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Munson Awards winners still feel icon's impact

Yankees legend left legacy of on-field grit, off-field generosity
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

NEW YORK -- Nearly four decades ago, her heart still heavy, Diana Munson coordinated the first Thurman Munson Awards Dinner with modest expectations. The goal was to honor her husband, the late Yankees captain, along with those who continued his legacy of on-field excellence and community service. It was a short-term goal, conceived less than a year after Thurman Munson's death in a plane crash in 1979, at age 32.

"They said this night is built on sentiment, so don't be sad when it ends," Diana Munson said. "Thirty-eight years later, I'm not sad."

NEW YORK -- Nearly four decades ago, her heart still heavy, Diana Munson coordinated the first Thurman Munson Awards Dinner with modest expectations. The goal was to honor her husband, the late Yankees captain, along with those who continued his legacy of on-field excellence and community service. It was a short-term goal, conceived less than a year after Thurman Munson's death in a plane crash in 1979, at age 32.

"They said this night is built on sentiment, so don't be sad when it ends," Diana Munson said. "Thirty-eight years later, I'm not sad."

That Diana Munson said those words from behind a podium Tuesday, to a ballroom full of people, proves her husband's legacy has fizzled little. Instead, the dinner to honor it has become a philanthropic success and a highlight of the baseball offseason in New York. This year's version, held at Manhattan's Grand Hyatt hotel, honored a quintet of local stars who exemplify what Thurman Munson is remembered for being: a player who did anything to win on the field, and anything to help off it.

This year's award recipients were Yankees reliever David Robertson, former catcher Jorge Posada, former Mets and Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran, Mets infielder T.J. Rivera and two-time Super Bowl champion Justin Tuck.

Video: Beltran receives the Thurman Munson Legend Award

Proceeds from the dinner went to benefit AHRC New York City Foundation, which assists children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Over the years, the gala has raised more than $15 million for AHRC.

Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay served as master of ceremonies for the event, which also featured former Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams and a slew of prominent media members. All spoke glowingly about the legacy of Munson, who won two World Series, an American League Rookie of the Year Award and an AL Most Valuable Player Award during his 11-year career with the Yankees.

"My favorite number growing up was 15, because my dad wore No. 15 everywhere," Posada said. "Coming up, I was allowed to wear No. 15 in the Minor Leagues. Obviously, when I got to the Yankees, there was no way."

Munson's No. 15 was retired immediately after his death, and a plaque dedicated to Munson's memory was placed in Monument Park in 1980.

"The way he played, the way he carried himself, the way his teammates talked about him," Posada said. "I talked to Ron Guidry about Thurman a lot. He said, 'You would have loved having Thurman around because you are very similar to him.' "

Video: 38th Annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner

For Posada and Beltran, their recent charitable efforts focus on their home country of Puerto Rico, where millions are still struggling after Hurricane Maria. Beltran recently donated $1 million to victims of the hurricane and led an effort to help rebuild 200 homes. Posada has been back to the island 11 times since the storm, with he and his wife Laura running point on various humanitarian initiatives.

"The true legacy of an athlete isn't what he's accomplished on the field, it's the impact you were able to do off the field, and the lives you were able to touch," Beltran said. "I don't want to be remembered for the player I was. I want to be remembered for the impact I had on other people's lives."

Robertson, the right-hander who returned to the Yankees in a trade and was excellent down the stretch last season, was recognized for his charity with High Socks for Hope, which helps tornado victims in his native Alabama.

Video: Robertson on humanitarian efforts, Munson Award

Rivera, the undrafted infielder who overcame incredible odds to carve out a valuable role with the Mets last season, inspires with his story and community efforts in the Bronx.

"I always heard the name in my household," Rivera said of Munson. "He was my mom's favorite player growing up. To be mentioned in his name is an honor."

Video: T.J. Rivera praises Munson after receiving award

Diana Munson recalled an Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium, years ago, when she first met Posada. In the years since, Posada grew to characterize everything she remembered about her husband -- a combination of grit and the tenacity on the field and warmth and compassion off it.

"There isn't anybody who has ever reminded me more of Thurman Munson than Jorge Posada," Diana Munson says now.

But that day, Posada was a stranger in shin guards. He introduced himself and told Munson her husband was his idol, that he aspired to be like him, that he had print outs of old Munson quotes taped to his locker.

"I said, 'I'm going to love his man,'" Diana Munson said. "After Thurman passed, following the Yankees was very difficult for me. [Posada] kind of brought me back to baseball."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

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