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Revisiting Thurman Munson’s Hall of Fame case 37 years after his death

Less than two years after his death in a plane crash on Aug. 2, 1979, Thurman Munson debuted early on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.

Since 1954, players have had to wait five years after retirement to become eligible for Cooperstown through the Baseball Writers' Association of America. It’s generally a good rule, allowing emotions to cool and Hall of Fame voters to gather perspective on a player’s career before making their decision.

In a few instances, the writers have waived the five-year rule. Roberto Clemente drew 393 of a possible 424 votes in a special election in March 1973, months after his death flying relief supplies to victims of a Nicaragua earthquake. Darryl Kile, Rod Beck and Cory Lidle have all also appeared on Hall of Fame ballots sooner than five years after their untimely deaths, a show of respect mostly for players who otherwise wouldn’t have approached Cooperstown.

When Munson debuted on the ballot, it seemed like he would have been closer in votes to Clemente than Kile, Beck or Lidle. After all, with respect to Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk or Ted Simmons, the former New York Yankees captain might have been the best catcher of the 1970s after Johnny Bench. Even without giving him special allowance for the shortness of his career, Munson rates as one of the best catchers since World War II.

Somehow, Munson drew just 15.5 percent of the vote out of the gate for Cooperstown, and it only got worse with the writers after. There’s a curious effect sometimes when a notable player debuts on the Hall of Fame ballot and falls far short of Cooperstown. Seemingly relieved of not having to vote for him anymore, writers abandon their case en masse. Munson’s one of the first examples. It’s happened with Steve Garvey and Don Mattingly since.

On the anniversary of his death, though, Munson’s case might merit another look. And with recent changes to the Hall of Fame Era Committee structure, Munson’s family and supporters could have reason for new hope.

Why: Over the recent induction weekend, the Hall of Fame Board of Directors unveiled a series of changes to its Era Committee system ostensibly designed to help get more players since 1970 in the Hall of Fame.

Previously, the Hall of Fame maintained committees for three different periods — Pre-Integration Era, covering 1871-1946; Golden Era, covering 1947-1972; and Expansion Era, covering 1973-2016 — which each voted once every three years. The structure slowed the rate of inductions for the Veterans Committee and seemed destined for change.

Munson’s family and supporters could celebrate that under the new Era Committee structure, Munson will fall into a Modern Baseball Committee, spanning 1970-87, that meets twice every five years. What this means is that in a 15-year period, Munson will come up for consideration six times instead of the five under the previous structure. It’s a small victory, but with Hall of Fame committees, candidates need all the small victories they can get.


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