Though his premature death was one of the sadder moments in the history of MLB, it brings some reflection on his playing career and his place in baseball history. He put up some solid numbers during his 11 MLB seasons, even more impressive being he was a catcher. The 1970 AL Rookie of the Year had played 7 straight seasons of 140 or more games, an incredible feat for a catcher and was well on his way for number 8. A very hard-nosed player, but managed to avoid injury that would force him to miss time.
Under the Roberto Clemente rule, Munson gained eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981. He received just above 15% of the vote and remained on the ballot for his entire 15 years of eligibility. His numbers were good, but incomplete, as he hit .292 for his career with 113 HR and 701 RBI as well as 1558 hits. In spite of his All Star selections, postseason success and presence in the game, it was still difficult to make a case for him in the Hall of Fame.
I decided to do a little research, by studying the stats of some of the best hitting catchers to play in the history of the game. 6 of the 9 I profiled are in the Hall of Fame, with Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez Hall of Fame worthy based on their career numbers and Jorge Posada on the borderline of consideration. I totaled up ten catchers stats for the first 11 seasons of their MLB careers. Parts of seasons counted as full years, as Munson did not have a choice of how long he played. Most of the catchers had an advantage on Munson, even though it was over an 11 year sample. Piazza, for instance hit 347 HR and 1073 RBI over his first 11 seasons. Johnny Bench had 287, 1037 during his first 11 years, while Yogi Berra finished with 238, 1003. Munson finished very comparable, however, in regards to hits, at bats and batting average. Most of the other catchers were known as bigger home run hitters.
Here is a chart of Munson against nine of the most productive offensive catchers, with first 11 years played, batting average, hits, at bats, home runs and RBIs.
Name AVG Hits ABs HR RBI
Thurman Munson .292 1558 5344 113 701
Mike Piazza .321 1661 5116 347 1073
Johnny Bench .268 1491 5554 287 1038
Carlton Fisk .284 1097 3860 162 568
Gary Carter .272 1365 5018 215 794
Yogi Berra .294 1477 5026 238 1003
Ivan Rodriguez .304 1595 5248 196 769
Bill Dickey .322 1434 4456 178 899
Jorge Posada .269 1034 3843 175 676
Mickey Cochrane .321 1588 4945 115 803
Based on this list (remember: this is just for the first 11 seasons the other catchers were on a MLB roster), Munson ranks 6th in batting average, 4th in hits, 2nd in at bats, 10th in HRs and 8th in RBIs. Discounting the home run totals, he ranks right there with Carter, Rodriguez and outperforms Fisk and Posada. Munson and Fisk were rivals during Fisk's time in Boston.
You can make a case Posada falls a little short in regards to average and RBIs as well as hits from what Munson did through his first 11 seasons. But Posada had a series of solid seasons afterwards, putting him in the discussion (though I still think he falls short). Berra was much better over this timeframe and Dickey hit for a higher average and drove in more runs.
One of the sad things within the death of Thurman Munson was the fact that his career ended way too early. Even if he left the Yankees to sign as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians as was rumored, he had a chance to finish with similar numbers to Fisk, Carter, Dickey and finish with a similar number of career hits as Bench, Piazza and maybe even Rodriguez. The word from the Hall of Fame is they thought he simply did not play enough to get consideration. If Roberto Clemente died after the 1966 season, instead of 1972, would he have made the Hall of Fame? For the record, he was a little over 1800 hits at the time. To me, it is a fair thought that Munson was among the best offensive catchers as well as the most durable during the time. However, I guy like Lance Parrish hit over 300 HRs and drove in over 1000 runs for his career and received just 1.7% of the vote in his only year on the ballot. And he was at 229, 767 and was 1237 for 4739 in his career through his first 11 seasons.