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An Appreciation

Joe Morgan loved baseball but also challenged its outdated practices

The Hall of Famer championed fellow African Americans and stood for what was right

I don’t remember a time I couldn’t pick up the phone and talk to Joe Morgan.

Yes, Joe was a Hall of Famer and for years we stood on opposite sides of the notepad. But from the moment I first met Joe, in 1982, my instincts were that I’d just encountered one of the most honest and decent people I would ever have the privilege of covering in baseball.

Joe Morgan, my friend, my brother, died Monday. My heart is broken as another person who taught me through actions how to be a good and honest person has died.

His death is yet another body blow as the horrid year claims so many I’ve covered and admired in baseball, such as Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Whitey Ford and now Joe.

Sizewise, most of his teammates may have towered above him, but Little Joe was a giant. Simply put, he was the best second baseman of all time. More important, though, he was a good man.

Joe was a fierce, larger-than-life advocate for a game that often did not deserve his passion and dedication to its betterment. He stood with pride when winning trophies and World Series, but stood out even more when championing what was right.

He was an astute businessman and never had the desire to manage or run a baseball team, yet his name was tossed about as a potential manager by teams that never even bothered to call. The move angered Joe because there was no intent behind it other than to give the appearance of considering an African American for the job.

While managing may not have been his goal, he didn’t let it stop him from being an advocate for others who desired that path. He never stopped fighting for others.

Joe had three teams for which he was most proud: The Big Red Machine of Cincinnati, his fellow Hall of Fame inductees and his family of African American brothers-in-arms within the game. And he was the captain of each and every one of his beloved teams, an unstoppable leader whose mere presence commanded respect and led all to coalesce around him.

“He loved baseball and cared about the game so much,” Hall of Fame great Billy Williams said Monday, his voice choking back the tears. “That’s why he was on the board of the Hall of Fame for all these years. He just loved our game and wanted it to do right by everyone.”

Joe certainly did right by me, simply by respecting me as a journalist and letting it be known to teammates across the board that any sign of disrespect would never be tolerated.

After authoring an amazing Hall of Fame career, Joe remained my go-to guy for bouncing off ideas and breaking down issues that impacted the game, the world, our lives and civic responsibilities. He had a way of framing things that made me look at opinions past my own nose, which was important when I became a columnist. When we landed on the same team at ESPN, he became one of my closest, dearest friends.

Just as he had given me insights into the world that existed when locker room doors closed, so too did he do so when boardroom doors closed.

A proud Black man, Joe fought for social justice within baseball and beyond before it became a catchphrase. He loved the game but was never afraid to call out hypocrisy wherever he saw it. He knew the devastation that empty talk of inclusion caused; he watched his amazing generation of African American players turned away as soon as their on-field hits and pitches were no longer needed.

His calls for equal hiring for managerial candidates, coaches, front-office personnel never ceased. His disdain for those who broke promises or pretended cooperation with inclusivity was never hidden from the public.

Personally, Joe was always there, to lend an ear, to talk me off the ledge, to remind that you can’t hit if you take your eye off the ball.

“He would fight for what was right,” said Phil Niekro, his Hall of Fame compatriot on the executive board. “He was a fighter. But more, he was such a good man.

“I don’t know how you replace him.”

Phil is so right. He never did stop slashing, hitting, driving the game forward with his sheer will. Not until 2020 took his last breath. Now there is a hole in the universe a thousand times larger than that mighty little big man’s presence on Earth. It can never be filled.

Rest in power, my friend. I will miss you, forever and a day.

Claire Smith is a recipient of The Baseball Writers Association of America’s Career Excellence Award for her contributions to baseball writing as a reporter and columnist. She is a member of the faculty at Klein College of Media and Communication and is the co-director of the Claire Smith Center for Sports Media at Temple University.