At 29 years of age and late in his seventh major league baseball season, Thurman Munson of the Yankees is finally learning to relax. Not let up, mind you, just relax. He is still no Mr. Congeniality, but he is becoming less the cranky, what-the-hell-do-you-want misanthrope of earlier years. Just the other day Munson signed an autograph, gave a civil answer to a reporter's question and allowed as how he was not the only catcher in organized baseball. The best, he said, but certainly not the only one.
And the truth is, Munson is the best and probably has been for the last two seasons. As if Munson's own mounting accomplishments were not proof enough, it should be pointed out that the Reds' sore-shouldered Johnny Bench appears to be in decline, Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox is constantly in disrepair and Cardinal Ted Simmons and Pirate Manny Sanguillen do not have Munson's all-round abilities. It is public acceptance of the notion that Munson is the No. 1 big-league catcher—and perhaps even the Most Valuable Player in the American League—that has encouraged him to reveal a better side.
By becoming the best at his position, Munson is following a Yankee tradition that began with Bill Dickey and has continued with little interruption for 47 years. Dickey begat Yogi Berra, who begat Elston Howard, who begat Munson. It is the baseball equivalent of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, none of whom ever hit .300. Consider, too, this startling statistic: in the 43 years the All-Star Game has been played, a Yankee catcher has been named to the American League team 42 times. None of this has been lost on Munson, who notes that Dickey's birthday occurs just one day before his, that Howard has given him special batting advice and that Berra—heaven forbid!—has "charisma." (Berra, in turn, notes that the 5'10", 195-pound Munson has a Berra body.)
Munson may soon belong to an even more exclusive club. In the history of the American League, a catcher has been named Most Valuable Player only five times: Mickey Cochrane of Detroit in 1934, Berra in '51, '54 and '55 and Howard in '63. Now Munson has a good chance of winning the award. MVPs are traditionally players from championship teams who have had good years. Munson qualifies on both counts. At the end of last week, the Yankees had the widest divisional lead (11� games) in either league, and Munson's .302 average, 87 RBIs, 13 homers, 14 stolen bases and excellent catching have been major factors in building that margin. The only thing that could block Munson's selection is the equality of talent on the American League's two first-place teams. Center-fielder Mickey Rivers (.310, 65 RBIs batting leadoff, 89 runs and 41 steals) and First Baseman Chris Chambliss (.294 and 87 RBIs) of the Yankees and Third Baseman George Brett (.331 and a league-leading 178 hits) and Centerfielder Amos Otis (.288, 74 RBIs and 16 homers) of the Royals will contend with Munson for the honor.
Even Fisk gives grudging support to Munson's candidacy. "Yeah, I guess he's the most logical choice," he says. This is a significant endorsement, because Fisk and Munson are not what you would call the friendliest of enemies. Their rivalry began in 1972 when Fisk was Rookie of the Year. "For a while it was like I didn't even exist," Munson recalls bitterly. "He got all the publicity and most of the All-Star votes. I don't hold it against him personally, but he's never been as good a catcher as I am. If we were on the same team, I might even like him, but he'd have to play another position."
Munson has the credentials to back up his boast: he is well into his fourth season as a .300 hitter, and with only seven errors he could win his fourth consecutive Gold Glove Award. In July he played in his fifth All-Star Game—though only his second as the starter. These are only the most obvious reasons. Baseball insiders stress his durability, his consistency, his aggressiveness and his intelligence in handling pitchers. When Detroit's Ralph Houk was managing the Yankees six years ago, he called Munson "just about the best young catching prospect I've ever seen." Today Houk considers him "the best in the league, without question. He can steal a base, go from first to third on a single, break up a double play, hit for average and drive in runs. He'll hit behind the runner and hit to all fields. He's a good thrower. And he's a winner, very competitive, the Pete Rose type." As such, he may be the only man alive who can get two hits while still suffering from the aftereffects of being beaned by Nolan Ryan, which is exactly what Munson did two weeks ago.
Munson has done all this and more in the Yankees' quest for their first pennant since 1964. His batting average has been over .300 since mid-May, reaching a high of .339 after a phenomenal three-game July stretch during which he had 10 hits and 10 RBIs in 13 trips to the plate. His RBI total puts him among the league leaders and his 13 home runs (including an 11th-inning shot that beat Kansas City 1-0 to break a Yankee slump in early August) top the league's catchers. "I played just as well last year," Munson says. "The only reason I'm getting more recognition now is that we're winning."
New York Manager Billy Martin agrees. Before the season, he made Munson the first team captain of his managerial career—and the Yankees' first since Lou Gehrig retired in 1939. Munson's response may have constituted the most candid acceptance speech ever. "I'll be a terrible captain," he said. "I'm too belligerent. I cuss and swear at people. I yell at umpires, and maybe I'm a little too tough at home. I don't sign autographs like I should and I haven't always been very good with writers." So why did Martin appoint this ill-tempered wretch? "Thurman goes all out all the time," Martin says. "He deserved the recognition." Munson would not dispute that. "I should have been named long ago," he says.
Munson's outspokenness makes him a difficult person to know and even more difficult to like. But few of his outbursts should be taken very seriously. "Bleep Abner Doubleday," he said recently, for no apparent reason except that there was no suitable target around.
Naturally, he is understood best and appreciated most by his teammates. Dock Ellis, who has reestablished himself as a pitcher of merit after being banished from Pittsburgh, calls Munson "The Brain." "His knowledge of the hitters helped me get off to a fast start," says Ellis, who has a 14-6 record. "He has me throwing a lot more sinker balls, too. And several times he has talked the manager into keeping me in the game when I knew Martin really wanted to pull me."