I was looking forward to another conversation. I actually have his name written on a list of people to interview for an upcoming project.
A man with a lifelong passion for baseball. A living connection to another era who had an unwavering desire for his sport to fulfill its promise.
I’ve lost the chance to have another conversation. Morgan, a Castlemont High School alum who went on to a Hall of Fame career with five teams — including the Giants and A’s — died Sunday at his home in Danville. He was 77.
My relationship with Morgan was an evolution. First, he was a guy on TV, diminutive but larger than life at the plate. A player from Oakland (”why wasn’t he on the A’s?” young me wondered as I watched the Cincinnati Reds) leading a Midwestern team to a World Series. Then in a Giants uniform, a Dodger killer on the last day of the season.
Once I got into the business, he was a polite nod in the press box. Once, as a very young reporter, I had the opportunity to cover his graduation from Cal State Hayward, when he fulfilled a lifelong promise to his mother to get his degree at age 47, calling it one of the greatest honors of his life. That made a lasting impression on me.
In recent years, he was the conscience of baseball on the other end of the line. Morgan called me on occasion to chat about something I had written, to talk about Title IX and women’s sports (he was father to four daughters, and his twins were exceptional athletes) and to express his frustration with the state of baseball. With the steroid cheats. But most of all with the game’s backpedaling from the inclusion and embrace of African Americans.
Morgan was imbued with a sense of the history of the game. He witnessed Jackie Robinson’s final public appearance, before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series between the Reds and the A’s. At that time, Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier as a player a quarter century earlier, urged baseball to hire a Black manager.
“I remember Jackie’s words as if they were yesterday,” Morgan told The Chronicle in 2019. “I idolized Jackie and Nellie Fox growing up. So, I’m sitting there listening to everything he said, and at the end, he said, ‘I’ll never be happy until I see a black face managing from one of these dugouts.’
“I always remembered that. That was 1972. There obviously was not an African American manager then, and there’s only one African American manager now, Dave Roberts. I guess Jackie could say a lot of things haven’t changed, to be honest with you.”
Frank Robinson became the first Black manager in the majors, with the Cleveland Indians. He broke the National League’s managerial color barrier in 1981 when the Giants hired him. Morgan signed as a free agent, and it was Robinson’s team that knocked out the Dodgers the next year. Morgan spoke fondly of the pride of playing for that Giants team, for Robinson.
But he wasn’t proud of the reverse trend in baseball. The last time I spoke to him was last fall, after the Giants hired Gabe Kapler, without any Black candidates among the finalists for the job. Morgan expressed the belief that no minority candidate who carried the baggage Kapler came with would have gotten an interview let alone the job.
“For years we were asking for a seat at the table, now we can’t even get in the room,” Morgan told me. “I feel like we’ve come full circle. In a bad way.”
After hiring Kapler, the Giants hired a staff of 13 coaches; there is not one African American coach on the extensive staff.
Morgan was actively involved with baseball and the Hall of Fame.
“He meant a lot to us, to me, to baseball, to African Americans around the country, a lot to players considered undersized,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker who had maintained a close relationship and was devastated to get Monday’s news.
Morgan wanted baseball to be better. He wanted to hold his beloved sport accountable. He was a vocal critic of the steroid era, another topic of our occasional conversations. In 2017, he wrote a letter to Hall of Fame voters, asking them not to vote for players who used performance enhancing drugs. He wrote, “They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here…The cheating that tainted an era now risks tainting the Hall of Fame, too.”
In 2013, when the Expansion Era Committee unanimously voted in three managers associated with the steroid era – Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre – Morgan, who was on the committee, called me to note that he had a previous commitment and had missed the vote. And that it would not have been unanimous if he had been in the room.
Morgan said what he thought, his beliefs shaped by his own great playing career, his place in the history of baseball and his life as a Black man in America. In 1988, he was once pinned to the ground by undercover police at LAX and accused of drug smuggling. He sued LAPD and won a settlement.
“It was all because I was just another black man,” Morgan wrote of the incident.
But Morgan was never “just another” anything. He was an exceptional person.
As Baker said on Monday morning, Morgan was “a heck of a person, heck of a guy, great father, great businessman. Whatever he put his mind to, Joe was good at.”
Including being the conscience of his sport.
I’m going to miss those conversations.
Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @annkillion
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