CANTON, Ohio - Six hundred feet short of the runway and decades before his time, Thurman Lee Munson died a quarter of a century ago in the fiery wreckage of a blue pinstriped jet. He was 32 years old. Munson was not planning to fly that day. He was not even going to keep the jet, a $1.4 million Cessna Citation he'd bought three weeks earlier so he could spend more time with his family. It was too powerful, too sophisticated, too much plane for him. "People who know anything about flying and aviation knew this was nuts," Diana Munson says.
She is sitting in a booth in a Bob Evans restaurant, drinking an ice tea, talking about the catcher who was the Yankee captain, the scruffy and gruff and squat-bodied anchor of back-to-back world championship clubs, and about the man of much more enduring achievement, the husband who made sure he gave his children tenderness and love, because his own childhood included neither.
Thurman Munson made a series of fatal mistakes in the last moments of his life; so says the accident report from the National Transportation Safety Board. He was also a hero in the last moments of his life, says Jerry Anderson, who survived the crash and believes he owes his life to Munson's poise and tenacity.
"He flew that plane right to the ground," Anderson says. "He never gave up. The same attitude that he took to the plate in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game is what saved my life."
The afternoon of Aug. 2, 1979 brought cool air and broken clouds, and the most jarring tragedy in the 101-year history of baseball's most fabled franchise. It was an off-day, a Thursday. This is the story of Thurman Munson's last hour, and of the man he was.
3:00 p.m. Thurman Munson is back at Akron Canton Regional Airport, after having lunch with his father-in-law, Tony Dominick. Munson had flown in the night before from Chicago, following a game with the White Sox. He drives over in his Mercedes 450, a cigar in his mouth and John Denver - not the usual Neil Diamond tape - rocking in the cassette player. It will be a short stay; he doesn't even lock the car. He and Diana are scheduled to meet around 4 p.m. at the office of a business associate who wants to dedicate a new road in Munson's honor. Munson tells Diana he's just going to check out a few things with the plane.
Munson has been flying for about 18 months, and is completely smitten with it. He loves the peace and solitude of flight, the lightness that comes with lifting off the ground. He is a private man, fiercely loyal to family and friends, but one who barricades himself from most of the world, with his gruffness and wariness. When you grow up in a home where there's no Christmas and no toys but a lot of criticism, you learn to build walls fast. Darrell Munson, Thurman's father, was a long-distance trucker.