In 1979, Jerry Narron looked like he was getting into a great baseball situation. He was a rookie playing for the two time defending World Champion New York Yankees. He was surrounded by superstars and beloved figures in one of the most thrilling baseball crucibles imaginable.
That year he was thrown into an impossible scenario and one that was, probably for the best, short lived.
The Goldsboro NC native was drafted by the Yankees in 1974. He was a left handed hitting catcher and nephew of a former big leaguer named Sam Narron.
By 1977, he was putting up solid offensive numbers at Double A, launching 28 homers and batting .299 with an OPS of .904. He continued his hot hitting in Triple A Tacoma in 1978.
Of course the Yankees had a catcher. Their captain and the soul of the team was Thurman Munson. Reggie Jackson may have been the straw that stirs the drink, but it was Munson’s team through and through.
Between Fran Healy in 1977 and Mike Heath and Cliff Johnson in 1978, the Yankees had plenty of backups for Munson on the big league level. Narron remained on the farm during the 2 World Series years.
In 1979, after trades of Mike Heath and eventually Cliff Johnson opened the door, Narron got the call to the Yankees.
He made his big league debut on April 13th in a game against the WhiteSox. He didn’t hit much but that wasn’t his job. Every week or so, he’d start and give Munson the day off or let him move to DH or first base to keep his bat in the lineup.
Narron had some moments, like his go ahead 7th inning homer off of Dennis Eckersley in a 6-5 win against Boston on July 1.
On August 1, 1979, Jerry Narron homered off of White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec in Comiskey Park. He got the start in the 9-1 Yankee victory. Munson started at first base. Nobody knew the significance of that day when it happened.
The next day, Munson was piloting an aircraft in Ohio when it crashed. The other two men in the plane lived. He did not.
The concentric circles of grief that engulfed the Yankees with the death of Munson can still be felt. But they were at an intense fever pitch in August of 1979.
The act of carrying on a baseball season, much less a defense of two World Series titles, seemed futile in the wake of Munson’s death. But the Yankees followed through.
On Friday, August 3, the Yankees returned to the Bronx in a daze. Jerry Narron was the starting catcher. There was no more Thurman Munson. No more hard nosed captain, representing the Yankee way. No more heart and soul of the team who took the Yankees to the World Series a year before Reggie arrived with his 1976 AL MVP campaign.
Now it was Jerry Narron.
During the pregame ceremony for Munson, Narron did not take the field. The catcher position was empty out of respect for the fallen captain. When he did play, he struck out both times at the plate. The Yankees offense was shutout by Scott McGregor and they lost 1-0.
The catching duties were split with Narron and Brad Gulden. When Bobby Murcer famously won the game after Munson’s funeral with a 2 run single, Gulden got the start but Narron came into the game.
Narron batted .045 in the month after Munson’s death and .228 in September as the Yankees faded far behind the Orioles.
When the season ended, he was mercifully traded to the Mariners, along with Juan Beniquez, Rick Anderson and former 1978 World Series hero Jim Beattie in a deal that brought over Ruppert Jones. Eventually the Yankees would deal for Toronto catcher Rick Cerone to be the starting catcher.
He struggled offensively as a reserve in Seattle but did not have to play with the label of replacing a legend. Eventually he landed with the Angels and was Bob Boone’s backup for several years.
Narron managed a post season highlight in 1986. In Game 4 of the ALCS between the Angels and Red Sox, Narron got into the game after Boone was lifted for a pinch runner. With the score tied in the bottom of the 11th, Narron led off the inning with a single.
Gary Pettis bunted him to third and Ruppert Jones, now his teammate, was walked. Bobby Grich singled to left and Jerry Narron raced home. He scored and was mobbed at home plate after the Angels took a commanding 3-1 series lead. Narron’s run looked like it all but iced the Red Sox.
Boston would of course come back to win. The final out was made when Boston reliever stuck out Narron to end Game 7 in Boston.
Narron’s baseball career would go on well after his playing days were over. By the late 1980’s, he was managing in the Baltimore Orioles organization. In 1993, he joined the Orioles coaching staff. By 1995, he was on the big league staff for the Rangers.
When Rangers manager Johnny Oates was let go, Narron became the interim manager in 2001 and the full time manager in 2002. He would also manage the Cincinnati Reds for a few seasons as well as coach for the Red Sox, Brewers and is currently on the Diamondbacks coaching staff.
After many decades, Jerry Narron is an accomplished and respected baseball man. But the burden he had in his rookie year would have been too much for anyone to carry.