Forty years ago Friday, around 5:30 in the afternoon, a major-league baseball game froze.
The batter stepped from the plate and walked to the dugout. Players in the field also turned away, staring instead at the big scoreboard in right field. The tiny crowd went silent.
Decades before Twitter and Facebook, years before the internet or even cell phones, there was no way people would get the news on their own. Players, fans and nearly everyone else in Shea Stadium that hot Thursday learned together, via one sentence that quietly appeared on the scoreboard: “Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was killed today in plane crash near Canton-Ohio.”
The Mets, on their way to an awful season, already trailed the stacked Phillies who were a year away from a World Series championship, 4-0, in the bottom of the first inning. Lee Mazzilli, the Mets’ lone star, stood at the plate in the first game of a twi-night doubleheader. Only about a third of the eventual crowd of 15,319 had arrived.
Mazzilli remembers the scene clearly.
“How could you not?” he asked. “I remember the umpire kind of stepping out. He said look, look at the scoreboard. Nobody had any idea.”
Mazzilli, admittedly overcome, stepped away “totally shocked.” Pete Rose, playing first base, stared intently at the message. After a few moments, he turned back toward home plate, looked down and repeatedly pounded his glove.
In time, Mazzilli would step back in the box and the teams would be on their way to a doubleheader split, which didn’t seem to matter much.
Between games and afterward, all the talk was about Munson, who had played for the Yankees the night before in Chicago, at first base, surprisingly enough, because his knees were starting to go. The Yankees had Thursday off, so Munson, a pilot, stopped off to visit his family in Canton on the way back to New York. He also wanted to get used to the new plane he had purchased.
He was practicing takeoffs when something went wrong. The plane crashed, the two people with him got out, but they were unable to free Munson, who had broken his neck but remained conscious. Flames engulfed the plane. He died of asphyxiation.
The rest of the weekend is well-documented, but still hard to believe. The Yankees, emotionally drained but determined to play through their four-game series against the first-place Orioles, lost Friday night’s game, 1-0, and Saturday’s, 5-4. They won, 3-2, on Sunday before heading to Canton for Munson’s funeral on Monday.
They were scheduled to play the Orioles at 8 p.m. in a nationally televised game. When asked if he was concerned about making it back to the Stadium on time, George Steinbrenner famously said: “If we don’t get back, we won’t get back. We’ll forfeit the game.”
They made it back, still emotionally reeling and now without sleep. They quickly fell behind by four runs. Then, in the seventh, Bobby Murcer, who had broken down while giving the eulogy at the funeral, hit a three-run home run.
But the Yanks still trailed in the ninth.
The lefty Murcer would normally have been pulled against left-hander Tippy Martinez, but Billy Martin let him bat with two on and no outs in the ninth. He ripped the ball into left field to end the game as the drained Yankees rushed on the field and Howard Cosell recapped one of the most tragic and bizarre weekends in New York sports for the national audience.
Then, as the season got back to normal, reality set in. Munson’s locker would stay intact at Yankee Stadium, but the team’s captain would never be there again. The team that had gone to three straight World Series would finish fourth in the AL East, 13.5 games behind.
“(Thurman) was a player’s player. He gave you everything he got,” said Mazzilli, who had gotten to know Thurman and the Yankees through the Mayor’s Trophy Game and in spring training since there was no interleague play back then.