Reggie recalls Munson on anniversary
Jackson remembers flying with teammate in doomed jet
CHICAGO -- On the 30th anniversary of Thurman Munson's passing, Reggie Jackson's thoughts were of the Yankees captain, recalling how he had flown in the doomed jet three weeks to the date of the tragic crash.
The Yankees had played a night game at Seattle on July 12, 1979, and Munson was proudly showcasing his new Cessna Citation jet around the clubhouse, looking for passengers to accompany him on a flight to Anaheim for a three-game series against the Angels.
Jackson and third baseman Graig Nettles came aboard, buckling into the back of the plane while Munson and an instructor took the cockpit. They made it safely, but the short trip offered a foreboding indication that Munson's prized plane was not operating perfectly.
"I flew in it two or three times," Jackson said. "There was something wrong with the altimeter and some kind of seal that allowed it to leak air inside the cabin. The masks came down, and my mask didn't come down. Nettles said that was done on purpose as a joke."
The flight is recalled in detail within Marty Appel's new biography, "Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain."
Nettles also remembered the flight, once telling author Peter Golenbock that he heard a "big boom," sounding like someone had thrown something against the back of the plane.
Jackson jerked awake, asking what had happened.
"I told Reggie, "Thurman told me to make sure you sat in that seat,'" Nettles told Golenbock. "Reggie laughed because they were supposed to be feuding at that time, but they really weren't."
The oxygen masks were not needed, as it turned out, but Jackson remembered having other difficulties with Munson at the flight controls upon landing at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif.
"There was someone picking me up, and we did a fly-by because we couldn't see the runway," Jackson said. "She said, 'Did you see how low you were?' I said, 'No, not really. I think we were 800 or 900 feet.' She said, 'No, you had to be 200 feet off the ground.'"
After the flight from Seattle to Anaheim, Jackson wrote Munson a check for $100, writing "Plane fare, Seattle to Cal" in the memo.
With only 21 days to live before he would tragically crash-land the jet short of a runway in his hometown of Canton, Ohio, Munson would never cash that check.
Jackson and Munson had eventually made their peace after a rocky beginning as teammates in the summer of 1977, a season which led to the Bombers' first World Series championship since 1962.
By 1979, Munson was limping to the finish line of a season that appeared lost.
"He had a sense of humor, witty, concerned about family," Jackson said. "He was having a hard time physically in '79. But he just needed some love, that was all.
"He was going through a point in time in his career. He was struggling with his knees, physically. I think he was struggling more mentally than anything."
Munson played his last game on Aug. 1, 1979, against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. Billy Martin penciled Munson's name in at first base for what would be a 9-1 New York victory.
Munson worked a first-inning walk against Chicago left-hander Ken Kravec and struck out in the third inning before being replaced by Jim Spencer, spending the rest of the afternoon tending to his aches.
The Yankees had an off-day before opening a homestand at Yankee Stadium, so Munson flew home that night, driven to the airport by Bobby Murcer and his wife, Kay.
Munson had not planned to fly on Aug. 2, but checking on his plane at Akron-Canton Regional Airport, he decided to practice touch-and-go landings. With a business meeting scheduled for that afternoon, Munson hadn't expected to be gone long; he left his car unlocked near the runway, with a cigar still burning in the ashtray.
With companions Jerry Anderson and Dave Hall aboard, Munson landed twice, but on the third approach, Munson did not lower the landing flaps and allowed the jet to sink too low before increasing engine power, clipping a tree and falling short of the runway.
Anderson and Hall survived the impact, and as Appel detailed in his book, Munson's first inclination was to ask if they were OK. Anderson and Hall tried to free Munson, who was likely paralyzed from the crash. But the jet had hit a tree stump, trapping Munson in the cockpit as the plane burned.
In Connecticut to make an appearance for an automotive parts company, Jackson heard the breaking news bulletin over the radio and wept. He remembered another invitation from Munson, one that went unaccepted.
"He had invited me up to practice touch-and-gos, meaning takeoffs and landing, which is what he was doing," Jackson said. "I got a really eerie feeling. [The radio] said Yankee great, Yankee superstar, something like that, dies in plane crash. I just got a chilling feeling.
"It's a sad day. A very sad day."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.