Walpole Joe Morgan is one of my favorite figures in Red Sox history. He was a local guy who made it all the way to the major league manager’s job and gave Red Sox fans one of their most memorable summers ever and a pair of trips to the postseason.
In some ways, the Red Sox victory in 2004 was perfect. It came right after the Aaron Boone/Grady Little debacle and had the amazing climax of vanquishing the Yankees in a way that nobody thought was possible. And Terry Francona, with his self effacing humor and respect of the clubhouse and fans, was the perfect manager.
But Joe Morgan and the 1988 Red Sox could have been a magical champ for many reasons.
The Red Sox were still reeling from the shock of the 1986 World Series. The 1987 season was lost after injuries, free agent defections and a thinned out rotation. In 1988, John McNamara and company had desires to get back on top with a combination of young players like Ellis Burks and Mike Greenwell along with veterans like Jim Rice, Marty Barrett and Dwight Evans. With the trade for Lee Smith done in the winter, Boston looked like a potential contender.
But when the team began 43-42 at the All Star break, the embattled Red Sox front office dismissed baseball lifer John McNamara from the manager’s role. Had the Red Sox got one more strike a year and a half prior, McNamara would have revered as an all time figure in Boston. Now he was disposable.
While Boston searched for another manager, they handed the reigns on an interim basis to third base coach Joe Morgan. He was so anonymous outside of Boston that some outlets reported that they had signed Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan.
Nope. It was Walpole Joe. He was a local guy, born in Walpole and who went to Boston College. He had a thick New England accent and a hard edge to him that you would expect him to be someone your family knew at the hardware store and not the manager of the team. He drove a snowplow to clear up the Turnpike for 10 New England winters.
Now of course, he was NOT the 14th caller on WEEI. He was a baseball player who played several years in the majors. He was on the Pirates coaching staff in the 1970’s and managed and coached throughout the Red Sox organizations. While managing Pawtucket, Morgan was a candidate for the Red Sox manager’s job at the end of the 1980 season.
He clearly was a stop gap while a true managerial search was conducted. The team returned from the All Star break in 4th place, a game over .500 on July 15th to play a double header against the Royals.
Boston won both games.
The next day, they won on a walk off homer from reserve outfielder Kevin Romine.
The winning kept piling up. 5 in a row, then 10. They won the first 12 games under Joe Morgan and 19 straight at Fenway Park. The press called it Morgan’s Magic.
He had a heated exchange with Jim Rice when the slumping superstar was pushed further down the lineup, screaming “I’m the manager of this nine!” The interim label was removed.
The team, that was 9 games out at the All Star game, was tied for first on August 3rd.
But then the magic seemed to be gone. A 4 game sweep by the defending AL East champion Tigers pushed them 4 games back and dropped 7 of 9 at one point. A burst in September put Boston in first place by themselves on September 5th and built a lead as big as 6 games on September 18th.
They lost 8 of their last 12 games, stumbling into the post season as the Tigers lost as well, earning the Red Sox the AL East crown. While Boston was swept in the ALCS, they played harder than the 4 and out result would suggest. Games 1 and 2 were 1 run losses at home and Game 3, they took an early lead. The A’s were a little too much for Morgan’s Magic.
But had they held onto those two games at home and rode Clemens, Hurst and Boddicker into the World Series, the 1988 team would have been a beloved team. They had lots of young blood, like Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, Jody Reed and Todd Benzinger.
Also Rice, Barrett, Evans, Clemens, Hurst, Wade Boggs, Spike Owen, Bob Stanley, Rich Gedman, Ed Romero and the injured Oil Can Boyd were left over from the 1986 squad.
Picture a combination of young players and beloved veterans winning it all in Boston with a guy who used to drive the snow plow leading the way.
It would have been the stuff of legends.
Morgan led the Red Sox to another down to the wire division title in 1990 before once again getting swept out by the A’s. After 1991, the Red Sox were worried that Butch Hobson (my favorite player as a kid) was too valuable a managerial prospect to let walk to another organization from the minor leagues. So Joe Morgan was canned.
Morgan warned the front office “this team is not as good as you think it is.” He was right as the team bombed under Hobson.
Walpole Joe is still with us, still being celebrated as a Boston folk hero. They didn’t win it all with him, but he gave the team, and all of use fans, a summer of magic.