one Cy Young award left in his career. Bibby gave the Indians two and a half decent years, mostly as a swing man, Brown was a replacement-level fifth-starter for a year, and Waits was a not-quite league-average innings eater.
December 6, 1976: Traded Rick Cerone and John Lowenstein to the Toronto Blue Jays for Rico Carty. You can argue that was a good deal if you want; Cerone and Lowenstein had long-term value, but it took awhile for them to find it, while Carty, 37, hit .303/.372/.455 in 430 Cleveland Games. The larger issue is what the Indians were doing trading Cerone, their 1975 #1 draft pick, less than 162 games into his professional career, and for an aging DH no less? Salvaging the deal somewhat, the following spring they retreived Lowenstein in return for Hector Torres, a good deal.
February 28, 1978: Traded Tom Buskey and John Lowenstein to the Texas Rangers for David Clyde and Willie Horton. Another trade for an aging DH. The Indians would release Horton before the All-Star break.
March 30, 1978: Traded Dennis Eckersley and Fred Kendall to the Boston Red Sox for Ted Cox, Bo Diaz, Mike Paxton and Rick Wise. This one was inspired by the personal conflict between Rick Manning and Eck, but was a disaster nonetheless.
August 31, 1978: Traded Johnny Grubb to the Texas Rangers for Bobby Cuellar and Dave Rivera. I realize no one remembers Grubb today, but he was a very good hitter. To that point in a career which would last until 1987, Grubb was 29 and a career .285/.369/.411 hitter, good for a 124 OPS+ at that time. The Indians got nothing for him.
Seghi also signed Wayne Garland to a (no joke) ten-year contract During the first, insane free agent rush in 1976. Later trades dumped Larry Andersen, Jerry Mumphrey, John Denny, Cliff Johnson, and Ed Whitson for no particular return. However, Seghi did make some very good deals as well. I might be the only person who would argue that trading George Kendrick for Grubb was a good deal, but it was. He got Andre Thornton for Jackie Brown, and Bruce Bochte, Sid Monge, and $250,000 for Dave LaRoche and Dave Schuler, which is also pretty good even if they didn’t hold on to Bochte. He bought Miguel Dilone from the Cubs, which paid off for one glorious year (one of the great fluke seasons). He got Pat Tabler from the White Sox for Jerry Dybzinski. I have no idea if trading Gorman Thomas and Jack Perconte to the Mariners for Tony Bernazard was a good deal or not. I don’t think so, but you can defend the outcome. You can argue about the Von Hayes deal, which netted the Indians five players, including Julio Franco. I think I would have rather built around a 24-year-old Hayes, but Franco was a heck of a prospect.
Seghi’s best deal was the one that sent four non-entities to the Pirates for Bert Blyleven… Who was subsequently traded for a young Jay Bell and a lot of other stuff that didn’t work out. He made two excellent deals involving Rick Sutcliffe, the first getting him from the Dodgers for a small return, taking advantage of the personal conflict between Sutcliffe and Tommy Lasorda, the second dealing Sutcliffe, Ron Hassey, and George Frazier to the Cubs for (among others) Joe Carter and Mel Hall. Another great deal was the August, 1983 swap which sent Len Barker to the Braves for Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby. Still, the preponderance of the deals in the period in which Munson would have been on the block were not good.
Befitting a team that had gone 71-90 in 1977, the Indians were not a deep organization. With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify the prospects the Indians had that actually made it. Minor leaguers at the time included Alfredo Griffin, Ron Hassey, Jim Clancy, and Larry Andersen, but no future stars. We can’t know if the Yankees would have spotted the right prospects, but I don’t think their focus would have been on prospects anyway. In return for a major-league star, they would have wanted major-league talent. The clubs did not match up well in position players. Andre Thornton had just hit .263/.378/.527 with 28 home runs (.305 TAv), but the Yankees were reasonably well set at first base and designated hitter. At 25, Buddy Bell was a rising young talent, an eventual Gold Glove third baseman who had just hit .292/.351/.426 (.266 TAv), but Graig Nettles wasn’t going anywhere. The 26-year-old Bochte’s .301/.358/.394 at first base and left field might have been intriguing, but he was going to be a free agent.
The Yankees did need help with pitching—for a team coming off of a World Series win, the rotation was in complete disarray. Ron Guidry had been amazing in the second half (10-2 with a 2.16 ERA in 13 starts) but the organization hadn’t been particularly high on him before Guidry had received a spot start on April 29 and run with the opportunity, and there was no way of knowing that he would author one of the great single-season pitching performances in 1978. Ed Figueroa had cleaned out his locker during the World Series, furious that Martin had left him out of the rotation, and might have had to be traded. Mike Torrez was leaving as a free agent. Don Gullet and Catfish Hunter had been hurt, and the latter had diabetes, which no one was sure he could pitch with. The Yankees were paying Ken Holtzman, but neither Martin nor Steinbrenner wanted to use him.
It seems inevitable that the Yankees would come to focus on Dennis Eckersley. Already a veteran at 22, Eckersley had a 3.23 ERA in 633.1 major league innings, had struck out 543, and his command, something for which he would soon be famous, was improving in each season, with his walks per nine dropping from 4.3 in his rookie year of 1975 to 3.5 in 1976 to 2.0 in 1977.
As alluded to earlier, the Indians were looking to move Eckersley. They felt they had a choice between Eckersley and Manning and they chose Manning—they made the wrong choice, the very, very wrong choice. In the real-world version of the events being discussed here, in march of 1978 the Red Sox got Eck and Fred Kendall for four players: third base prospect Ted Cox, catching prospect Bo Diaz, young pitcher Mike Paxton, and veteran starter Rick Wise, who was being dealt for the second Hall of Famer of his career, having already gone from the Phillies to the Cardinals for Steve Carlton. As usual, the Indians didn’t get much.
In our hypothetical universe, the Yankees put Munson into a package for Eck, beating out the Sox for the pitcher's services. Dominoes start to fall. Munson began to fail physically in 1978, needing to spend time in right field and as the DH in order to stay on the field. He hit .297/.332/.373, combining a high average with a poor performance overall (.255 TAv). The Yankees would have replaced his production with Cliff Johnson and some other player they never needed to acquire in the actual 1978. Simulataneously, the Red Sox would not have received Eckersley’s 20-8, 2.99 ERA season; the Yankees would have, meaning that they would have walked to a repeat pennant win instead of having to defeat the Red Sox in the Bleeping Bucky Dent game.
Further down the road, in 1984, the Red Sox would not have had Eckersley to trade to the Cubs for Bill Buckner, which means Bill Buckner would not have been trying to play first base for the Sox in the tenth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series when Mookie Wilson tapped the ball down the right field line, which means the Sox would have broken the so-called Curse of Babe Ruth nearly 20 years earlier…
Or maybe they wouldn’t have. There isn’t any way to know. We can’t even know if Munson would still be around today, a crotchety 62-year-old, reluctantly taking his bows each season on Old Timer’s Day. But he probably would have been, and that would make giving up all that other history worthwhile.