Thurman Munson, the catcher and team leader of the world champion New York Yankees, was killed in the flaming crash of the two-engine jet he was trying to land at Akron-Canton Airport today, according to Federal Aviation Administration officials.
FAA duty officer William Nantz in New York said Munson, 32, died in a Cessna Citation, a twin-engine jet. FAA officials said Munson was practicing takeoffs and landings.
Two other men aboard the plane were injured, but neither was serously hurt.
Munson's death brought expressions of grief from friends and associates, who called him a supreme competitor with a great will to play the game.
"This is an almost indescribable loss," said Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. "He was a wonderful, enormously likable guy and a truly great ballplayer -- as tough a competitor as he was on the field, he was a warm friend of baseball people and a loving man."
Summit County, Ohio, sheriff's deputy Jeff Kashburn, one of the first officials at the scene, said he saw the two survivous running from the crash site and tried to reach the plane. "I tried but I couldn't come closer than 30 feet because of the intensity of the flames. The body was burned beyond recognition."
In his autobiography: "Thurman Munson: An Autobiography," the Yankee catcher discussed a new passion in his life -- flying.
"I have a new love to make things somewhat more pleasant for me this year (1978) -- airplanes," Munson wrote. 'I studied for my pilot's license and received it during the winter. Now . . . it's possible to fly from New York to Canton in about an hour and I frequently go home even during homestands."
Mickey Morabito, a spokesman for the Yankees, said: "He was flying home on an off day, which he does. Thurman is a very good family man, he loves to be with his family. It's one of the reasons he got the plane, to get home and spend some more time with them. Unfortunately, that's what he was doing, going home to be with the family, and it's a tragedy."
One of the injured was indentified by a spokesman for Canton Timken Mercy Hospital as Canton resident Jerry D. Anderson, 31, a close friend of the 11-year Yankee veteran. Anderson was in fair condition with burns on his face, neck and forearms.
A spokesman at Children's Hospital in Akron said flight instructor David Hall, 32, of Canton was in fair condition with burns on his hands.
Police were guarding the Canton home where Munson's wife, three children and other family members were gathered after receiving word of the fatal crash.
An FAA employe at the airport said: "There is an embankment at the end of runway and he was at least 40 feet low there."
The FAA spokesman in the Chicago office, which covers the Canton-Akron aea, said the jet had "been engaged in some touch-and-go practice, takeoffs and landings" when the crash occurred.
The spokesman, Neal Callahan, said the cause of the crash was not known and would be investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. But he said "weather does not appear to be a factor" in the accident.
The plane was coming in for a landing and crashed 1,000 feet short of runway 19, Nantz said.
The crash occurred at 4:02 p.m., he said.The plane, with the number 15NY --Munson's Yankee number -- was purchased recently by the athlete, Nantz said.
Yankee owner George Steinbrenner said, "There is very little that I can say to adequately express my feeling at this moment.I've lost a dear friend, a pal and one of the greatest competitors ever known. We spent many hours together talking baseball and business. He loved his family. He was our leader.
"The great sport which made him so famous seems so very small and unimportant now. And therein lies a great lesson for all of us."
Munson was a native of Akron and lived in Canton. His survivors include his wife Diane, and three children, Tracy Lynn, 9, Kelly, 8, and Michael, 4.
Munson carried on the tradition of fine Yankee catchers established by Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. In his nine full seasons in New York, he batted over 300 five times, driving in more than 100 runs in 1975, '76 and '77 and was rookie of the year in 1970.
Munson was named captain by Manager Billy Martin before the 1976 season, the first Yankee thus honored since Lou Gehrig.
Munson responded by saying, "If I'm supposed to be captain by example, I'll be a terrible captain.
"I'm a little too belligerent. I cuss and swear at people, I yell at umpires and maybe I'm a little too tough at home sometimes. I don't sign as many autographs as I should and I haven't always been very good with writers."
He proceeded to lead the Yanks to their first Al pennant in 12 years, batting .302 with 105 runs batted in.
He was the first Yankee -- and first catcher -- to win the MVP awared since 1963.
"If I had lost the award, I would have been upset," he said at the time. "I felt I deserved to win it."
In the past two years Munson developed a more reserved attitude. Whenever he was asked about baseball by reporters, his response was a pat: "I'm just happy here." He would repeat it over and over rather than talk. But writers who cover the Yanks had noted a loose -- more open -- attitude during this season.
Mush of the turmoil surrounding the Yankees in the past three years centered around Munson, Reggie Jackson and Martin.
In 1977, Jackson's first year, the controversy started early with a magazine article quoting Jackson as saying Munson was "jealous and nervous and resentful . . . Just wait until I get hot and hit a few out, and the reporters start coming around and I have New York eating out of the palm of my hand . . . he won't be able to stand it."
Munson's response: "For a man to think that Thurman Munson is jealous of anyone, that guy has to be ignorant and an imbecile."
Steinbrenner phoned as many of the Yankee players as possible and Manager Billy Martin "cried like a baby" when told Munson's death, according to a club spokesman.
Boston pitcher Mike Torrez, a former teammate of Munson, has vivd memories of the Yankee catcher.
"I'm very hurt," Torrez said. "When I heard it, I just kind of froze all over. He caught my two World Series games against the Dodgers. After I caught the last out of the '76 season, I remember him embracing me.
"I remember a lot of good things about him. He was a great catcher. We had a sauna in New York and a lot of times we'd take a beer and go in the sauna and gab together. I know he was a close family man because when he had an off day, he'd go back to Canton to be with his family. I look at my World Series ring and I know he was the cause of it all. It's a tragedy to lose a great ballplayer like him."
Pete Rose, one of the game's exceptional competitors, paid Munson a great compliment.
"I was just stunned at first," he said. "When we won the World Series in '76 he was one of my favorite players because he plays the game like me. We're all going to miss him. He used to talk to you when you were at bat and he sure could make you smile. Baseball has lost a great asset."
Third baseman Sal Bando of Milwaukee said he preferred to keep his feelings to himself.
"I have very personal feelings about it," he said. "But I don't want to comment on it. It's just a very sad, heartbreaking incident."
In Milwaukee, Brewers Manager George Bamberger had been concerned over his club's three-game losing streak until he heard the news.
"What a minor thing that is compared to hearing this," Bamberger said. "What a shock to baseball. He was one of the finest players in the American League. No doubt about it. He is going to be missed." CAPTION: Picture, Thurman Munson blocks plate on George Scott of Brewers. Yankee catcher died yesterday in crash of private plane.