The Munson Paper Chase

This article contains a collection of original source documents about the death of New York Yankees’ catcher and captain Thurman Munson. It is the result of ten weeks of work, preceded by nearly 39 years of willful ignorance and several days of heartbreak at age 11.

When Thurman Munson died in a plane crash on August 2, 1979, baseball was my favorite sport, the Yankees were my favorite team, and “the Captain” was my favorite player. Not only was I mournful — I cried, like countless others, during the televised tribute to Munson at the next night’s game — but I was also incredulous that two surviving passengers failed to rescue Munson from the burning wreckage. My baseball hero could do no wrong naturally, so I blamed the survivors and never looked back.

Until this year.

On a road trip from D.C. to Ann Arbor, I veered slightly off course to spend the night in Canton. My first stop was dinner at Lucia’s (reportedly a Munson favorite) and then to Sunset Hills Burial Park the next morning. Standing before Munson’s grave after nearly four decades, I felt prepared to revisit the question I had long avoided: what happened on August 2, 1979?

With two biographies in hand, I was dumbfounded to learn that Munson had neglected to wear a shoulder harness and was paralyzed when his plane hit a tree stump. My long-held resentment towards the surviving passengers had clearly been misplaced.

The biographies contained contradictory accounts, however, about several minor details — for example, what time Munson woke up on August 2, 1979; where and when he ate that day; and the last words he spoke. Perhaps because I wanted to resurrect my baseball hero (like author Michael Paterniti elegantly explained in his 1999 essay about Munson), I decided to search for records about Munson’s death from the relevant time period.

Below is what I have found thus far. I hope readers will find the material as enlightening as I have.


Akron-Canton Airport

Crash site as seen from the approach to Runway 19.

In 2004, twenty-five years after Munson’s death, sportswriter Wayne Coffey described his visit to Akron-Canton Airport in a feature article on Munson in the New York Daily News. The following snippet caught my attention:

Along the wall of the operations office, surrounded by fat reference manuals, is “a black three-ring binder, thick and well-worn, with an index card taped to the cover. It reads, ‘Munson Crash, AUG. 2, 1979.’ It’s full of details, depositions, photos, a compendium of tragedy on a metal shelf, with everything but the heartache.

With fingers crossed, I asked the Akron-Canton Airport whether it still maintained a copy of the binder that Mr. Coffey had spotted. Here is what I received in a large manila envelope a few weeks later.


Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office

Munson was pronounced dead on the scene at 5:45pm by the Summit County Coroner, Dr. Anastasius H. Kyriakides. The coroner’s office examined Munson’s body the next morning and determined that the primary cause of death was asphyxiation.

Page 1 of Coroner’s Report of Investigation

A coroner’s report is a public record under Ohio law. The following items, however, are generally protected from disclosure: coroner’s preliminary notes and findings; photos; suicide notes; medical and psychiatric records; confidential law enforcement investigatory records; and certain lab reports. For readers who wish to view the entire “public” portion of the report, which includes the autopsy, it is available here courtesy of the Summit County Medical Examiner.

Notes:

  • Dr. Kyriakides resigned as Summit County Coroner on January 31, 1983, six days after being convicted of theft. Kyriakides was sentenced to two years’ probation, fined $5,000, and ordered to make restitution of nearly $3,000. He died on March 28, 2003, at the age of 84.
  • Munson’s death certificate, which Dr. Kyriakides signed on August 3, 1979, is posted on the website The Deadball Era. The certificate misspelled the maiden name of Munson’s mother as “Smiley” instead of “Smylie.” It also misidentified the Munsons’ house number as “5200” instead of 5210 — a house that Mrs. Munson still owns.

National Transportation Safety Board

Data summary

Aviation Accident Final Report (aka “Full Narrative”)

Aircraft Accident Report — NTSB-AAR-80–2

Federal Register Notice (May 22, 1980)

Blutstein FOIA requests

Note: Two NTSB investigators were deposed in connection with a lawsuit filed by Diana Munson. The transcripts of those depositions, as well as other material pertaining to that lawsuit, are posted below.


Munson v. Cessna Aircraft, C80–280A (N.D. Ohio)

Complaint

On February 27, 1980, six months after Munson died, his widow Diana Munson brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Cessna Aircraft and FlightSafety International in the U.S. District Court in Akron, Ohio. Mrs. Munson’s primary allegations against Cessna were that the company used “high pressure sales tactics to induce” her husband to purchase the Citation (par. 8), and that the jet was defective and unsafe (par. 12). With respect to FlightSafety, Mrs. Munson’s main allegation was that the company failed to adequately train her husband to fly the Citation (par. 9–10, 30–31).

Mrs. Munson sought a total of approximately $42.2 million from the defendants, broken down as follows: $18 million in punitive damages (par. 54); $3 million for her husband’s pain and suffering (par. 54); $20 million in for loss of income (par. 46, 54); up to $1,218,900 (plus interest) for the value of the destroyed airplane, depending on the outcome of an insurance dispute; and interest of 11.75 percent since July 5, 1979(see par. 54).

The court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction on June 3, 1980, because the Complaint mistakenly alleged that FlightSafety was incorporated in Kansas instead of New York. Plaintiff quickly cured this defect two days later by filing an Amended Complaint (see par. 2). Plaintiff further amended the Complaint on May 27, 1981, to clarify that the damages sought included the costs of the litigation and precisely $1,218,900 for the destruction of the airplane (see par. 49).

Docket Sheet

A docket sheet is a chronological list of documents filed in a case by the parties and the court, with each document receiving a sequential docket item number. The Munson case docket sheet lists 462 filings, which span from the date the lawsuit was filed through June 2000. Plaintiff and FlightSafety International reached a settlement on May 21, 1984 (Docket #442), just as the trial was getting underway. After four days of trial, Plaintiff reached a settlement with Cessna Aircraft on May 25, 1984 (Docket #444). The details of the settlements were sealed by court orders (Docket# 442–445, 451), and the case was dismissed on July 27, 1985 (Docket #450).

The documents filed in the Munson case were transferred from the federal court in Akron to the National Archives and Records Administration’s Federal Records Center in Chicago. According to the FRC, these documents are stored in five boxes and exceed 13,000 pages. To date, I have obtained more than 4000 pages and posted about 2500 of them.

For readers who wish order documents listed on the docket sheet, here are the instructions and the case information to enter: Court location-State: Ohio; Court location-City: Akron; Case name: Diana Munson v. Cessna Aircraft Co.; Case number: C80-280A; Transfer Number: 021–89–0009; Location Number: 237411–237574; and Box Numbers: 4-8 of 164. The price for case files is $90.00. If your order exceeds 150 pages, there is a labor charge of $22.00 per 15 minutes. If you have any questions, contact the Chicago Federal Records Center here.

Notes:

  • Plaintiff’s lead attorney, Eugene Oakey, pitched one season in the Chicago Cubs farm system in 1942. After Oakey retired from practicing law, one of his sons, Steven, took over the Oakey law firm. Oakey died on July 1, 2009, at the age of 86. His photo appears on the Wall of Honor of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
  • The lead attorney for defendant Cessna Aircraft, Michael Gallagher, died on October 27, 2007, at the age of 85. In the mid-1960s, Gallagher and Antonin Scalia squared off in Sears Roebuck & Co. v. The Cleveland Trust, which Scalia identified as one of his top ten cases on his U.S. Supreme Court nominee questionnaire (see pp. 21–22). Scalia won. The Cleveland-based law firm that bears Gallagher’s name, Gallagher Sharp, has posted a profile of Gallagher that includes a photo of the model plane used in the Munson trial.
  • The lead attorney for defendant FlightSafety International, James Wiles, is alive and kicking as a partner of the Ohio-based law firm Isaac Wiles. After the Munson case, Wiles successfully defended Lear Siegler Inc. against multiple lawsuits arising from the crash of a U.S. Air Force jet in Frederick County, Maryland on May 6, 1981.
  • Judge Leroy Contie, a Canton native, resigned from the federal district court on March 23, 1982, after he was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He died on May 11, 2011, at the age of 81. Judge David Dowd filled Judge Contie’s seat on September 23, 1982. He died at the age 87 on August 4, 2016.

Depositions

The parties deposed at least five dozen witnesses over four years. The first person to be deposed was Diana Munson on May 13, 1980 (Docket #293). The last person to be deposed was Billy Martin on May 8, 1984 (see Docket #421), less than two weeks before the trial started.

Four of the 21 depositions I requested could not be located: Philip Bradley, Munson’s flight instructor for the Cessna Citation (Docket #153); A.H. Kyriakides, Summit County Coroner (Docket #225); Jerry Anderson, who survived Munson’s plane crash (Docket #283); and Charles Billings, M.D., an expert in aviation medicine (Docket #353).

  • Alfred (“Billy”) Martin: Munson’s manager from August 2, 1975, to July 24, 1978, and from June 19, 1979 until Munson’s death. Martin testified about his experience flying in Munson’s jet, as well as Munson’s playing ability and physical condition. He disapproved of Munson flying during the baseball season and complained to owner George Steinbrenner (pp. 23, 67). According to Martin, Munson intended to rent an apartment in New Jersey during the 1980 season and reduce his flying time (p. 39). Martin died in a car accident on December 25, 1989, at the age of 61.
  • Anthony Dominick: Munson’s father-in-law whose colorful employment history included bootlegging and running a pool hall. Mr. Dominick met Munson at a country club near the Akron-Canton Airport just hours before Munson’s fatal flight (pp. 47–50). According to Mr. Dominick, Munson did not complain of fatigue or pain (pp. 51-52). He died on August 1, 1985, at the age of 60.
  • Charles Berry, M.D.: Air Force flight surgeon and medical officer at NASA for 14 years. Among Berry’s opinions were that Munson’s accident was due to “pilot error caused by fatigue and overstress” (pp. 38–39); Munson was “embarrassed” by the errors pointed out by his former instructor (pp. 49–54); Munson’s knee pain likely interfered with his sleep (pp. 87–91); and Munson was “not inadequately trained” to fly the Citation (pp. 93–96).
  • David L. Hall: Munson’s former flight instructor who sat in the co-pilot’s seat when Munson crashed on August 2, 1979. Highlights of Hall’s deposition include the details of meeting Munson that day and their first three touch-and-go landings of the flight (pp. 65–106); the fourth and final leg of the flight (pp. 107–117); the impact of the final landing and crash (pp. 118–121); what occurred after the plane stopped and Munson’s last words (pp. 122–132); Hall’s post-accident discussions with Mrs. Munson (pp. 134–138); Hall’s opinion about the cause of the accident (p. 148); and whether Hall could have prevented the accident (p. 196).
  • David S. Hall: Aviation safety consultant hired by Plaintiff’s lead attorney one week after the accident (p. 212). Hall opined that Munson was inadequately trained to fly the Cessna Citation (pp. 70–71; 75, 232, 240–241, 385, 418–419, 428–429), and that Munson’s proficiency to fly it in July 1979 was “the ability to write a check for a million dollars” (pp. 420–423). He further suggested that the plane’s cabin entry door was defective (p. 97), and that the seat belts should have been fastened to the aircraft — like the unworn shoulder harnesses (p. 113-114). Hall ruled out fatigue or distractions as contributing to the accident (pp. 416, 432–433). He questioned whether Munson was paralyzed by the crash (p. 435, 459), which he characterized as a “minor crash landing” involving forces of less than 3Gs (pp. 101–107). Hall donated his case files relating to aviation accident investigations, including the Munson case, to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Hall currently teaches sexual science at the University of the Pacific.
  • Diana Munson: Among the many topics of Mrs. Munson’s testimony included Thurman’s purchase of the Cessna Citation (pp. 61–76, 202–204, 208–214, 242–244); Thurman’s activities on the day he died (pp. 111–112; 226); coping with Thurman’s death (pp. 139–143); Thurman’s use of “greenies” (pp. 148–49); her conversations with surviving passengers Anderson and Hall (pp. 215–226, 233); and her activities on the day Thurman died (pp. 226–229). Interestingly, Don Bauer, who sold the Citation jet to Munson, was present at the deposition.
  • Don Armen: Owner of a flight training school and fixed-based operator at Akron-Canton Airport. Armen testified that he spoke with Munson at the airport on August 2, 1979, and that Munson stated he was tired and that his knees hurt (pp. 76–82). Armen, who flew with Munson three times and administered Munson’s instrument ratings test (pp. 102–105), called Munson “a damn good pilot” (pp. 49-50). He attributed Munson’s pilot errors to fatigue or inattentiveness (pp. 130–132).
  • Don Bauer: Cessna’s regional sales manger in Columbus, Ohio who sold the Citation jet to Munson. Bauer testified that Munson was extremely upset that Cessna would not enter into promotional relationship with him like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus (pp. 23, 29–33), and that Munson did not receive a discount on the price of the plane (pp. 72–73). Bauer related that he advised Munson to fly with a co-pilot (pp. 99–100, 109–110), and that he admonished Munson for flying solo to Columbus with his family in late July 1979 (pp. 165–172). According to Bauer, Munson told him that the Citation was “a piece of cake” to fly (p. 103). Bauer spoke to Munson twice about the plane on August 2, 1979 (pp. 149–154).
  • Edward McAvoy: National Transportation Safety Board’s lead investigator for the Munson crash. McAvoy was prohibited from offering opinions (pp. 6–8), so his testimony covered the facts of how he conducted the investigation and what he found. McAvoy testified that investigators were unable to establish whether Munson’s plane struck any trees prior to touchdown (pp. 50, 91). He also stated that the tree stump struck by the plane was the remnant of a sawed-off tree and that it was dislocated “very little, if any” by the plane’s impact (pp. 53–54). McAvoy died at the age of 74 on January 11, 1994.
  • Gene Monahan: Athletic trainer for Yankees from 1973 to 2011. Monahan’s testimony largely focused on Munson’s physical condition and the maintenance of medical-related records. Of note, when Monahan learned of Munson’s death, he returned to Yankee Stadium and was so upset that he discarded some of Munson’s medical files (pp. 36–37); Munson needed sutures in 1978 after smashing his hand through a sauna window (pp. 34–35); Monahan never saw ballplayers take “greenies” (pp. 52–53); and Munson’s s ballpark routine included a whirlpool bath and milk and cookies (p. 94).
  • Graig Nettles: Third baseman for the Yankees from 1973 to 1983. His testimony primarily concerned a flight he took on Munson’s jet from Seattle to Anaheim on July 12, 1979. Nettles testified that he took over the controls of the aircraft for about 10 minutes (pp. 19–22). He stated that Munson was “at the top” among American League catchers and would have been “a fine manager” (pp. 32–33).
  • Lawrence (“Yogi”) Berra: Hall of Fame catcher for the Yankees who rejoined the team as a coach in 1976. Asked about Munson’s ability as a player, Berra testified that he wished he had “eight more” like him (p. 15). Berra ranked Munson as the number one catcher in the American League, ahead of Carlton Fisk and Jim Sundberg(pp. 42–43). Berra did not talk with Munson about Munson’s business or financial matters, his batting slump, or his injuries (pp. 22; 31–32). Berra died on September 22, 2015, at the age of 90.
  • Michael Dobbs, Ph.D.: Engineer specializing in structural mechanics with an emphasis on crashworthiness analysis. Dobbs testified that “if Mr. Munson had used the available should harness in the aircraft, that he would have exited the aircraft with Mr. Hall and Mr. Anderson” (p. 37). Dobbs estimated that the impact load on the plane hitting the tree stump was an average of 10 Gs (pp. 59–63).
  • Morgan Lilly: Demonstration Pilot for Cessna who accompanied Munson on five flights in his Citation during the last week of July 1979. My summary of his testimony is available here.
  • Reggie Jackson: Proclaiming to be the “straw that stirs the drink” when he joined the Yankees in 1977, Mr. October was in fine form when he testified on March 24, 1981: “As a great star, I don’t know if I could deal with the decline or losing my physical talents,” said Jackson (p. 48). Jackson testified that on August 1, 1979, Munson invited him and teammate Lou Piniella to Canton to fly touch-and-go landings (pp. 13, 45). He further stated that Munson was “more interested in flying that Goddamn airplane than he was in playing baseball,” and that Munson was okay physically but “mentally weak” (p. 47).
  • Robert LaPierre: Air Safety Investigator for Cessna Aircraft who assisted the NTSB with the Munson crash investigation. LaPierre testified that Munson’s plane was accelerating when it hit the tree stump (p. 59), which destroyed the rails of the pilot’s seat and the cockpit floor, damaged the fuselage, and jammed the main cabin door (pp. 36–37, 40, 42–43).
  • Ronald Schleede: NTSB Air Safety Investigator who drafted NTSB’s report on the Munson plane crash (pp. 20–21). Schleede testified principally about the documents he obtained and generated in order to draft the report (pp. 21–30, 36–39, 47–58). Schleede was prohibited from providing his opinions or analyses at his deposition (pp. 4–7), which led to several arguments among the lawyers about the proper scope of questioning (pp. 40–47; 58–60; 63–66; 75–76).
  • Stanley Mohler, M.D.: Expert in aerospace medicine who worked for the Federal Aviation Authority from 1961 to 1978. Mohler testified that Munson’s one-on-one Citation training was “the best form of teaching” (p. 68), and that Munson’s crash was caused by pilot error “resulting from fatigue of the pilot” (p. 73). According to Mohler, Munson was not “fresh and alert” on August 2, 1979, because his knee pain prevented him from getting “deep and refreshing sleep” (pp. 76–82). Mohler died at the age of 87 on September 15, 2014.

Other Notable Filings:


New York Yankees P’ship v. Cessna Aircraft, C80–1370A (N.D. Ohio)

Complaint

On August 1, 1980, one day before the first anniversary of Munson’s death, the New York Yankees filed a $4.5 million negligence lawsuit against Cessna Aircraft and FlightSafety International. The lawsuit reiterated several of the same claims lodged by Diana Munson and was filed in the same federal court. The figure of $4.5 million for damages was based on Thurman Munson’s value to the Yankees as tradable property right.

Docket Sheet

The case consisted of 86 numbered filings and was resolved by the district court in eleven months. The New York Yankees filed a notice of appeal that extended the litigation for several months, but it ultimately decided not to appeal the court’s decision (Docket # 80–86).

For readers who wish to obtain additional documents on the docket sheet, here is the information to enter on the order form: Court location-State: Ohio; Court location-City: Akron; Case name: New York Yankees v. Cessna Aircraft; Case number: C80–1370A; Transfer Number: 021–89–0009; Location Number: 237411–237574; and Box Number: 30 of 164. Note that the Federal Records Center was unable to locate Philip Bradley’s deposition (Docket #63).

Notable Filings


Additional Material of Note

  • Articles/Reports

Garrison, Peter. Thurman Munson’s Final Approach. Flying Magazine, Oct. 1980.

Gilbert, Gordon. Accident Analysis: Single-pilot versus Two-pilot — Is There a Safety Advantage? AINonline, June 5, 2015.

Landsberg, Bruce. Safety Pilot Landmark Accidents: Jet Transition Troubles. Aircraft Owners & Pilots Ass’n, Aug. 1, 2008.

Mohler, M.D., Stanley. Fatigue in Aviation Activities (Report No. AM 65–13). Oklahoma City: Federal Aviation Authority, 1965.

Phelps, Mark. Owner Flown: Preparing for the emerging market for owner-flown turbine airplanes. AINonline, Oct. 12, 2006.

Shappell, Scott A. & Weigmann, Douglass A. Human Factors Analysis and Classification System — HFACS (Report No. DOT/FAA/AM-00/7). Oklahoma City: Federal Aviation Authority, 2000.

Ward, Ettie. “The Catcher Who Fell to Earth.” In Courting the Yankees: Legal Essays on the Bronx Bombers, 115–130. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2003.

  • Books

Appel, Marty. Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

Devine, Christopher. Thurman Munson: A Baseball Biography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001.

Munson, Thurman. Thurman Munson: An Autobiography With Martin Appel. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978.

  • Videos

Classic MLB1, 1979–08–01 Yankees at White Sox — Thurmon [sic] Munson’s Last Game, Filmed Aug. 1, 1979, YouTube video, 1:51:25, Posted Apr. 26, 2017.

Classic Vol Videos, Yankeeography: Thurman Munson, Filmed 2002 (Major League Baseball Productions), YouTube video, 44:48, Posted Feb. 27, 2018.

FullFlavorNate, Yankee Thurman Munson Plane Crash, Filmed 2004 (ESPN), YouTube video, 8:00, Posted Aug. 1, 2009.

News 5 Cleveland, Video Vault: 1979 Akron-Canton Airport plane crash killed Thurman Munson, Filmed Aug. 2, 1979, 4:57, Posted Aug. 2, 2012.

Russo, Frank, Captain: The Thurman Munson Story (1/3), Filmed 1992 (New York Yankees), YouTube video, 15:00, Posted Nov. 28, 2010.

Russo, Frank, Captain: The Thurman Munson Story (2/3), Filmed 1992 (New York Yankees), YouTube video, 15:00, Posted Nov. 28, 2010.

Russo, Frank, Captain: The Thurman Munson Story (3/3), Filmed 1992 (New York Yankees), YouTube video, 4:39, Posted Nov. 28, 2010.

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