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The longest game
Joe Morgan’s life in baseball
At 8:02 p.m. on Saturday, April 18, 1981, the Pawtucket (Rhode Island) Red Sox and the Rochester (New York) Red Wings began a Triple-A International League game that would run until 4:09 the following morning—Easter Sunday, as it happened—when umpires suspended the game at the end of the 32nd inning, with the score tied 2–2 and 19 fans remaining in McCoy Stadium. Taken up again on June 23, the next time the teams met in Pawtucket, it was resolved in 18 minutes and one inning, 3–2 in favor of the Red Sox. With a total running time of eight hours and 25 minutes, the game remains the longest professional baseball game on record. All who participated in it, both journeymen and future major leaguers—Wade Boggs; Cal Ripken, Jr.; Bob Ojeda; Bruce Hurst; Marty Barrett—would one day find themselves entered into baseball’s Hall of Fame, including Joe Morgan ’53, the Pawtucket manager with more than 20 years of playing and coaching behind him, mostly in the minors, who in 1981 had one further and highly unlikely ambition: to manage the Boston Red Sox. The following is excerpted from Dan Barry’s 2011 book, Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.
It is the 22nd inning, and at this early morning hour, in Pawtucket’s declining Slater Park Zoo, poor Fanny the Elephant, chained for the last two decades to concrete covered in hay, enjoys brief, somnolent respite from her captors; someday she will be rescued and taken to a Texas ranch to live among other pachyderms, but for now whatever visions of liberation Fanny might harbor go undisturbed. At this chilly hour, the socializing in social clubs has ceased: In the Lily, beside McCoy Stadium, for instance, where a door-banging raid by the cops will someday curtail its central business of bookmaking; in the Dante Alighieri, on Hurley Avenue; in the Irish, on Pawtucket Avenue, where white-haired Pat McCabe, the County Armagh sprite of a barman, truly understands the propriety of the last call, it’s time, it’s time.
It’s nearly Easter dawn, he might say. Sleep, why don’t you?
Most of Pawtucket heeds this sensible advice, including some of the few still remaining at McCoy. In the Rochester clubhouse, a couple of ballplayers, long since removed from the game, have given in to the tranquilizing effects of many cans of beer. And in the owner’s office, under a secondhand desk, a child sleeps: a brown-haired girl of two with a spray of freckles upon her cheeks, nestled in a bed of blankets and coats. Her name is Meagann Boggs. Her father is at work, playing third base for the Pawtucket team, and Mom is close by, sitting with Pawtucket owner Ben Mondor in the modest partition grandly called the owner’s box.
So a child sleeps, and intoxicated ballplayers sleep, and the bookmakers and proprietors and residents of Pawtucket sleep, and a shackled elephant sleeps, and, 400 miles away, the Upstate New York city of Rochester sleeps, though some are half dozing to the Rochester-Pawtucket lullaby flowing through their radios from the creaky press box of McCoy. Two Red Wings employees, Bob Drew and Pete Torrez, broadcast the game as if offering a late-night glass of warm milk.
“We’re going into inning number 22 right now,” says Drew, his voice as soothing as a bedtime storyteller’s. “Williams steps in there, still looking for his first hit of the night, or the day, or whatever you call it. There’s an attempted bunt, foul at the plate. . . .”
What’s that sound? That song! A lilting Irish-tenor song of ire, echoing now through the radios of Rochester! It is Joe Morgan, the Pawtucket manager, screaming at the home plate umpire. And because the stadium is nearly deserted, his angry ditty rises up from home plate to the press box, where it is captured clearly by two small microphones, transmitted through the black-box mixer attached to a phone jack, and sent by phone line back to a small radio station in Rochester, where the only on-duty employee, a man named Howie, ensures its broadcast to the city of the Kodak Tower and the George Eastman House, to the neighborhoods and suburbs. And to those faithful still listening in, Joe Morgan sings a hymn for which the refrain appears to be:
“I don’t give a shit!”
Here is what has brought Morgan nearly to the point of speaking in tongues. Rochester’s speedy leadoff hitter, Dallas Williams, the 23-year-old center fielder, is having a miserable night at the plate. He is 0 for 8 so far, and he has tried to drag-bunt his way onto first base and out of the hitless ignominy that awaits him. But the batted ball appears to have jumped up and hit him in fair territory as he ran from the batter’s box. The home plate umpire has called it a foul ball, but Morgan is colorfully asserting that is incorrect, rousing from fitful slumber the 40 or so fans still in the cavernous ballpark, as well as who knows how many radio listeners in Upstate New York. An umpire threatens to call the cops if he doesn’t leave the field, to which Morgan shoots back: Where the hell are you gonna get a cop at this hour?
Some 30 years later, on another inclement spring day in New England, Joe Morgan will nestle into a comfortable chair in his living room in Walpole, Massachusetts, his hometown. His feet will be shod in blue slippers, each one crowned with a red capital B-for Boston Red Sox. His wife, Dottie, will busy herself in the kitchen. On a wall there will hang a sign that reads: “A baseball fan lives here . . . with the woman he never struck out with.” It will be a nice scene, a tranquil scene, until Morgan recalls that distant play.
“He ran toward first and the ball jumped up and hit him in the foot!” the white-haired man, nearly 80, will say. “He’s out!”
Joe Morgan’s baseball passion never cools. The son of immigrants from County Clare, he starred in baseball and hockey at Boston College and continued his studies in Hopedale, Massachusetts, by playing during summers for that mill town’s team in the Blackstone Valley League for $30 a week. He’d spend the day working—in a textile mill one year, at an inn two other years—then play baseball at night against mill workers, college students, and crusty baseball professionals, including a few former major league pitchers who knew how to snap off a 12-to-6 curve (“I found out how good I wasn’t in a hurry,” he will say). Once he earned his bachelor’s degree in American history and government, he set it aside to embark upon a long career as an itinerant baseball man, his every port of call remaining so vivid in his mind that he will summon them in a laconic Yankee recitation, like a salty Robert Frost asked once again to deliver “The Road Not Taken.”
“Well, the first team I played for was the Hartford Chiefs in the Eastern League. Next year I was at Evansville, Indiana, in the Three I League. Following two years I was in the U.S. Army as a ground pounder.”
“A guy that’s in the army is a ground pounder just by walking around.”
Where was he? Oh, yes. The Hartford Chiefs, in 1952. The Evansville Braves. Then down to the Jacksonville Braves in the Sally League. The Atlanta Crackers in the Southern League. The Wichita Braves in the American Association. The Louisville Colonels. The Charleston Marlins. Back to the Atlanta Crackers, now in the International League, for a couple of years. Then back to Jacksonville, but this time for a team called the Suns. Then, at the age of 35, down to the Raleigh Pirates, in the Carolina League, in 1966. Sprinkled among those 13 years in the baseball wilderness were bits of four seasons in the major leagues, playing both infield and outfield for the Milwaukee Braves, the Kansas City Athletics, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cleveland Indians, and the St. Louis Cardinals. He was more than a cup-of-coffee guy, but not much more: two cups and maybe a doughnut, with a .193 batting average and an ever-expanding repository of baseball knowledge and lore.
He will describe the heat-baked infield at the ballpark in Keokuk, Iowa, as the worst he ever played on; explain why Jimmie Foxx was the best all-around ballplayer in history; remember the name of a long-forgotten minor-league pitcher, Al Meau, who hit a ball through a tire hung in right field in Bluefield, West Virginia, winning enough money to pay his rent for the 1947 season; and discuss, with professorial authority, the many ballpark stunts he witnessed over the years, including this: Joe Engel, the gimmick-loving owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts and acknowledged “Barnum of Baseball,” would cover the infield with hundreds of dollar bills, along with a fin and a sawbuck here and there. The players from both teams would be positioned along the first- and third-base lines, while a lucky fan standing at home plate would be told that he had 30 seconds to pocket as much of the money as he could, after which the players would dive in. But it would never get to 30 seconds. Shortly into the countdown, one of the ballplayers would feign a move, tricking other ballplayers into crossing the line, and a monetary free-for-all would ensue.
“I found out the best way to do it was to run out there and fall on the ground, and cover as many as you could, reach around the side, scoop up and then get ’em underneath you,” Morgan will recall. “I think I got 17 bucks one time.”
After his playing career ended, Morgan continued his baseball peregrinations as a manager: Raleigh, North Carolina; York, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; Charleston, West Virginia; a year as a coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates; and then back to Charleston. Meanwhile, he and Dottie were raising a family and paying a mortgage in their native Walpole, so he took any job he could find in the off-season—so many, in fact, that he once compiled a list of them and filed it in a small wooden box, along with other idiosyncratic information: every horse to win at least 50 races; the countries that produced the most baseball players besides the United States and Canada; prominent players who played just one year with the Boston Red Sox (Jack Chesbro, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Tom Seaver . . .).
“I was a substitute schoolteacher. I was a bill collector. I took the census in this town. I was an oil man. A coal man. Construction worker. I worked for Polaroid. Raytheon. American Girl Shoe. . . . I went to winter ball, four years. I coached the Boston neighborhood hockey team. Oh, yeah, I worked for the post office for a couple of years.”
In early 1974, the Boston Red Sox farm team in Pawtucket, 25 miles south of Walpole, had an opening for a manager. Sensing another faint chance to manage in the major leagues someday, Morgan expressed his interest to mid-level executives in the Boston organization. When nothing came of his inquiries, he boldly called Dick O’Connell, the Red Sox general manager, at home.
O’Connell’s initial response: How did you get my telephone number?
But Morgan plowed on, saying he was the man for the job in Pawtucket. O’Connell floored him by responding: There’s a ton of people who want this job, but nobody’s asked me about it, and I’m the boss around here. You got the job!
So began New England’s gradual embrace of its prodigal son, a baseball savant whose managerial decisions were rooted not in statistical analysis but in what he had learned from the Jesuits, and from the veterans in Blackstone Valley, and from playing beside the great and the forgotten in Milwaukee and Keokuk. He won over most of his players with paternal bluntness and his ability to say: I’ve been there; I’ve been cut, demoted, uncertain of my future; I’ve been in your cleats. He charmed fans with his on-field histrionics and odd linguistic style, a kind of Walpole meets Canterbury, in which the nonsensical catch-all phrase he used to end conversations, “Six, two, and even,” seemed to add up somehow. And he earned the respect of umpires for his deep knowledge of the rules, although they found his goading, exhibitionistic manner less than endearing.
For all his antics, Morgan possessed the maturity that comes from hard-earned perspective. He understood the essential truth of baseball: that to be paid to throw and bat a ball around is a blessing. Real work came after the last game of the season, when he returned to the ranks of the stiffs, doing whatever he could to provide for his family. Soon after landing the manager’s job at the Pawtucket Red Sox, he began working the off-season with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, mowing the last of the grass, picking up garbage, plowing snow. He’d clean up around the toll plazas, and when he found an errant coin he’d pocket it.
Joe Morgan and Pawtucket, then, were a perfect fit: unpretentious, time-tested, underestimated. He and owner Ben Mondor understood and respected each other. After every road trip, for example, Morgan would return to McCoy to find a fifth of Chivas waiting for him, courtesy of Mondor—except for the time the team lost nine of 10 on the road. Left on his desk was a miniature bottle of scotch: an airplane nip. He laughed his ass off.
One night, Ben and Madeleine Mondor treated Joe and Dottie Morgan to dinner at the Lafayette House, an upscale colonial remnant on Route 1 in Foxboro, not far from Walpole. After a couple of drinks, Mondor got down to business, saying to Morgan: If you promise to be my manager for the rest of your baseball career, your family will never have to worry about another dime again. College. Money. You won’t have to worry.
After a pause, Morgan gently gave his answer: I can’t, Ben.
Morgan was being offered a dream of an opportunity by a multimillionaire friend whose word was gold. Indeed, why not?
Because Morgan, not yet 50, was still, at his core, a professional baseball player, and professional baseball players are conditioned to take one step, one base, and then the next base, and the next, and not stop until they have made it home.
I can’t, Ben. Because someday I want to manage in the big leagues.
Deep in his comfortable chair, his box of lists by his side, Morgan will smile at the memory of his long career as the manager of the Pawtucket Red Sox: nine years, from 1974 to 1982. The good teams. The lousy teams. The characters. For a moment the man in Red Sox slippers will disappear into that distant place, where his office was a glorified closet, and the clubhouse showers scalded his skin, and the stadium was so empty and cold some nights that it felt like a morgue. “Those were good times,” he will say.
In 1982, Joe Morgan became a Boston Red Sox scout and coach who seemed destined to retire without ever managing at the major league level. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the 1988 season, which had so far been lackluster, he was appointed the “interim” manager of the Red Sox by front-office suits (replacing John McNamara). Those suits hadn’t counted on what came to be known as “Morgan’s Miracle.” The Red Sox went on to win 19 of their next 20 games, catapulting the team to the front of the pack and the American League East title. Soon, all of New England was spouting nonsensical Morgan-speak—”Six, two, and even” and “See you in St. Paul”—and the Red Sox had no choice but to quickly name as its fulltime manager a guy from Walpole who could tell you a thing or two about plowing snow on the turnpike.
Morgan’s penchant for acting on hunches baffled and even irritated people at times, but he led the Red Sox to another American League East title, in 1990, before he was unceremoniously fired in 1991—ostensibly for finishing second. A few days later, a hundred people, along with the Walpole High School marching band, gathered on the front lawn of Joe Morgan’s home, just to say thanks.
Back in McCoy Stadium, it is the 22nd inning. In the early morning hours of April 19, 1981, Joe Morgan finally, reluctantly, leaves the field, banished by the umpires and serenaded by the affirming cheers of the lonesome McCoy congregation. Some of those tethered to this game—including the broadcasters—wonder whether the crafty veteran has orchestrated his ouster to find shelter from the cold. In truth, Morgan sneaks off to a favored hiding spot behind the backstop and under section 9, a corner of the McCoy underbelly where wood is stacked and rubble dispersed and equipment stored. He knows that here, if you pull a little on the forest green plywood fastened by wire to the chain-link fence, you can create a secret portal to the grass-and-clay spectacle of the game, a sliver of unnatural light streaming into the dusky shadows. You are close to the action, yet unseen. Surrounded by rakes and mowers, one foot resting on a pile of wooden pallets, hands shoved into the pockets of his navy blue warm-up jacket, Morgan keeps his eyes on the game.
Dan Barry writes the “This Land” column for the New York Times, and is the author of the memoir Pull Me Up (2004). His essay is drawn from Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game (copyright © 2011 by Dan Barry) by arrangement with Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.