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Pros and cons of Munson's Hall of Fame case

@goodforball
November 5, 2019

Thurman Munson’s passion as a ballplayer was undeniable. The debate surrounding his Hall of Fame qualifications could prompt similar intensity. Munson, the Yankees’ regular catcher from 1970-79, appears on the latest Modern [Baseball] Era ballot featuring Hall of Fame candidates whose impact on baseball emerged primarily between 1970-87. Munson --

Thurman Munson’s passion as a ballplayer was undeniable. The debate surrounding his Hall of Fame qualifications could prompt similar intensity.

Munson, the Yankees’ regular catcher from 1970-79, appears on the latest Modern [Baseball] Era ballot featuring Hall of Fame candidates whose impact on baseball emerged primarily between 1970-87. Munson -- whose death in a plane crash on Aug. 2, 1979, further stirs the emotion of his supporters -- never received more than 15.5% of the vote during the 15-year period when he was eligible for election by tenured members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Induction requires 75% of the vote.

During the span of the Veterans Committee voting process in the early 2000s, in which all living Hall of Famers cast ballots, Munson peaked at the polls in 2007, when he was named worthy of enshrinement by six of 84 electors.

Time and accompanying changes in perspective may boost Munson’s support. At the very least, his is an especially intriguing case.

The case for Munson
• According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, which combines career Wins Above Replacement with a player’s seven best seasons, Munson ranks 12th all-time among catchers and ahead of six Hall of Famers at his position: Roger Bresnahan, Roy Campanella, Buck Ewing, Rick Ferrell, Ernie Lombardi and Ray Schalk.

• Munson maintained a pattern of achievement instantly, winning American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1970 and the AL MVP Award in '76 while being named to seven All-Star squads in his 10 full seasons.

• Though Munson isn’t as synonymous with October as his Yankees teammate Reggie Jackson, he was a legitimate postseason force. In 30 postseason games, he batted .357/.378/.496 with three homers and 22 RBIs. The bigger the stage, the taller Munson stood: He hit .373 with a .909 OPS in three World Series.

• Munson excelled on defense, always a catcher’s top priority. He won three Gold Glove Awards -- in 1971 he committed one error in 615 chances -- and threw out 44% of baserunners who tried to steal on him in the postseason.

The case against Munson
• Munson performed in an era that included renowned catchers such as Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, Gary Carter and, one of the greatest ever, Johnny Bench. Nothing exists on Munson’s resume that would prompt an observer to rank him above the others.

• The manner of Munson’s death was beyond unfortunate. But his power and run production declined sharply during the season he perished, continuing a trend that began the previous year. Judging Munson’s statistics amid the backdrop of his plane crash seems heartless, but those who are asked to evaluate greatness have not been overwhelmed by his career figures.

• Bill Freehan (.262/.340/.412 slash line, 6,900 plate appearances, 1,591 hits, 200 homers, 758 RBIs, 11 All-Star Games, five Gold Glove Awards) isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Nor is Elston Howard (.274/.322/.427, 5,845 PAs, 1,471 hits, 167 homers, 762 RBIs, 12 ASGs, two Gold Gloves). Why should Munson (.292/.346/.410, 5,905 PAs, 1558 hits, 113 homers, 701 RBIs, seven ASGs, three Gold Gloves) enter Cooperstown ahead of them?

Chris Haft has covered the Major Leagues since 1991 and has worked for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @goodforball.