When the New York Yankees took the field tonight they were not nine, they were eight.

They left a blank spot, like a riderless horse in a funeral procession, where their fallen captain should have stood. Thurman Munson was gone, dead in a plane crash at 32.

There were no bright skies, no gaily flapping flags to mar the bleak scene before a near-capacity crowd of 51,151.

Dark clouds hung motionless over the center field facade and a drizzle descended. The flags of the American League and the nation were at half staff, limp in the damp, still air.

There was no one in the catcher's box.

A few banners were draped from the upper deck railing. In left field one said simply: "Munson . . . 15"; another vowed, "Thurman, we'll miss you."

Terence Cardinal Cooke, archbishop of New York, said a brief prayer. Munson was "a good family man," he said, "and you blessed this captain of the Yankees with skill and talent."

Then Munson's visage appeared on the giant telescreen and for seven long minutes the New York fans cheered. They stood and clapped, and they clapped for a brief message:

"Our captain and leader has not left us," the words said. "Today, tomorrow, this year and next out endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him."

Then Jerry Narron filled the hole in the lineup and the Yankees squared off against the league leading Baltimore Orioles.

They faced a pitcher who knew Munson as a good friend. Scott Mcgregor played four years in the minors for the Yankees and spent considerable time with the catcher and his family.

"For a while there," said the Oriole pitcher after he came away a 1-0 victor, "when they flashed that picture and everyone cheered, I got choked up. After a few pitches I was all right."

Mcgregor was better than all right, and had to be best Luis Tiant, the ageless New York right-hander. Tiant gave up only two hits in eight inning, and Rich Gossage breezed through a 1-2-3 ninth in relief.

But Taint's one mistake was a changeup to John Lowenstein in the second. The slat-thin left fielder drilled the ball into the right field stands for his 11th homer and the game's only run.

Tiant gave up four walks and an infield single to a1 Bumbry the rest of the way.

Mcgregor had a six-hitter, but in the eight allowed consecutive singles to Bucky Dent and Willie Randolph. He was in a jam, and it looked worse when Bobby Brown blasted a tremendous drive to center that Bumbry corralled at the 417-foot mark.

He gave up a single to Lou Piniella, in the ninth and departed in favor of Tippy Martinez. After Pinella was caught stealing with none out, the Bombers retired quietly.

That was the way it went, but the headlines in the papers here today needed only one word.

"Munson," said the New York Post in 2 1/2-inch type. And everyone knew what it meant.

"He had a unique personality and a unique confidence," said Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, who toiled for three years as Munson's understudy in New York.

"He'd come out and give you that big fat stomach, tell you he wished the season was over tomorrow. But he never got enough baseball.

"He had that knack of making you feel good, whether you were the guy playing every day or the guy who wasn't quite good enough.

"When I first came to the Yankees in 1973 I walked into the clubhouse and he came straight up to me. He said, 'Hi I'm Thurman Munson. They tell me you're the guy who's gonna take my job away.'"

"I told him sure, I want to. He said, 'Fine, welcome aboard.'"

Dempsey was fond of Munson to an extreme, kept in touch through the years and he worried about the Yankee catcher's experiments with jet planes.

"I crossed paths with him in Minnesota this year and I asked him if he was still flying. He said he was going home that night in his plane. "Thurman,' I said, 'you're a fool.' I guess everybody told him at one time or another he'd kill himself. But that was Thurman.. He had that confidence.

Then Dempsey sighed a big, pained, sorrowful sigh and excused himself "I can't say nothing more. I'm exhausted."

What will the loss of Munson mean to the struggling defending world champions?

Yankee officials met with the ball club before tonight's game, presumably to discuss that, but no report of their discussion was issued. In fact, the Yankees barred their players from any contact with the media.

Club owner George Steinbrenner issued a terse statement after the meeting. He said the team "talked about the untimely passing of Thurman."

He added, "We'll all go to the funeral on Monday and if we don't get back (for the night game) we won't get back. We'll forfeit the game."

Orioles Manager Earl Weaver took his players aside, as well. He told them, he said, that "there are people who accept grief and bad experiences better than others.

"I had a religious upbringing," Weaver said, "and I can accept and understand these things -- lose my grief in something else. But you can't expect everyone to do that.

"I had to tell my players that tonight when the ballgame starts I'll be lost in it. I asked them not to read that as any disrespect to Thurman."

Orioles Coach Elrod Hendricks, who also toiled under Munson for two years, agreed. "Once the game starts, even the Yankees will forget. Until it's over at least, and then it comes back to you."

It will come back to Hendricks for a long time.

"In 21 years in this game there have been four real, real competitors that I admired above all the rest, Roberto Clemente, Thurman, Frank Robinson and Don Baylor.

"Munson -- I got excited just watching him play.

"Thurman said things to you that made you mad for an instant, and then you look at that grin and he has you laughing.

"I hope that now he's gone others will finally appreciate what he did," said Hendricks. "I saw it happen with Clemente. It took tragedy to bring it out." CAPTION: Picture, Yankees observe moment of silence for late captain Thurman Munson. From left are Yogi Berra, Don Hood Mike Ferraro, Bobby Murcer, Charley Lau and Manager Billy Martin, Catcher Munson was killed Thursday. AP