It was 40 years ago this week that a fateful plane crash killed Yankees legend Thurman Munson, sending the sports world into shock. Larry Wahl remembers every detail of that afternoon and the somber days leading up to Munson’s funeral.
Wahl, now the Orange Bowl vice president of communications, was the Yankees’ assistant public relations director at the time. He was just 26 years old, and had been with the ballclub for three years when the call came from owner George Steinbrenner. It was Thursday, Aug. 2, 1979. The team was off that day, preparing for a four-game homestand against the Baltimore Orioles.
“I remember George calling a staff meeting, and he told us what happened,” Wahl said. “He told us there’s been a plane crash and that Thurman had passed away and started everything in motion.
He completely took charge with what was going on. He said he wanted me and [traveling secretary] Gerry Murphy to head to Canton [Ohio] right away. He said, `You guys get on the next plane. Get yourselves out to Canton. Murph, you work with the community on the funeral and Larry, you work with the family and with the media out there covering it.’’’
Munson, the seven-time All-Star catcher, was a private pilot and a year earlier had bought a Cessna Citation jet so he could fly home to see his family more often. He spent that off day near his Canton, Ohio, home, practicing touch-and-go landings with friend Jerry Anderson and flight instructor Dave Hall at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport. On his final approach, shortly after 3:30 p.m., he took too long to drop his landing gear, clipped some trees and crashed just short of the runway.
Anderson and Hall sustained burns, but survived. Munson broke his neck and died of asphyxiation from inhaling the hot air and toxins. He was 32 and left behind his wife, Diana, and their three children; Tracy, 9; Kelly, 7; and Mike, 4.
After sending Wahl and Murphy to Canton, Steinbrenner turned his attention to filling the massive on-field void left by the loss of Munson. He was the team captain, the 1976 American League MVP and two-time World Series champion. He won the Golden Glove Award from 1973 to 1975. Above all, he was the heart and soul of the Yankees clubhouse.
“George talked to the baseball people and said, `Look, we’ve got to get someone up from the minors, we’ve got to talk about short-term replacements, long-term replacements,’’’ Wahl said. “And he said, `Mickey [Morabito, the public relations director], we’ve got to notify the press locally, you handle that. We’ve got to communicate with the team, let the players know.’ Remember, this is a time there were no cellphones, no texting, no group anything.”
Wahl, now a resident of Pompano Beach, packed his bag and headed to the airport.
“Murph and I flew out, and when we got to Canton, we went to the house and met with Thurman’s wife, Diana,” Wahl recalled. “I was helping her and the family with what they wanted to do as far as media and the funeral. Murph also was a private pilot, so George wanted us to do our best to find out exactly what happened. So, we actually knew what had happened with the accident, the whole story that he was practicing touch-and-gos and basically was trying to land it and had forgotten to put the gear down and put the gear down too late which caused the plane to go into a stall.”
Wahl spent that weekend working with local authorities, the sheriff’s office, and the Munson family preparing for the Aug. 6 funeral at the Canton Civic Center.
“The entire team was going to come in Monday morning for the funeral, so we had to plan the logistics of the procession and ceremony,” Wahl said. “Diana and the Yankees decided Bobby Murcer and Lou Piniella would speak because they were the closest to Thurman. Diana didn’t want to have a press conference, but she did speak to one or two reporters.”
More than 500 people attended the funeral and about 1,000 more waited outside. Hundreds more lined the streets between the civic center and Sunset Hills Cemetery, where Munson was buried.
“The media horde was massive,” Wahl said. “Unlike now, papers traveled to everything back then. The media, for the most part, was respectful. There was a gathering of media outside the house and outside the funeral. It was covered like a major sporting event, like a postseason game. I set up a separate media room in the civic center with video and audio of the funeral.”
Wahl left the Yankees in 1981 to work at ABC as the publicist for “Monday Night Football.” He wound up returning to Canton the next three years for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game and had dinner with Diana Munson each time.
“We became pretty good friends, exchanged Christmas cards for years and years, but we’ve lost touch in recent years,” Wahl said.
Looking back on the 40th anniversary of Munson’s death, Wahl said his Yankees experience prepared him for all of his future jobs, especially when he was hired by the University of Miami in 1987 as associate athletic director of communications.
“It was an incredible experience working with the Yankees,” he said. “That was the Bronx Zoo. Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin and George. Every day in many respects was a crisis. It was the biggest media market in the world, so as a young guy I got a major indoctrination. All of that probably helped me to stay calm through Munson’s death.
“You learn that you’ve got to stay calm, put a plan together and execute the plan. And you have to be truthful when you’re dealing with the media. One of the reasons [then-UM athletic director] Sam Jankovich hired me at Miami was because of my experience with crisis management and working with George.”
Wahl was hired shortly after the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, which the Hurricanes lost to Penn State after showing up in Tempe, Arizona, talking big and wearing army fatigues.
“The university was going through a tough time, an image issue, and Sam felt my experience with the Yankees would help,” Wahl said.
His years working under Steinbrenner also taught Wahl about leadership, he said.
“The Seinfeld portrayal of George is not realistic at all, it’s completely opposite,” Wahl said. “He seems kind of goofy, but he was a brilliant guy who was in charge, the ultimate boss, and he was sharp. He was willing to work 24/7 and not take vacations, so you had to do the same.
“He was the guy that first exploited free agency, took advantage of the rules. We were the first team to have an eye in the sky positioning players because he had a football background. All the things with analytics today, we were doing some of that stuff back then. Hitting spray charts by hand. He had us calculating batting averages with runners in scoring position years before anybody did it. Obviously, he was very tough to work for, very impulsive and impetuous at times, but for the most part very in control.”
Never was that more evident than on Aug. 2, 1979.