“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Despite nearly 40 years in pro ball, Joseph Michael Morgan is best remembered as manager of the Red Sox, whom he led from July 1988 through 1991. His teams won the American League East in 1988 and 1990, although the Oakland A’s swept the playoffs both times. Yet even before the Red Sox finally wiped away 86 years of disappointment by winning the 2004 World Series, Morgan was a local blue-collar hero. He is also a classic salty raconteur with a well of stories; this brief career overview cannot do them justice.
Joe Morgan was born on November 19, 1930, in Walpole. Morgan was a two-sport star at Walpole High School and Boston College. Longtime Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione called him one of the two best high-school hockey players in Boston area history, and he became an All-American center at BC. Instead, the shortstop went with Boston’s other big-league baseball franchise back then, the Braves. In June 1952 Lucius “Jeff” Jones, the team’s chief scout for New England, signed both Morgan and catcher Mike Roarke. Roarke, a fellow Boston College Eagle, later played and coached in the majors. Jones no doubt also saw both men as they played in the Blackstone Valley League, a local semipro circuit.
Morgan played in 72 games at Hartford (Class A) in 1952, but batted just .229 and dropped back to Class B for 1953 (when he graduated from BC). He then spent the rest of 1953 through 1955 in the US Army, “mostly at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Joe resumed his pro career in 1956, hitting .300 at Jacksonville (Class A). The lefty swinger hit .316 at Atlanta (Double-A) in 1957. He reached Triple-A in 1958, but Johnny Logan remained a fixture at shortstop in Milwaukee, where the Braves had moved in 1953. Morgan shifted to third base that season, and his hitting declined to .251 at Wichita.
Joe made the major-league roster to begin the 1959 season, mostly pinch-hitting but also starting four games at second base. In early June the Braves sent him down to Louisville, where he mainly played the outfield. On August 20 the Kansas City Athletics purchased his contract, and he spent the rest of the season there. He did almost nothing but pinch-hit, appearing just twice at third base in 20 games with the A’s. With the two teams he hit for a combined .205 average.
In April 1960 Kansas City returned Morgan to Milwaukee. He started that season with Louisville, but on June 23, he went to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Alvin Dark, then in his final season. Joe played a lot at third base over the next several weeks, but in early August the Cleveland Indians bought his contract. Morgan got his only two big-league homers with the Tribe that year. Morgan appeared in four games for the Indians early in 1961, but in May, Cleveland dealt him to St. Louis. He did not resurface in the majors for nearly 2˝ years. Instead, Joe provided veteran leadership for the 1962-63 Atlanta Crackers, the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate in the International League.
Morgan became a player-coach in 1964. He set a fine example, becoming the International League’s Most Valuable Player as Jacksonville won the league pennant. In mid-September 1964, the Cards called up Morgan; he made his last three big-league appearances as a pinch-hitter. Morgan spent one more season at Triple-A in 1965 for the Cardinals. He then went to Class A in 1966 for his last year as a player – and first as a manager.
Joe remained in the Pirates chain through 1973, managing in Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A ball. He guided his teams to three first-place finishes in the regular season (1967, ’69, and ’73), though without any championships. He spent 1972 as infield/batting coach with the big club under Bill Virdon, but had to step back down again because the Pirates made retiring star Bill Mazeroski a coach.
In the winter of 1973 Morgan heard of an opening with the Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston’s top farm club. He seized the opportunity to get back to New England. “Filling out loading slips at his brother-in-law’s sand and gravel business in Walpole,” Joe called Boston general manager Dick O’Connell at home and asked for the job. In his nine years with the PawSox, Morgan won a club-record 601 games and guided many future big leaguers. He was International League Manager of the Year in 1977, when Pawtucket won the regular-season championship (though the team lost the playoff finals).
In 1980 Morgan was a candidate to succeed Don Zimmer as manager in Boston, but Ralph Houk was hired instead. Joe also turned down an opportunity to join Joe Altobelli as a coach in San Francisco in the late 1970s. In early January 1983 the Red Sox bumped up two other minor-league managers and made Morgan a “special assignment scout.” Nonetheless, Morgan loyally served scouting director Eddie Kasko as a cross-checker.
In October 1984 John McNamara replaced the retiring Houk. Joe joined McNamara’s staff. He coached first base in 1985, the bullpen in, and third base in 1987 and early 1988. The ’88 Red Sox were underachieving. A shakeup came at the All-Star Break. Joe became the first Boston-area native to lead the club since Shano Collins in 1932. The Red Sox promptly reeled off 12 straight wins and 19 out of 20, as well as 19 straight at home – a run called “Morgan’s Magic.”
That game showed how Morgan’s toughness remained intact – slugger Jim Rice found out who was boss. Rice was furious after Morgan dropped him in the batting order and then pinch-hit for him with Spike Owen. He pulled Morgan into the runway and a confrontation ensued. Said Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell, “The amazing thing was that Joe didn’t back down. If Jimmy wanted to fight, Joe was willing to fight.” “A flushed and furious Morgan returned to the bench alone and announced, ‘I’m the manager of this nine!’ This line, with its old-timey flavor that is a Morgan trademark, immediately entered Red Sox lore. Then, in the bottom of the 11th inning, Boston came back to win, 9-7. In fact, just a couple of weeks later the team extended his contract through 1989.
Jean Yawkey, who was as generous as her late husband, Tom, rewarded Morgan further after the season, despite the playoff sweep by Oakland. As a manager Morgan played hunches. He relied on his knowledge of talent and superb memory; computers were not his thing. He always told it like he saw it.
The Red Sox finished third in 1989 but won their division again in 1990, as Joe got the best out of a low-scoring lineup and thin pitching staff. However, they faded late in 1991, a season marred by injuries and discord. Despite getting his third straight one-year contract extension that June, Morgan lost his job two days after the last game. He “took the news hard. He knew he’d been fired because he managed without regard to the size of players’ contracts, and it had cost him. In the free-agent era, the manager was not necessarily the most powerful man in the clubhouse.”
Morgan retired, turning down an offer to become a special assistant to Lou Gorman. “I didn’t want to manage anymore,” he said in 2003. “I did plenty of roaming around this country. In and out of hotels and planes and all that jazz. Plus I was old enough the following year to take my pension, which I did. Without that pension plan, I’d probably still be working somewhere.” Joe Castiglione summed up this man aptly. He said, “Joe is a very honest, down-to-earth, upbeat guy who can talk with anybody about anything. . . . I learned (and continue to learn) more about the game of baseball from Joe Morgan than from anybody else.”