March 27, 2011


The Endless Game of a Lifetime, Recalled by a Baseball Lifer (DAN BARRY, 3/27/11, NY Times)

After committing his life more than 60 years ago to the endeavor of baseball, Morgan remains in thrall of its continuing narrative, of which he is a part. He is revered in New England, for example, for leading Boston to the 1988 and 1990 playoffs with a management style that was equal parts sachem, gunslinger and eccentric uncle. (One of his nonsensical catchphrases, “Six, two and even,” always seemed to add up somehow.)

Now, at 80, he continues to apply an irreverent, Jesuitical rigor to his study of the game, drawn from his four years at Boston College and several decades in dugouts. “Now that I’m out of baseball, it’s what keeps me going,” he says.

Our dialogue began two years ago in Morgan’s hometown, Walpole, Mass. Nestled in an armchair, his feet shod in Red Sox slippers, he reflected on everything from the worst ball field he ever played on (Keokuk, Iowa) to the best all-around player in history (Jimmie Foxx) — to the time he got thrown out of a game in Columbus, Ohio, and refused to leave the field until a sheriff’s deputy arrived to provide humorless escort. The cop later declined his offer of a clubhouse beer.

Morgan’s laconic recitation of his many minor league ports of call that day sounded like Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” as sung by a salty Robert Frost: the Hartford Chiefs, the Evansville Braves, the Jacksonville Braves, the Atlanta Crackers, the Wichita Braves, the Louisville Colonels, the Charleston Marlins, the Raleigh Pirates.

Sprinkled here and there were major league stints with the Milwaukee Braves, the Kansas City Athletics, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals. Morgan hovered somewhere between cup-of-coffee guy and journeyman, collecting a .193 career batting average and a deep repository of baseball knowledge and anecdotes.

For example, he keeps an index card inscribed with the names of prominent baseball players who spent just one year with the Boston Red Sox: Jack Chesbro, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Tom Seaver ...

After retiring as a player in 1966, Morgan continued his peregrinations as a manager and a coach, returning to Walpole every fall to find work that would carry him through the off-season. After all, he had a wife, a family, a mortgage. He held so many jobs over the years, from bill collector to coal man, that he compiled a list. Kept, of course, on another index card.

In 1974, Morgan became the manager of Boston’s Class AAA team in Pawtucket, R.I., a short drive from Walpole. At the time, the impoverished Pawtucket Red Sox were playing before sparse but caustic crowds at McCoy Stadium, a rusting Depression-era hulk that was doubling as a city public-works garage. The aroma of popcorn commingled with the fumes of gasoline.

But Morgan endured, charming fans and annoying umpires with his antics: shinnying up a foul pole, say, to point out why that ball was fair. To New Englanders, he was a regular Joe, plowing snow for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in the off-season, and never too proud to pick up the errant coins found at the toll plazas.

Morgan worked for three owners in Pawtucket. The first would pack up the unsold bags of popcorn at the end of homestands and drive them to Connecticut to be hawked at another ballpark. The second would make several poor business moves, including his declarations that he was a Yankees fan. And the third, a wealthy retiree and baseball neophyte named Ben Mondor, would methodically rebuild the PawSox franchise — and McCoy Stadium — into the minor league gem that it is today.

Of the hundreds of games that Morgan managed during his nine years in Pawtucket, and of the thousands he participated in over the decades, none lingers in memory as much as an otherwise insignificant game that began on the night of April 18, 1981. It was Passover, and Holy Saturday, and miserably cold.

Posted by at March 27, 2011 4:21 PM

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