- Photo courtesy of the Durham Bulls
- Joe Morgan, left, with an unidentified teammate in 1963; he was the Durham Bulls' only black player that year.
Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan spent the bulk of his major league career with the Houston Astros and, most famously, as a key cog in Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in the 1970s. In 1975 and 1976, he was voted the National League's Most Valuable Player after seasons in which the Reds won the World Series; in the latter year, Morgan batted .320, stole 60 bases and hit 27 homers.
Morgan spent only two seasons in the minor leagues, but the first was with the Durham Bulls in 1963. Morgan arrived late for his first game with the Bulls but was inserted as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning, as the tying run at the plate. On the first pitch, he hit the game-winning home run.
Morgan, now an Emmy award-winning ESPN commentator, retired after the 1984 season and was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990. He spoke with the Independent from his office in Alamo, Calif.
On life in Durham ...
I stayed with the Spaulding family—I.R. Spaulding. I didn't have an apartment. I didn't stay in a hotel. They were fabulous people. To be honest with you, I didn't do a lot in Durham or around Durham. We lived over near Duke. I would walk to the ball park, play the game and walk back. It was a great experience. It was really nice for me to play in a place where I could relax and learn to play baseball. And that's all I was there for—to play baseball. I did not go out a lot, socialize or whatever. I was there as a baseball player.
On the Bulls' coaches ...
Billy Goodman was the manager, and to be honest with you, I can't remember who the other coaches were. I learned a lot from him. Billy Goodman won a batting title in the major leagues. I learned a lot. He talked to me about hitting and what I should look for and what I shouldn't.
It's been a long time, but I really enjoyed my time in Durham. I've been back there a lot of times since. I was there when they retired my number. And I was there when they moved over to the new stadium. Billy Goodman used to call the first Durham Ball Park the chicken coop. I always remember that.
On Bull Durham ...
I thought it was a great movie because it depicts life in the minor leagues. And the players in the minor leagues had more fun than the players in the big leagues—doing crazier things. In the big leagues it's pretty much all serious. Everything is life and death to win. In the minor leagues you can enjoy the game as well as try to win. The minor leagues as depicted in Bull Durham is the way that I remember it.
On the minor leagues today ...
I haven't been to a minor league game in a while. I know minor league baseball is great because they are building nicer and nicer stadiums. A couple times when there was a strike I went to the minor leagues and broadcast games. And it was fun. I went somewhere to broadcast a game with Michael Jordan. Obviously when Michael was playing it was a whole different thing, another level of excitement for the fans.
On the differences between Durham and San Antonio, his second and final minor league stop ...
San Antonio was a lot different in that I had a lot of African-American teammates. Secondly, during the middle of the season in Durham, [Durham began to integrate public accommodations, so] I didn't have to stay separate from my teammates anymore. We decided that I should stay separate because I was the only one. We didn't want any problems or anything. For the remainder of the season I stayed in the black community when we were on the road. We didn't stay on the road every night. If we played an away game we'd come back a lot of times. We only stayed away probably about three places, so it wasn't nearly as difficult as it could have been. But the next year when I was in San Antonio, I was playing with a lot of African-American players. And not only that, the team also stayed together. Everybody stayed in the same hotel.
In those days [in Durham], I don't think they wanted me to be in a situation where I might be confronted by someone that says you shouldn't be here. I think I remember talking it over with Billy Goodman, and he thought it was best that I didn't. I trusted Billy and I think it was probably the right decision at that time. My teammates treated me great, so I didn't really—I was OK with it even though growing up in California, I could go any place I wanted to go and stay any place I wanted to stay, and my friends were of all nationalities. It was a little eye-opening at first. I had to make an adjustment. I will say this though: All the times when I first got to Durham and I played there, one of the things I remember most is that I was treated with respect by the fans. The fans treated me great. They didn't use the N word. They didn't do all that stuff when I was there. Secondly, I missed the first month during the season and I finished second in most popular player voting. I know a lot of African-American players have played in the South and they have bad experiences. I didn't have that.
On whether he wishes he'd spent more time in the minors ...
That's a very good question, but my answer is "no" because I spent exactly the right amount of time in the minor leagues to enjoy the minor leagues yet reach my ultimate goal of being in the big leagues. Two years was probably perfect. I learned a little bit more about how to play, and I could appreciate guys who had been in the minor leagues five or six years playing and knowing what they went through.
The time I spent there gave me a great appreciation for what a lot of guys go through and the love they have for the game, because they continue to play. That's what you see in the minor leagues. You see guys who play in a town and they end up living the rest of their lives there. They go to work and play the game just like it's a job. They spend their whole life or career in that same town.