Remembering Baseball Hall Of Famer Joe Morgan | Connecticut Public Radio
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Remembering Baseball Hall Of Famer Joe Morgan

Oct 16, 2020

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Today, we remember one of baseball's great second basemen, Joe Morgan. He died Sunday at the age of 77. There are fewer second basemen in baseball's Hall of Fame than players for any other position. Morgan was inducted in 1990 after playing 22 years in the majors, mostly with the Houston Astros and the Cincinnati Reds. As a second baseman, he was known for his defense, but he was also a skilled base stealer and a powerful hitter, especially for a man who was small in stature. He was 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds. Morgan was with the Reds teams of the '70s that included Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, known as the Big Red Machine. Morgan was voted the National League's most valuable player in both 1975 and '76, leading the Reds to World Series championships both years. After he retired from baseball, Morgan became a television commentator for ESPN for 21 seasons. Terry Gross spoke to Morgan in 1993 after he'd published his autobiography, "Joe Morgan: A Life In Baseball." She asked him why there are so few second basemen in the Hall of Fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOE MORGAN: A second baseman's main job is to play defense and make the double play. Neither are very glamorous things in baseball because they look for people to hit home runs, drive-in runs, do a lot of great things. And normally, that doesn't come from your second baseman because they're usually small in frame and small in stature - quick feet. Quickness is their main asset, not power. And I added something to that. I hit more home runs, I guess, than any second baseman that's ever played that position. So that made me a candidate for the Hall of Fame. But the real reason is because their main jobs are defense, and they're not known for their offensive numbers.

TERRY GROSS: What did you like and not like about playing that position?

MORGAN: You know what, I can't think of anything I didn't like. I was very proud to have been a second baseman in that I think it takes a special type of person to play second base. The rules have changed a little bit now, but when I first came into the league and when I played, there were no rules governing how a guy could come in and knock you over. And I always felt it was a - really kind of a test of your character and manhood to be able to stand there with your back to the runner, knowing that he's going to try to break you in half. And your first thoughts had to be make the double play first and then worry about my body. And very few people can do that and do it well. And that's why I was always proud to be a second baseman. And really, there were no negatives as far as I'm concerned, for me, as a second baseman. I just love the position.

GROSS: What were your worst moments of impact?

MORGAN: I had a few. One - 1969. I was stretched out to receive a throw and Tommie Agee from the Mets hit me with a cross-body block, which is a football block - as I said, there were no rules then - and tore up my knee like a football - I had a football injury. I had O'Donoghue's triad, which is the worst you can have - worst knee injury you can have. It's collateral ligament cartilage. And they - just a lot of damage to your knee. And they never figured I would be able to play second base again.

GROSS: You were considered one of the most complete players in the game because you had a great hitting record, stolen bases, great at second base - I mean, a real all-around player. You got most valuable player twice. Is that something that you consciously tried to develop, to be an all-around player?

MORGAN: Yes, it was. I did not go out to be the best, but I wanted to be the most complete player in the game. And I think I reached that goal in, you know, '75, '76, in that era. Growing up in California, my father would take me to the minor league games, the Oakland Oaks. We would see the players, and my father would say, well, he's a good player. He can hit, but he doesn't field very well. He can field, but he doesn't hit. And my father always impressed on me to try to be a complete player. So I think I worked harder on my defense than I did any other part of the game. Everyone loves to hit, and usually that's where they channel their energies. With me, I channeled my energies toward my weaknesses. If I was a good hitter, which I was all during my minor league career, but I was not as good defensively, so I worked very hard on my defense. Then I worked very hard on my stolen bases. I did everything to make myself a complete player.

I set - one year when I - my knee was torn up, I'd sit behind home plate every single game and charted things about how a pitcher delivers the ball to the plate, how a catcher sets up for a pitch out, how everything happens defensively to stop you from stealing a base. So that made me a much better base stealer because I knew everything that they could do by the time I got back on the field. And so that helped me to be a complete player. I used to work out every day from 3 o'clock until 5 making double plays and then go play a game. I sacrificed some of my statistics that year because I was tired by the time the game started. But I had a goal in mind, and I reached that goal at the end of that season when I thought I was a complete player, and I was a good defensive player by that time. So I had to work hardest on my defense, and I was probably most proud of my defensive accomplishments.

GROSS: Let's talk about your height. You're one of the comparatively shorter players...

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: ...From baseball - 5'7" I think?

MORGAN: Yes.

GROSS: When you first got to the majors and, you know, you were a rookie - and pitchers are always trying to take advantage of rookies - was it worse for you because you were short?

MORGAN: I think it was a little bit because they knew I wasn't going to (laughter) charge the mound. You know, I was a small guy and they weren't afraid of me. And they felt, you know, probably they take liberties with you. But as a rookie, when I came along, they tested every rookie - didn't matter - because they had Leo Durocher, Gene Mauch. These type of individuals were managers, and they always wanted to test rookies. And I remember my first game against Philadelphia. Chris Short was pitching. And opening day - it was my first game in the big leagues - and I went three for four, you know. First opening day game, I went three for four. We played them, like, three days later. Next day, I came up to bat, first inning. They started knocking me down, you know, throwing the ball behind (laughter) my neck and all that. And as a rookie, you better not say anything - well, you're better off not saying anything. Some people make waves, but I don't think it helps them. Me, I just took it as part of the game and as something I had to prove to my - not only my teammates, but to the league, that Joe Morgan was here to stay. And he was going to do whatever he had to do to get to the end of his goals.

GROSS: Now, you grew up near the old Oakland Park.

MORGAN: Yes.

GROSS: Did you go there - were you in walking distance? Could you just walk over there?

MORGAN: Walked over. It was a - I've had - you know, I had a great childhood. My parents always made sure that I was able to enjoy the fruits of being a child, you know? I didn't have to mature too quickly. I was not expected to know everything at the age of 10 or 12. I could be a kid and enjoy, you know, just enjoy life. We - I lived about, I'd say, maybe eight to 10 blocks. You know, everything looks bigger when you're a little kid (laughter), you know, so it may have been a little less. But we walked to the stadium, to Oaks Ballpark, Oakland Oaks, where the team - the home team in the Pacific Coast League.

And my father and my oldest sister, Linda (ph), we - I'm the oldest, but she was next to me. We would walk up. We'd eat dinner every night at home, walk up to the stadium, watch the game, come back home. I mean, it was like, you know - as a kid, like I said, that's the greatest thing could happen to you - to be able to go to the ballpark with your father every day that the team is in town and to enjoy it and learn about the game and be able to watch future major leaguers and great players that you want to emulate as you grow older. And so I was able to go to the game every day. And it was really a great experience that I will always treasure.

GROSS: So your father must've been a big baseball fan, too.

MORGAN: Oh, yes, my father was a big sports fan. We would go, also, to the San Francisco 49er games. My father would take me each Sunday.

GROSS: Couldn't walk there.

MORGAN: No, couldn't walk there.

(LAUGHTER)

MORGAN: But we - my father was a baseball player. He played, you know? But it was before the color line was broken. And my father - and I had, like, three or four uncles. Two of them they think were good enough to make it to the major leagues. But, again, in those days - and they grew up in a small town in Bonham, Texas, which is, you know, not where you're going to find all your major league scouts watching anyway. But even in those days, you know, minorities were not - Blacks were not able to play in major leagues.

GROSS: So did he play in the Black leagues?

MORGAN: Yes, he did. He wanted - but not the the major league Black leagues. He played in - what they did was - we were in Bonham, Texas. There's 20 little cities around there. And they had leagues, you know, Negro Leagues. And they'd play at their, you know - they'd have schedules, and they would play. And I was kind of the bat boy at the beginning for my father's team.

DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with baseball's Joe Morgan in 1993. He died Sunday at the age of 77. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL MERVINE, ERIC GUNNISON, KEN WALKER, PAUL ROMAINE, PETER SOMMER AND STEVE KOVALCHECK'S "PEOPLE")

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 1993 interview with Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan. He played 22 seasons, mostly with the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds. Morgan died Sunday at the age of 77.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: When you were scouted and you got into the minors, you were in the Carolina League first. You were playing in the segregated South.

MORGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And you write about how you were so absorbed in baseball, it took you a while to actually...

MORGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Realize what segregation meant, what it meant in your life then. So what were some of the things you were up against that bothered you most during those days in the minors?

MORGAN: Well, when I first started playing professional baseball - where I grew up in California, you know, as the old cliche goes, some of my best friends were white, some of my best friends were blue, green, whatever. I mean, I just had friends. And I didn't think in those terms. And they didn't think that way either. So I went to Durham. And then we went on our first road trip I guess about a week after I'd been there, maybe 10 days. And so we were going to Winston-Salem.

And I drive - we were on the bus. We drive to Winston-Salem. We go to downtown hotel. And everyone starts to get off. So I start to get off. And the bus driver, who was Black, says, hey, wait a minute. You don't get off here. I said, what do you mean? I'm, you know, with my team. He said, no, we stay in a different section of town. And, man, now that's like, you know, what do you mean? This is - I'm part of this team. No, you're over there.

So I sit back down. We go over to the Black community. And we stayed there. Wasn't as - the accommodations weren't as nice. I didn't have any air conditioning. But the food was great. So I had a great time as far as that. And that night, you know, he - we're separate rooms. He said, let's go. It's time to go to the stadium. So we get in the bus. Now we go back to pick up all my teammates at the hotel downtown. We picked them up. And we go to the stadium. And we all get dressed. And I walked out. And all of a sudden, everything kind of became very clear. And it was like a slap in the face. It really woke me up.

I see a sign that says colored drinking fountain. Then I see one that says white drinking fountain. I go a few steps further, says white restrooms. And then it says Black - I mean, it said colored in those days. And now that - I thought that was bad, right? So then I walk around the fence to go into our side of the playing field. And when I walked around to enter this field, the fans - there were a lot of fans in the right field stands. And they started yelling, you know, clapping. And I looked over and there were a lot of Black people there. And they were clapping because they didn't see - there weren't any Black people on the Durham team in the past, you know? And here I was there.

So they started clapping. And I looked over. And I was very - I got very upset because there was a screen there. And it looked like they were in a cage, you know? It was - and, you know, again, this is my perception of what I saw. You know, maybe it didn't feel that way to them. Maybe it didn't look that way to other people. But it looked that way to me. It looked like they were in a cage. And that disturbed me quite a bit.

And I felt like that I was being - I was helping to - helping this image to continue by playing in front of - you know, playing this game, I was as guilty as everyone else. I was part of this, you know, thing that was, really, to me, just downgrading to Black people. And I said that I was going to leave. I said, I can't, you know, play and be a part of this. So I left. And I went and actually called and made reservations to go home. And then I played the game. I called - my reservations were to leave the next morning to go back to California.

GROSS: So you were going to leave the whole league?

MORGAN: I was going to leave. I said, you know, I'm - I have more respect for my people than this, than to be a part of this and to be a part of continuing to, you know, degrade the situation, just being a part - playing there, to me, was part of - I was a part of it. So I was going to leave. And after the game, I went back, packed my bags. And I was leaving the next morning. And the bus driver, of course, tried to talk me out of it. And I said, no, it's just something I have to do.

And I guess, you know, as I say in the book, it was no - nothing like thinking about what Jackie Robinson had to go through or other minorities had to go through to help make the country great. The only thing that kept me there was having to face my father and tell him that I quit. And so I decided to stay. But I don't think I ever got over, and I don't think I ever will get over, the feeling I had the first day I walked around there and I saw all those people. It was very devastating for me.

GROSS: So what was it like in 1990 when you were inducted into the Hall of Fame?

MORGAN: You know, it's something that I've tried to describe in the book. But I don't think that I could ever do justice to it because I'm not a poet. I'm not someone who can, you know, have great things to say with their words and their feelings. I really - it was like this most special moment you can have, you know, as far as I'm concerned.

As a baseball player, I'd won, you know, the most valuable player award. I won world championships. And I thought nothing could top that. I thought, hey, this is like - I mean, the way I felt after our first world championship was like - I had this feeling that I was, like, in space or someplace. I'm, like, just floating around. There's nothing. There's no other pressures. There's no other problems in the world. And I felt perfect, you know, for that first 20 minutes after we won the World Championship.

And when I went to the Hall of Fame for the induction, it started slowly because I went - I'd never been to the Hall of Fame before. I'd never been up there to Cooperstown. I went a day early. I got a private tour of the Hall of Fame. And I guess it started to build up then. When you walk into a place and it's like a mausoleum - it's so quiet - it's, like, unbelievable. And you walk in. And there are plaques with images of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, you know, Ty Cobb - all the greatest players who've ever lived. And then they show you the spot where yours is going. You know, they're going to have a picture of Joe Morgan there.

And, you know, you just start to - it just starts to build up to know that 100 years from now, you know, whoever walks into the Hall of Fame will know that Joe Morgan was here. They may not know who I was or care. But they will know that I was somebody special because I played baseball. And I have two daughters that are 2 years old. And one of these days, they'll bring their kids there and be able to see that. So that was probably the most emotional day - as I am now - for me, you know, in my life. It really was.

And to stand there, I guess, with all the greatest players in the world behind you who've ever lived - like Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Stan Musial - and to have to talk about Joe Morgan was very difficult, because in my own mind, you know, I will never, I guess, be able to compare myself to Willie Mays or Stan Musial or Mickey Mantle because, to me, that's when I was a kid. Growing up, these people were, like, not real. They were superhuman people. And that's still a problem for me. It really is. And I think of myself as being - you know, I say that they left big, big footprints and I only left a small one. But however small, when you go to the Hall of Fame, I'm sitting right next to them.

GROSS: Joe Morgan, it's been a pleasure to have you here.

MORGAN: Oh (laughter).

GROSS: I thank you a lot for talking with us.

MORGAN: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

DAVIES: Joe Morgan died Sunday at the age of 77. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1993. On Monday's show historian H.W. Brands considers the question of whether radical, direct action or gradual reforms are the best means of achieving social change. He has a new book about two 19th century leaders' approaches to ending slavery, fiery abolitionist John Brown and President Abraham Lincoln. His book is "The Zealot And The Emancipator." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "OUT OF NOWHERE")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "OUT OF NOWHERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.