EEEEEE! Looks at Books

Joe Morgan: A Life in Baseball

by Gregg Pearlman

Sunday, February 21, 1999

Joe Morgan was a fun player to watch, even if you did get sort of annoyed with that absurd-looking elbow-flapping habit of his. "Winners follow Joe Morgan around," they used to say, and it sure seemed that way. After helping turn the Houston Astros into almost a force, he got the biggest break of his career, getting traded to the Reds in time to help them come into their own as a dynasty in the National League through 1979.

From there he went back to Houston, where he helped the Astros win a division title for the first time. The next year was the strike year, but with Morgan, the Giants went 56-55, their first winning record since 1978, and the following year was a sparkplug in the best season they'd had since 1971. After that, he went to Philadelphia -- and the Phillies went to the Series. I don't think this is coincidence. The presence of this guy on these teams made a huge impact.

He could hit, he could run, he could field, he did everything. During his playing career I thought he was a great interview, and all I'd read about him in the past suggested that he was a great guy.

Then he became a broadcaster, and the love affair, as far as I was concerned, was over. Even now, I can barely listen to him without bristling at some comment or other. Or many. But he seems to be well-liked, and it's not as though he's not intelligent or anything, so for better or worse, we'll continue to hear his voice for years to come.

Morgan wrote Joe Morgan: A Life in Baseball -- well, I suspect it was written by co-author David Falkner, really -- in 1993, a few years after his election to the Hall of Fame. He describes an interesting career, and has plenty of noteworthy anecdotes and observations, many having to do with growing up African American and being exposed to prejudice as a young ballplayer.

In the last few years, we've heard some ballplayers (Gary Sheffield, for instance) remark on the prejudice that they feel still exists in baseball. (I'm not saying it doesn't -- I'm just not there, and I couldn't know.) One point made was that if a player's going to be a utility infielder, he'd better be white, because black players basically aren't going to be "tolerated" for long unless they're good enough to play regularly. I'm not sure how much I buy that, but Morgan said the same thing -- only he was describing the period when he first came up to the big leagues in the early '60s, when it was no surprise that such an attitude would exist.

Morgan also tells somewhat chilling tales about various authority figures he's dealt with in the majors. Two of these were his managers on the Astros, Bill Virdon and Harry Walker (not in that order). A third was Dick Wagner, who fired Sparky Anderson as manager of the Reds, which led to Morgan's own departure a year later. A fourth -- well, I'll get to that.

Previously, about all I'd heard about Virdon as a manager was that he was vain and very proud of his biceps, that he'd take every opportunity to flex them, as if by accident. As a result, his nickname was "Pipes." Well, that's all very cute, but the story Morgan told was one of, essentially, a single person screwing up a successful baseball team. Morgan says that it was very important to Virdon to be perceived as "The Leader," and when he, Morgan, called a team meeting late in the season, and booted Virdon and the coaches out, Virdon took it very personally and felt as though he were being undermined. From that point, he started pinch-hitting for Morgan in key situations and replacing him on defense late in games. In the final game of the 1980 playoffs against Philadelphia, Virdon pulled Morgan and Art Howe -- his veteran leaders -- after the Astros had taken a 5-2 lead. At that point, the Astros collapsed, and the Phillies won the pennant. Even before the end of the game, Morgan told Houston GM Tal Smith that he wouldn't play another game for Virdon.

Precedent for destroying the Astros was set long before that, though in a different way. For 1969, the Astros hired Harry Walker to manage a club with, minimally, three terrific black players: Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, and Don Wilson. (During the Walker years, the Astros also had Jesus Alou and Cesar Cedeño, and I know I'm leaving out other excellent, nonwhite players.) Walker, though, evidently was well known as a manager who didn't like black players -- indeed, he and his brother, Dixie of the Brooklyn Dodgers, "The People's Cherce," had "tried to lead a boycott of major league players against Jackie Robinson" in 1947. Morgan says, "I believe right at the heart of Harry's bigotry was the belief that he was simply smarter than any player who was black or Latino."

Before reading this book, all I'd really heard about Walker was what Jim Bouton said in Ball Four, in which he was portrayed as merely hot-tempered, but at least willing to give Bouton a chance.

Morgan's relationship with Walker is ultimately what got him traded to the Reds. Had he stayed, one of them would've hospitalized the other, and my money would've been on Morgan, who describes Walker as "the ultimate disciplinarian and possibly the biggest fool I have ever known in the game."

Spec Richardson, the former Astros GM who, by 1981, was with the Giants (and indeed had been named Executive of the Year for some of the deals he pulled off in 1978) and persuaded Morgan to come to San Francisco after his relationship with Virdon broke down completely. Morgan was thrilled to come to the Bay Area to play for Frank Robinson, whom he respected. But ultimately Richardson was replaced by Tom Haller, who even now suffers a lot of barbs at the hands of Giants fans with long memories. And well he should.

I had thought of Haller as merely a horrendous GM, but Morgan describes a side of him that's so disturbing -- and one that, even though it was alluded to in the press at the time, is one that I haven't seen anybody talk about since. The Giants damn near won the National League West in 1982, but -- Morgan maintains -- Haller was the reason they didn't win it. "There is no point in detailing the complaints I had about him," Morgan says. "Suffice it to say that Haller did not make a single move down the stretch to get the needed pitching help that might have meant the pennant for us. (And it was out there: Everyone in the clubhouse knew that Don Sutton, among others, was available for the taking -- but Haller never made the move."

Tom Haller: incompetent GM, or Dodger spy?

But that's not the disturbing part. Morgan continues:

"The black players in the clubhouse, a number of whom found themselves traded or cut from the squad, also believed that Haller disliked black players. The combination -- someone who wasn't smart enough or committed enough to do what he had to do to help the team win, and someone who was working out his own racial hang-ups -- was enough for me to see the handwriting on the wall."

Later Morgan says, "Over that winter, Reggie Smith was let go and Al Holland and I were traded to the Phillies. Haller told the press that he had me traded because he had a better second baseman, Duane Kuiper, on the ballclub and therefore didn't need me."

This insanity is beyond characterization.

But the most frightening, appalling story Morgan tells has to do with being accosted, for no reason, and threatened and somewhat roughed up by members of Los Angeles' finest. They accused him of being a drug dealer and wouldn't let him identify himself. A witness to the attack on Morgan told the cops who Morgan was, only to be told, "Get the fuck away from here or I'll take you in with him!"

Morgan says, "He [the cop] pointed over my right shoulder, indicating that he wanted me to go that way. When I turned, he pinned my arms behind me, put his knee in my back, and knocked me to the ground."

"'Why are you doing this to me?' I cried out. I couldn't think of anything else to say.

"'I'm an authority figure. I'll show you what authority is, you've been up against us before.' I did not know what he meant then or now. I thought he was crazy.

"When this cop's partner walked up, he said to him, 'D'you see him take a swing at me?'

"The other cop said, 'Yes.'"

Ultimately the officers threatened to publicize the fact that he, Joe Morgan, was held on a drug investigation, and asked him, "How do you think that'll play?"

When he was finally allowed to leave, he filed a complaint with security at the airport where this took place, only to be told that it was LAPD, not airport security -- and the LAPD wouldn't let him file a complaint. In fact, while he was trying to file, the officers who had terrorized him "turned up again and began screaming at me." Eventually he won a lawsuit, but I'm sure it was a pretty hollow victory.

As tough a story as that is to read, and as angry as it might make the reader, Morgan's book is an easy read -- something, I must say, that is not true of "SF Giants: An Oral History," which doesn't flow well, most likely because it's almost entirely in the words of the ballplayers and other subjects interviewed by the author.

Indeed, it's hard not to root for Morgan, because he was a delightful player and he's certainly an interesting guy. It's almost as though there are two Joe Morgans whom we've come to know: the ballplayer we all admired and even feared, and the broadcaster many of us have come to dislike intensely. What the real Joe Morgan is like, most of us will never know.

So I had almost reached a point where I could tolerate Joe Morgan again. I'd grown used to his egotism, displayed during every baseball game he broadcasts. I'd become accustomed to hearing him relate everything that happened on a ballfield to some facet of his own career. I'd even managed to tune out a lot of his "I'm a Pro So I Must Know" dogma.

I'd begun to appreciate, through "Joe Morgan: A Life in Baseball," the fact that the man has interesting tales to tell and a fair amount of -- yes -- insight. And then came Page 127.

It started out great, considering that I missed a few key words in the first sentence of this section. All I saw, perhaps because I agree, was, "Slugging percentage and on-base percentage actually tell you more about run production than batting average." I consider this a given; to me, it's simply an "is." Many fans would disagree -- and they'd all be wrong. Simple dimple. (Talk about dogma....)

Never again in this section does Morgan mention slugging percentage or on-base percentage. Nope, it's "run production," which evidently means runs scored and runs batted in. Never mind that both stats are, in large part, functions of what a batter's teammates do. I mean, if you score, somebody has to drive you in, even if it's you; if you drive in a run, somebody has to be on base (unless it's you). No, it's reaching base (OBP) and moving runners along (SP) that measure a player. These are "active voice" stats. Runs and RBI are "passive voice."

Morgan lightly wafts over slugging percentage and on-base percentage, but these are far more "individual" in nature than runs and RBIs, and yet they're also far more telling. How can this be? Can it be that runs scored and allowed are the building blocks of wins and losses? Can it be that reaching base and moving runners along are the building blocks of runs? Oh, it could be. It is. I didn't come up with these ideas; I just see that they're right.

Also, Morgan ignores, conveniently, the fact that individual runs and RBIs are largely a product of where a guy bats in the order. Think Juan Gonzalez would drive in 150 runs batting first? Or ninth? Think Craig Biggio would score 130 runs batting seventh? I don't, and, I daresay, neither do Gonzalez or Biggio -- or Morgan.

This isn't the part where I got mad, made a face, and groaned in disgust. No, I had to wait for Morgan to proclaim, "It doesn't matter what a guy's ERA is, what counts is how many wins he has."

Ted Robinson, an otherwise intelligent broadcaster, says this, too. Neither of them could be wronger if they'd said the earth was made out of crepe paper and lime Jell-O and was shaped like Joe Garagiola's butt.

Morgan says, "Say a guy goes through a season with a 2.98 ERA but has a losing record. What that tells you is the guy pitches well enough to lose. A pitcher's job is to bring home the bacon, not to hold down his ERA." Good, Joe. So getting batters out is a selfish act on the part of the pitcher. Let's not even mention that the win, as defined by the rulebook, is an arbitrary statistic: You have a lead after five innings that never disappears, you get the win. But if you hold the opposition to three runs, or two, and lose... you haven't done your job. It's your fault, moundsman. Why, you can't depend on us non-run-producing hitters to save your self-centered ass by scoring four freaking runs. In other words, to Morgan, run support plays no part, and the pitcher is the sole determinant of who wins and who loses. Well, Joe, You're a Pro, So You Must Know.

(Criminy, what if baseball had decided to adopt the rule Orel Hershiser lobbied for after the lockout in 1990? I'm talking about the one where, for the first three weeks of the season or so, starting pitchers would only have to go three innings to be credited with a win. Hershiser's rationale was along the lines of, "If, after so little spring training, a pitcher strains his arm trying to go five and get that win, he could get hurt." This was one of the most self-serving things I'd ever heard from a ballplayer -- but I guess Hershiser had a point, since he only pitched about four games that season.)

Morgan pretty much contradicts himself by saying, "Jack Morris is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. Morris finished last season with a 4.00+ ERA -- but he won 20 games! True, Morris pitched with a world champion team, but so what. All of those winning games were equal, whether the score was 1-0 or 10-9. The point is that Morris did what he had to do to win." Damn right he did -- he gave up fewer runs than his team scored. Morgan believes runs and RBIs tell you about hitters, but not about pitchers, and certainly not about teams. It's astounding. Pythagorean Theorem? I think he'd dismiss it out of hand, never mind the research that led to it, or the numbers that support it year after year after year.

"Don't look at their ERAs," he chirps, "look at how consistently they won."

I see. So if your team scores 5.8 runs a game and bats .287, and you go 20-10 with a 4.65 ERA (when the league average is 4.3), you're a "winner." Next year, after your team's idiot GM trades Andre Dawson for Omar Moreno and sticks him at the top of the lineup, causing huge holes in the third and first slots, and you go 11-14 with a 3.18 ERA while your team scores three runs a game, you've gone into the tank. Good call, Li'l Joe!

This part's rich: "The numbers game has always been part of baseball and always will be. In the last decade or so, computer specialists have even made a cottage industry out of the most exotic, sophisticated (and often meaningless) kinds of stats. Nothing wrong with that. But the misuse and misinterpretation of numbers, particularly batting averages and ERA, have done real damage. Winning is about teams, and the stress on numbers, which emphasize purely individual accomplishments, actually gets in the way of team building."

You know something? This statement is exactly correct. But what I would mean by saying it is different from what Morgan would mean, and his approach is wrong. It's his misinterpretation of numbers -- and that of so many sports media people and Baseball Insiders -- that's damaging. The numbers Morgan says are -- and should be -- stressed, "which emphasize purely individual accomplishments," do no such thing. I'm talking about runs and RBIs here. If Barry Bonds has taught us anything, it's that Jeff Kent didn't turn into a run producer overnight. Before, he didn't have Bonds on base in front of him all the time. That's RBIs.

Morgan's usage of "Misuse and misinterpretation of numbers," here, can be interpreted to mean "Use of numbers in ways with which I'm not familiar, ergo they're bad."

What "gets in the way of team building," on the offensive side of the ball, is the failure to understand how to score runs, and the kinds of players needed to do so. Otis Nixon steals all those bases? Why, he's my leadoff man -- never mind that he doesn't walk, doesn't hit for average, and doesn't put himself into scoring position with doubles and triples. No, we're gonna count on him to put the ball on the ground, beat all those throws to first, and hope like hell he'll steal with at least two-thirds success. Oh, and hey, if he loses a step, why, we'll happily cough up an out and bunt our number-two hitter. Easy-peasy! Lots of runs! Now that's an understanding of statistics!

Morgan cites the following players, in order, as "The good second-slot hitters today -- Ryne Sandberg, Billy Hatcher, Jeff McKnight, Roberto Kelly, Jay Bell, Greg Gagne, Jeff Blauser." I don't know anyone who considers any of these players (except Sandberg) as having been particularly good hitters, let alone good second-place hitters. I don't see much OBP here. But Morgan has (a) made his proclamation, and (b) failed to say what makes these guys "good second-slot hitters." All he says is that except for Kelly, none is known for his speed. Oh.

The biggest offense, in this part of the book, is the length to which Morgan goes to preach The Gospel According to Li'l Joe -- all of which is his way of easing into a long "I Love Me" fest disguised as "In Cincinnati, for almost a decade throughout the 1970s, we had a team that defined baseball greatness."

Well, hey, this is pretty much true, okay? (If you don't count 1971, the year before they got Morgan, when they went from pennant winner to fourth-place finisher (tied with Houston).

Morgan gives plenty of credit -- well, sketchy credit, as in, "provided awesome home run power," for instance -- to the other great (or just good) hitters the Reds had in those years. He makes sure to note that he (and Dave Concepcion) hit for average and power, and were base stealers; he doesn't fail to point out his five consecutive Gold Gloves, but is gracious enough to mention that he was only one of a group (including Concepcion, Johnny Bench, and Cesar Geronimo) who did that for the Reds, beginning in 1973. Later in the book he begins a paragraph by talking about how "exceptional" Concepcion was, and ends it with, "I give him a big assist in the five Gold Gloves I won and in my establishing a record consecutive errorless game streak of 91...."

At no time does he credit the Reds' pitchers, except to say that "Sparky Anderson, our manager, was called 'Captain Hook' because of his tendency to quickly remove starting pitchers in games -- but that was only because of the strength of our bullpen." Compare and contrast with his earlier statement that a guy with a "2.98 ERA [and] a losing record... pitches well enough to lose." No blame is placed on the hitters for not producing; therefore we must conclude that hitting wins, but pitching loses. I would surmise that most pitchers tell a different tale.

And yet none of this takes away from his greatness as a player. It's just that his approach to explaining it -- or, rather, explaining what needs to happen in order for greatness to exist -- is so short-sighted and incomplete. Maybe this is just because greatness is not as easily defined as we'd like it to be.

No matter how much I wanted to scream at Joe Morgan while reading his book, though, I still sympathized with him and the problems he endured, I enjoyed the anecdotes, and a lot of what he said made me think. Joe Morgan: A Life in Baseball is a worthwhile read.

Copyright © 1999 by Gregg Pearlman

Last updated 2/22/99

Gregg Pearlman,

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