I grew up with the legend of Whitey Ford and the reality of Joe Morgan. Ford retired the year before I saw my first Major League baseball game. Morgan played second base for the Houston Astros in that game, which took place in 1968 in the Houston Astrodome, then the “eighth wonder of the world” now vanished from the face of the earth, as is the Yankee Stadium where Ford pitched the home half of his remarkable career.
The word on Ford was that he never possessed overpowering stuff. That all he knew how to do was get people out and win games. It was for the latter he was best known, racking up the fourth highest winning percentage in MLB history, winning six World Series titles and setting the record for consecutive scoreless WS innings (33) which still stands.
It may stand for a long time yet. A lot of great pitchers never even get to pitch 33 innings in the World Series. And for those who think his great winning percentage was carried by great Yankee hitting, it’s worth nothing that his career ERA is bettered in the post war era only by two pitchers who are still playing. They will likely come down in time. The more time goes by, the more Whitey Ford stands alone.
Joe Morgan stands alone, as well, as the best all-around second basemen of his era and possibly the best ever. There are modern stat freaks who say so, but Morgan was one of those players who could never be fully appreciated by the numbers others believe in so fervently. That quality made him a valuable voice for young baseball players when he became a post-season commentator while he was still playing.
My favorite Joe Morgan story wasn’t any of the remarkable things I saw him do at the plate or in the field or on the bases. It wasn’t even seeing him in my first MLB game (where, to tell the truth, he didn’t make much impression on the faraway Astro-turf. Somewhere or other in the Spring of 1973, I had come across Joe Morgan’s baserunning tips, which included not relying on your coach when running from first to third on a base hit to right field. According to Joe, you should throw a look over your right shoulder when the ball cleared the infield and make up your own mind about whether you could make it to third.
Come my Little League All Star game, I got my team’s first hit in the bottom of the third. (We were already trailing 1-0 because my team’s catcher dropped my perfect throw from center field in the top of the first…not that I’m still bitter or anything.) My good friend Doug S. (R.I.P.) was next up and he got a base hit down the right field line. I followed Joe Morgan’s advice perfectly. Quick glance over the right shoulder. Saw the ball as down the line and never looked up or back until I had steamed into third.
We had the third base dugout and my manager immediately jumped all over me for not looking at the coach. I nodded and thought, “You’re a nice guy Mr. K, but you ain’t Joe Morgan.”
The next batter grounded to the infield. I took off for the plate and the infielder went to first. The first baseman mishandled the ball and Doug S. tried to score from second (where he had reached when they tried to throw me out at third). He was thrown out by ten feet. Big inning spoiled.
We lost the game 4-2. I didn’t see Doug S. until the following school year, when he assured me that the only reason he tried to score (he was the slowest man on the team), was because the third base coach waved him around.
“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t pay any attention to him.”
Like Mr. K, he was no Joe Morgan.
I hope somebody’s creating those kind of memories for kids these days. But permit me to doubt it.
So long Whitey. Goodbye Joe.
All you knew how to do was win.