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Joe Morgan: Smarts, pride and pluck defined Hall of Famer

NBC Sports

Joe Morgan knew his battle was ongoing, understood that despite the advances of modern medicine and the renewed energy gained through the contributions of his daughter that all he really had was an extension on life.

A few more years, maybe 10.

He got four.

Morgan, the best second baseman to take the field in the post-Jackie Robinson era, died Sunday at his Danville home. He was 77.

Morgan spent the past few years with knees that ached with every step. He didn’t want to use a cane, but he did because he knew it was smart. He wanted to play golf, but he didn’t because he knew it wasn’t smart.

So, he mostly relaxed and enjoyed TV and conversations his family: His wife, Theresa, their twin daughters Kelly and Ashley, and daughters Lisa and Angela from his first marriage.

Joe and I spoke several times this year. I’d heard that a few years ago his daughter, Angela, had been a miraculous match for a bone marrow blood transplant that gave her father a fighting chance against the threat of leukemia. Joe was shocked she was a match. Angela had forgotten her decision more than 20 years ago to place her name on the donation registry.

When I reached out to Joe in April, he had not shared this information beyond family and a few close friends. He told me he had not gone public because he didn’t want to deal with well-wishers and letters, because he imagined he could not have answered them all.

 

“I don’t really like to talk about it,” Morgan told me. “But so many people have been wondering about my health. Maybe it’s time.”

He said he was physically restricted but otherwise felt fine. Much better than he had before the transplant.

“He’s doing better than me,” Angela said, who was 44 at the time of the procedure.

“I’ve got 50-year-old blood now,” Joe said.

Morgan talked about his contemporaries and friends, how so many had died in recent months. Former Houston Astros teammate Jim Wynn passed away in March, followed by childhood pal Ben Modisette. And then another former Houston teammate, Bob Watson. Al Kaline, too, in April.

All in their 70s.

As the wrath of 2020 continued, others would fall. Former Cincinnati Reds teammate Tom Seaver died in August, followed by St. Louis Cardinals legends Lou Brock and Bob Gibson in September and October. Has there ever been a year with more weeping in Cooperstown?

Morgan didn’t talk much about the Reds, with whom he won back-to-back MVP awards in 1975 and ’76. He didn’t have to. Three players from that team -- Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Morgan -- are in the Hall of Fame. A fourth, Pete Rose, is the all-time leader in hits.

Morgan was the centerpiece. He ignited the offense and, with five Gold Gloves, solidified the defense. That was the history, as was later stints with the Giants and A's, and he was glad to be a part of it. His teammates recognized that he was the smartest player in a clubhouse rich with stars.

All these years later, what Morgan talked about most was relationships, losing them over the years. Friends were leaving, one by one, and others, like longtime buddy Bill Russell, were facing their own health challenges. Conversations had become less frequent.

It was clear that Morgan was happy just to be alive. Thrilled to have family in his life.

Happy to have time, even as he fought for more.

“People have called me and tried to get me to tell what happened,” Morgan said. “But I wouldn’t do it. But my daughter, Angela, lives in Oakland and the people there know her, so that’s OK.”

He simply wanted to thank her, again, this time publicly, for the lifeline.

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I suppose it helps that I met him as a child. His parents lived in East Oakland, a five-minute walk from my childhood home. I played youth baseball on a team coached by his father, Leonard. Joe, the eldest of Coach Morgan’s three sons and a baseball star, occasionally would address our team.

The Big Red Machine was the first baseball team I loved. I liked Morgan, too, until he told me I should be playing right field instead of my preferred center. Right field, to a kid, is a baseball desert. Nothing to do. Balls are hit to left and center but rarely to right. When we played pickup ball short of at least seven to a team, right field was vacant. Hit it there, you’re out.

 

Many years later, when the adult me told Morgan this story, he chuckled. And then he told me his reasoning. Right fielders have the strongest arms, and my arm was good enough that I also pitched. The adult me accepted this because by then I’d come to realize he was right.

What the boy thought was an insult was Joe Morgan being Joe Morgan. Being smart.

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