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Baseball forced to recall past tragedies

Baseball forced to recall past tragedies

NEW YORK -- Nearly three decades after an airplane crash took the life of Yankees great Thurman Munson, the baseball world was shocked Wednesday and forced to recall similar tragedies after hearing the news that Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle was the pilot and among those who died in a plane crash into an Upper East Side high-rise building.

Munson's life and potential Hall of Fame catching career was cut short on Aug. 2, 1979, when he was practicing takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport on an off-day during that season. He had been certified to fly a blue and white, seven-seat Cessna Citation 501 emblazoned with his Yankee number, "N15NY." The plane struck ground about 600 feet short of the runway in a field dotted with small trees.

"He had asked me to fly many, many times with him, and I used to tell him, 'You don't have enough hours for me,'" Bobby Murcer, another teammate and friend, told ESPN two years ago on the 25th anniversary of Munson's death.

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Murcer and Yankees teammate Lou Piniella reportedly both had tried to convince Munson to "just get rid of the jet" two weeks after the catcher bought it in 1979, the year following the Yankees' back-to-back World Series championships.

At Yankee Stadium, along the far back wall of the home team's clubhouse, next to team captain Derek Jeter's locker, is the locker of the first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig. That locker is considered sacred space in the team's clubhouse, with No. 15 on the top and featuring a catcher's mask and chest protector. That is what Munson's legacy means to the Yankees, and no one ever will forget how that crash cut short a career. Many of his fans continue to campaign for the catcher's Hall of Fame viability.

Diana Munson, the catcher's widow, has said in past articles that her husband had fully planned to sell that Cessna.

"It was just the worst day of our lives," she told the New York Daily News in 2004.

The NTSB report said Munson flew an estimated 20 knots too slow for a no-flaps-down landing, creating an excessive sink rate that led to the crash. Details are not yet known what caused Lidle's plane to veer into a building.

Cory Lidle: 1972-2006

While Munson's crash was the first that probably came to mind for many who learned that a Yankee player had died -- and the most recent one involving a Major Leaguer -- it was hardly the only other example. One of the greatest Major Leaguers in history, Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente, was killed on Dec. 31, 1972, when the plane he was aboard crashed into the Atlantic Ocean while attempting to take relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Three days of national mourning for Clemente, then 38, were proclaimed immediately after that crash in his native Puerto Rico, where he was the most popular sports figure in the island's history. Clemente's legacy is carried on in many ways, notably through Major League Baseball's annual Roberto Clemente Award that will be presented as usual during this month's World Series.

Other examples of fatal crashes involving Major Leaguers include:

• Ken Hubbs. The second baseman was the National League's Rookie of the Year for the Cubs in 1962, and he died on Feb. 15, 1964, in a Utah crash.

• Tom Gastall. He was Boston University's 1955 Athlete of the Year, captaining the basketball and baseball teams in his senior year and playing quarterback on the football team. He was drafted by the NFL's Detroit Lions, but chose to sign a $40,000 contract instead with the Baltimore Orioles as a "bonus baby" catcher. Gastall played two seasons, catching his last game on Sept. 19, 1956 -- and perishing the next day when the plane he was piloting crashed into the Chesapeake Bay.

• Marvin Goodwin. The Reds pitcher died in a Houston plane crash on Oct. 18, 1925.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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