After fewer than 100 minor league games, Munson became the Yankees’ starting catcher in 1970. The Yankees went from a mediocre team to back-to-back World Championships and Munson rivaled Fisk in the AL as the decade’s top catcher.
The gruff Munson immediately established his ability to handle veteran pitchers, but had a terrible start as a rookie. Manager Ralph Houk, a former catcher, stuck with him and was vindicated when Munson came around (.302) and captured AL Rookie of the Year honors. Munson’s power was slow to develop, but he hit for average and usually batted second in his early years. He was an outstanding fielder, with perhaps the league’s quickest release in throwing out basestealers. A sore shoulder later reduced his accuracy.
During the Yankees’ mini-dynasty of 1976-78 Munson was at his peak. Off the field, he was a leader in the team’s vicious clubhouse humor. On the field, he piled up his career-best offensive statistics (even a surprising 14 stolen bases in 1976). He hit over .300 with 100 or more RBI three years in a row (1975-77), won the MVP Award in 1976, and hit .529 in the 1976 WS and .320 in the 1977 and 1978 WS. Munson deserves much of the credit for the late-season surge by a shaky Catfish Hunter during the Yankees’ 1978 comeback.
During the Yankees’ rebuilding years, Bobby Murcer and Munson were the stars around whom the team was constructed, and they were close. Murcer was traded in 1975, but the pair were reunited briefly in 1979. Munson had a more volatile relationship with Reggie Jackson. Initially resented in 1977 for his big free-agent contract, Jackson was shunned by his new teammates. It was Munson, the team captain, who broke the ice and worked to include Jackson in team banter. But then a pre-season interview was published in which Jackson claimed that he was “the straw that stirs the drink. It all comes down to me. Maybe I should say Munson and me, but he really doesn’t enter into it. Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink but he can only stir it bad.” Later in the season things were smoothed over, but the relationship was never again more than professional.
Eventually the strain of catching 130 games a year began to show, and Munson started playing the outfield and DHing more. However, on August 2, 1979, Munson died as the private plane he was flying crashed in Canton, Ohio.