Thirty-five years ago this July there was magic in the air at Fenway Park: Morgan Magic. Red Sox third base coach Joe Morgan was named as the interim manager to replace John McNamara on July 14, 1988. And the Red Sox won under Morgan. And won some more. And they kept on winning.
At age 92, Joe Morgan still remembers most of the details of what he calls “the longest day of my life.” Relaxing in his long-time Walpole home, Joe recalled, “I didn’t have any inkling that they were going to make a change. But we were in the locker room getting ready for a night game with the Kansas City Royals and Haywood Sullivan [General Partner] came in and went directly into McNamara’s office.
“Lou Gorman [General Manager] took me aside and said, ‘We’re letting McNamara go and we want you to take over until we can find someone permanent.’ I said, ‘Well don’t look too hard because he’s standing right in front of you and you’re talking to him.’”
Joe Morgan had finally fulfilled his lifelong ambition of managing a big league club, but nothing ever came easy for Joe. “I’m finally a big league manager and my first day it’s raining. It looked like we were going to play and then it looked doubtful. I was back and forth from the clubhouse to the dugout. I did speak to the team, just to get the communications going, and I did find time to call my wife Dorothy. That was important,” he adds.
Eventually the game was postponed. When Joe got home to Walpole the phone was ringing off the hook. I heard from everybody, even people I hadn’t talked to in years. The phone rang until 1:30 in the morning and started again at 7:30 the next morning. It was a relief to go back to the ballpark,” Joe remembers.
Joe Morgan’s first decision as a big league manager was to skip pitcher Oil Can Boyd, and start Roger Clemens in the first game of the twi-night doubleheader. It was a good decision as Clemens struck out 16 Royals’ batters en route to a 3-1 victory. “Roger was my ace in the hole,” Joe says. Wade Boggs and Jim Rice led the offense in the second game and the Red Sox won 7-4. Joe Morgan had a two-game winning streak to start his big league managerial career.
FAVORITE SON OF WALPOLE, MA
Joe Morgan was born and raised in Walpole, MA, and he grew up a Red Sox fan. “I remember we would get on the bus in Walpole Center and it would drop us off on Huntington Avenue by Wentworth Institute,” Joe says, looking back almost 85 years. “Then we would walk across the Fens to Fenway Park.”
Joe starred in baseball and hockey at Walpole High School and his athletic prowess earned him a scholarship to Boston College. He commuted daily to BC from Walpole while playing center on the hockey team and shortstop on the baseball team. In 1952, he signed a minor league contract with the Boston Braves, and he began his 40-year baseball career with the Hartford Chiefs in the Class-A Eastern League.
Joe earned his Bachelors degree from BC in 1953, and after a season in Evansville, IL, he spent 1954 and 1955 in the US Army. Joe Morgan had a big year in 1956. He hit .300 for Jacksonville in the Sally League and he married Dorothy Glebus of Walpole, MA. “Dottie deserves all the credit in the world,” Joe insists. “Unless you’ve been a baseball wife, you have no idea what it is like.”
Joe Morgan made it to the big leagues with the Milwaukee Braves in 1959, and he played in 13 games for the franchise he rooted for as a youngster. But Kansas City purchased his contract in August and he finished the season with the A’s. He started the 1960 season with the Philadelphia Phillies but he was acquired by the Indians in August. “I played well in Cleveland,” Joe recalls. “I hit .298 and I had a couple of home runs. That was my best year in the majors.”
Joe played briefly for Cleveland in 1961 and then he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, who sent him to Charleston, WV. “I was bouncing all over hell,” Joe laughs in memory. Joe made it back to the majors with the Cardinals in 1964, and when his playing career was over in 1966, he had played for nine different minor league teams and five big league clubs.
MINOR LEAGUE MANAGER
In his first season as a manager, Joe Morgan was a player-manager for the 1967 Raleigh Pirates in the Class-A Carolina League. He managed in the Pirates system for seven seasons and his teams finished in first place three times. Then he made a fateful phone call to Red Sox General Manager Dick O’Connell asking about the managing job in Pawtucket.
“I called Dick O’Connell at home. He said, ‘A lot of people have been asking about the job, and making a lot of calls, but you’re the only one who has called me. I make the decisions around here, and I say you’ve got the job.’”
Joe Morgan managed Pawtucket for nine seasons and it was an ideal match. Paw Sox owner Ben Mondor recognized Morgan’s value to the franchise and Joe was a fan favorite. Players who passed through Pawtucket under Morgan on their way to the Boston Red Sox included Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Bruce Hurst.
At one point Ben Mondor offered Morgan lifetime security if he would commit to managing Pawtucket for the rest of his career. Joe politely turned him down. “Why not?” asked Mondor. “Because someday I want to manage in the big leagues,” Joe told him.
In 1983, Joe Morgan gave up the Pawtucket manager’s job to become a scout for the Boston Red Sox. Despite 17 successful seasons of managing in the minor leagues, he had never received a single invitation to interview for a big league manager’s job.
“I invited myself for interviews twice,” Joe offers, setting the record straight. “When the Red Sox were interviewing to replace Don Zimmer I went to see Haywood Sullivan and made my case, but Haywood turned me down. Then when they [the Red Sox] were replacing Houk I stuck my head into Haywood’s office, and he said, ‘If you are here for the same reason as the last time, the answer is still the same.’”
In 1985, Joe Morgan joined manager John McNamara’s staff as the first base coach. In 1986 he took over as bullpen coach and his World Series share allowed Joe to take the winter off after thirty years of off-season work. In 1987, he became the third base coach and he retained that position through the All-Star Game in 1986.
The Red Sox followed their doubleheader sweep on June 15, 1988, with two more wins over the Kansas City Royals. The team had moved from nine games behind in the AL East to six back in just one weekend under Morgan.
Minnesota came to Fenway next, and after taking the first two games, the Red Sox were trailing 7-5 in the tenth inning of the series finale. But Todd Benzinger wrapped a three-run home run around the Pesky Pole for a walk-off win and Joe Morgan’s seventh straight victory. “That’s the game I remember best,” Joe says. “I was giving Benzinger more playing time and he came through. And Mrs. Yawkey told them to give me the job for the rest of the year.”
Red Sox fans were re-energized by “Morgan Magic.” For the rest of the season every game at Fenway Park drew at least 32,000 fans and most were sold out. The Chicago White Sox followed the Twins into Fenway and the red-hot Red Sox swept them four straight. The Red Sox headed to Arlington, Texas, with an 11-0 record under their new manager.
Roger Clemens gave the Red Sox their 12th straight win with a sparkling 2-0 shutout of the Rangers. Morgan’s 13th game as manager proved unlucky and the streak came to an end with a 9-8 loss to Texas. But the Red Sox run was far from over as the team started a new winning steak with a win over the Rangers the next evening.
A crowd of more than 35,000 fans at Fenway welcomed the Red Sox back home on Friday night, and they were rewarded with a doubleheader sweep over the Milwaukee Brewers. In the two weeks since Joe Morgan was named manager, the Red Sox had improved from nine games back in the AL East to only 1.5 games out. “I didn’t make a whole lot of changes,” Morgan recalls. “I gave Benzinger more at-bats and I put Jody Reed at short for more offense, but we were a good team that finally got it together.”
Roger Clemens beat the Brewers on Saturday and Mike Boddicker shutout Milwaukee 5-0 on Sunday. Then the Red Sox swept the Rangers in a two-game series at Fenway. The team had won 19 out of 20 under Morgan and they were tied for first atop the AL East. The Red Sox announced that Morgan’s contract had been extended to manage the team in 1989.
Looking back on his remarkable start as a manager, Joe Morgan says, “What I remember best was winning those first 12 games. I think it will be awhile before anybody beats that. That 12-game streak is probably my best memory as a manager.”
SAFE AT HOME
After winning 19 of their first 20 games with Morgan at the controls, the team came back to earth but still managed to hang on to win the AL East. The team played .600 ball (46-31 under Morgan) but they ran into a red-hot Oakland team in the playoffs and they were swept four straight.
In 1989, Joe Morgan’s first full year as manager of the team, the Red Sox never caught fire in the manner of his 1988 team. They finished in third place with 83 wins, six games behind the division-winning Toronto Blue Jays.
Joe Morgan’s 1990 Red Sox club stayed in the hunt for the Eastern Division crown behind the 21-6 pitching of Roger Clemens, and they clinched the AL East in the last game of the season on a miraculous game-saving catch by Tom Brunansky. Unfortunately, the Brunansky catch was the last highlight of the season as the Red Sox were swept in four straight games by the Oakland Athletics in the 1990 ALCS.
In 1991 the Morgan-led Red Sox battled injuries but stayed in contention for the most of the year. The Red Sox ended in a tie for second with the Detroit Tigers, seven games out of first. “I think 1999 was my best year of managing,” Morgan says, “I had to juggle the lineup all season.” Following the 1991 season, Butch Hobson was named to replace Joe Morgan as the Red Sox manager.
“I’ve been a luck guy,” Joe Morgan says today. “First, I have a wonderful family. And I was in the right place at the right time in 1988. The team responded to me so I got to manage three-and-a-half years in the big leagues, something I had always wanted. And the extra money and pension time meant I could retire and enjoy myself. I had enough of planes, buses and hotels.”
Joe Morgan’s best known saying when he was the Red Sox manager was “6-2 and even.” Pressed for his meaning when he used it with reporters, Joe laughs. “I was just trying to baffle them the way they were always trying to baffle me. You have to remember. I grew up around here!”
It’s 6-2-and even that for many long-time Red Sox fans, Joe Morgan is still their all-time favorite Red Sox manager.
Portions of this article originally appeared in Red Sox Magazine. To subscribe to Red Sox Magazine click here.