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25 days of Yankee Numbers: No. 15 Thurman Munson

Known for his hard-nosed play, Munson exemplified the 1970s Yankees

Thurman Munson's hustle and aggressive play made him a fan favorite in the Bronx. (AP)

Leading up to Christmas, we're counting down each day with the best players to wear numbers 1-25 for the Yankees. The list includes Hall of Famers, recent stars, title-winning managers and fan favorites that have donned pinstripes over the last 115 years.

Let's continue with No. 15, the captain, Thurman Munson.

For 11 seasons, Thurman Munson was the heart and soul of the Yankees, returning the franchise to prominence after an extended playoff drought. The catcher would win Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and three Gold Gloves before his tragic death at age 32.

An Ohio boy through and through, Munson went to Kent State before the Yankees used the fourth overall pick in the 1968 draft to select him. Over the next year, he would need just 99 games of Minor League experience to break into the Majors for a cup of coffee in 1969.

Munson blossomed at the start of a decade he would define. Quickly one of few catchers to hit for a high average, he posted a .302 mark while walking more than he struck out en route to winning Rookie of the Year in a near-unanimous vote. He'd reach 10 home runs and make the All-Star Game for the first time in 1971.

Munson grew into one of the game's elite catchers in short order. He hit 20 home runs for the first time in 1973 and received the first of three straight Gold Gloves. He also began a stretch of six straight All-Star appearances.

Around this time, Munson became the face of the Yankees as they navigated out of their playoff drought. Munson combined elite play with a tough-guy attitude, endearing him to fans with his hustle and striking fear in opponents rounding third. He also threw out runners at an impressive rate, leading the league twice. He nailed 60 base stealers in 1975 alone and 427 for his career.

The Yankees' fortunes turned as Munson reached his offensive ceiling in 1976. Named first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig before the start of the year, he proceeded to win the American League's MVP award. He hit 17 home runs, knocked in a career-best 105 runs and batted .302, just 16 points shy of his career-best a year earlier. He had 19 hits in the postseason, batting .529 in the World Series, as the Yankees reached the Fall Classic for the first time in 12 years.

Though his offensive numbers began to slide shortly after the 1976 season, Munson was still a cornerstone of the franchise as it won back-to-back World Series crowns. He threw out 15 base stealers in the 1977 and '78 postseasons and batted .320 in the '78 World Series.

Unfortunately, Munson didn't get to properly finish what would have likely been a Hall of Fame career. While near his home in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1979, Munson was practicing flying in a small jet and crash landed, dying in the accident.

Paying tribute to their fallen leader, the Yankees retired his No. 15 immediately and never gave out his locker again at the old Yankee Stadium. The team rallied for a walk-off win on the day of the funeral, beating the first-place Baltimore Orioles.

Munson played 1,423 games for the Yankees and headlined the Bombers' return to the playoffs in the 1970s. The hard-nosed catcher posthumously received a plaque in Monument Park and his widow, Diana, has been a constant part of Old Timers' Day festivities.