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Mudville: June 19, 2024 4:56 am PDT

John Morris

"I’ve had a chance to spend my entire adult life to be intimately involved with since I was a boy.”

One of the highest honors anyone can receive in their field is to become a Hall of Famer. It signifies that you have reached the absolute peak in what you do and have drawn widespread appreciation from a group trusted to evaluate those accomplishments in a historical perspective.

As great as that is, contributing positively to this world to the level that you’re called a Hall of Fame person is an even bigger compliment.

Former Cardinal John Morris is both and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

A legend at Seton Hall University where he was the school’s first Baseball America First Team All-American in 1982, Morris’ name is still peppered all over the record book at his alma mater.

In 1982, Morris batted .431 with 85 hits, 19 home runs, 80 RBIs and 79 runs scored and 54 walks in just 54 games. All of those marks were school records at the time. Morris was drafted 10th overall by the Royals in the first round of the subsequent Major League Draft.

Morris has been inducted into the Seton Hall Athletics Hall of Fame, Cape Cod League Hall of Fame and in 2021 was inducted into the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame in the same class as Gil Hodges, Lou Piniella, Tino Martinez and BallNine’s own Kevin Kernan, among others.

In addition to a lifetime in baseball, Morris and his wife have been incredibly active in philanthropic endeavors to support St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, which assists families who have children with cancer. Morris has been able to marry his baseball experience with fundraising for St. Jude’s all in the name of helping children with cancer; a noble endeavor indeed.

Morris is heavily involved in organizing the third annual Give to Live Gala which will be held on April 28, 2023 in Greenwich, Connecticut. Proceeds will benefit the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

In speaking with Morris, it is abundantly clear he is just as proud of his work with St. Jude’s as he is of his baseball accomplishments, of which there are many.

Please join us as we go Spitballin’ with a Hall of Fame person and player, John Morris.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Morris. Always great to talk with a Seton Hall alum! Let’s go back a little earlier than that to start. What was baseball like for you growing up?

I grew up in North Bellmore in Nassau County in New York and I loved baseball from when I was a little boy. I remember as a seven-year-old going to Shea Stadium to watch the Mets. The 1969 Mets left quite an impression on me as a little boy, but I also fell in love with the San Francisco Giants. Willie Mays and Willie McCovey quickly became my two favorite players. I was friends with a lot of kids in our neighborhood and we played baseball in the spring and summer. Then in the fall we played football and roller hockey. Then basketball in the winter. It was great to have a network of kids to play anything with all year long. In high school I played soccer, basketball and baseball. When I started to figure out baseball and really started to do well pitching, I gave up basketball because I kept fouling out all the time anyway.

We played in a big park and the ball didn’t carry well, so we were encouraged to hit the ball on the ground and run like hell.

Smart move! You ended up at Seton Hall where you remain one of the best baseball players to have played for that program. How did you end up at Seton Hall?

When I was a junior in high school I started having some success pitching. One of the big influences in my life at that time was Howie Gershberg, who was the pitching coach at St. John’s. He recruited me and that program was amazing at the time. St. John’s, Seton Hall, UConn and the University of Maine were the big programs in the Northeast. St. John’s wanted me to come pitch and I would have pitched with Frank Viola and John Franco there. But I also suspected that if I didn’t want to pitch anymore, that wasn’t going to be a good place for me to stay. The field was so big and it wasn’t an ideal place to showcase yourself as a hitter.

At the same time, Seton Hall was recruiting me. My oldest brother actually was a track star at Seton Hall in the 1970s. When it came down to a decision, it was going to be commuting to St. John’s or going away to the University of Tampa or Seton Hall if I wanted to stay in the Northeast where I could be away from home and learn how to grow up. I thought Seton Hall offered me the best of everything. It was a good school with a great baseball program and I had the option to pitch or hit. I was grateful that I made the right decision for myself.

John Morris #16 of the St. Louis Cardinals looks on before a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 15, 1990 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

A ton of great players have come out of Seton Hall and you’re one of the best. You’re a member of the Seton Hall Athletics Hall of Fame and still all over their record books. Can you tell us about your experience playing for Seton Hall?

My freshman year I didn’t play much; I pitched about 20 innings and had about 20 at bats. I hit a bunch of bouncing singles through the middle. I didn’t hit particularly well in high school either. Combine that with not playing much my freshman year, one might ask how I was able to flip the switch. I was really fortunate that my sophomore year I had this incredible combination of coaches. I call them the three-headed monster. You had Head Coach Mike Sheppard who was a disciplinarian. Ed Blankmeyer had just come on the staff and he taught me the nuances of base running, outfield defense and executing fundamentals. Then there was Fred Hopke who helped me so much with my hitting approach and confidence level. I learned that there was a left side of second base. He taught me to drive balls into left-center because to that point, I was hooking ground balls to the second baseman. It was the combination of those three and learning how to lift weights properly and have the proper nutrition got me bigger, faster and stronger and that all helped me reach my potential there.

Was there a time there where you thought you had a future as a professional baseball player?

It kind of came in phases. Going into my sophomore year I became the centerfielder then the next thing I knew I was leading off. Then I was stealing bases, driving the ball and scoring runs. I was starting to figure out that I could play at a higher level. Towards the end of my sophomore year, Ed Blankmeyer approached me and asked if I was interested in playing in the Cape Cod League. I reluctantly said yes. I was scared to death of being exposed. I knew I was a good regional player, but playing against more nationally renowned players was going to be tough. My first two weeks, I struggled terribly. My coach was Joe Arnold. He was the Head Coach at Florida Southern and had a calm demeanor. He didn’t say anything for two weeks but he finally came up to me and said he had two things he could help me with hitting. He said, “First, you’re barring out your front arm.” Then he walked away. I said, “Joe, you said there were two things. What’s the other?” He said, “Johnny, you’re the best player in this league. I suggest you start acting like it.”

That was maybe the most important thing anyone ever said to me in baseball. He saw something in me that I could not see in myself. I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but I got three hits that night, hit for the cycle the next night and went on a 20-game hitting streak. I wound up winning the MVP of the Cape Cod League and I don’t think it had anything to do with fixing my arm. It had more to do with someone seeing more in me that I could see in myself. I still use that story when I speak to young people about being capable of doing more than they give themselves credit for.  

Cardinals players (L to R) Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, and John Morris celebrate following a game circa 1987 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by St. Louis Cardinals, LLC/Getty Images)

You’re still one of only four guys to be drafted in the top ten picks of the first round out of Seton Hall and that group doesn’t even include Mo Vaughn or Craig Biggio. Take us through your draft experience.

My success at the Cape elevated my draft status and Coach Sheppard wasn’t going to let me rest on my laurels. He kept me grounded, made sure I hustled on and off the field and ran out all the ground balls. If I got three hits today, nothing was guaranteed tomorrow. I just had to show up and play. When I got drafted, I was surprised I was picked as high as I was. I thought I had a chance to go later in the first round, but 10th in the first round to Kansas City was great. I also had no idea that the Royals were interested in me. I never heard from them leading up to the draft.

You made your Major League debut in August of 1986. What was it like getting the call and becoming a Big Leaguer?

I did well in A Ball and had done very well in AA. Then I got to AAA and got to experience what real good pitching was about. I got stuck in AAA for about two and a half years playing against a lot of veteran pitchers who knew how to pitch. Pitchers would throw curve balls in fastball counts and were real good at moving pitches around and it made things tough. When I got to the Big Leagues, I had still been struggling in AAA. Willie McGee got hurt and we were 30 games behind the Mets, so Whitey Herzog said, “Let’s bring the kid up and see what he could do.” I quickly found out that I had a niche as a bench player and that being an everyday player in the Majors was not in my future. I thought to myself that I could either make the best of it or fight it and complain. I chose to become a really good bench player.

John Morris of the Philadelphia Phillies prepares for a collision as New York Mets' catcher Mackey Sasser puts on a good block at Shea Stadium. Phils' Steve Lake hit a ball over the head of Mets' Daryl Boston who threw home to Sasser in the 4th.

The Mets ran away with it in 1986, but it was a different story in 1987. You guys basically led wire-to-wire and won the NL East. What do you remember about that team?

It was a great year; probably the most fun baseball year of my life. We had an amazing team that was really a track team in baseball spikes. Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton and Tommy Herr all were prolific base stealers. The hitting philosophy was to take advantage of the Astroturf. We played in a big park and the ball didn’t carry well, so we were encouraged to hit the ball on the ground and run like hell. We didn’t strike out a lot and put the ball in play. It drove teams nuts because if most of us ended up on first, there was a good chance we’d end up on third. We put pressure on defenses and pitchers, caused wild pitches, passed balls and balks. Teams would find creative ways of slowing us down. They’d water down home plate and turn it into mud. They’d let the infield grass grow out. This happened in Chicago and San Francisco. The Mets would turn the area in front of home plate into a lake. It became interesting watching how teams would approach us.

I remember the Cardinals from that era for great pitching and defense too.

We had really good left-handed pitching coupled with the best left-side infield defense on the planet with Ozzie and Pendleton. We had all these left-handed sinkerballers like John Tudor, Joe Magrane, Ricky Horton, Greg Mathews and Ken Dayley. They would get right-handed hitters to hook the ball on the ground all day to the left side where you had two Gold Glove defenders waiting. They threw a ton of strikes too. It didn’t surprise me that we performed as well as we did in 1987.

Jack Clark was such a dangerous guy on that team too but didn’t really fit the mold of everyone else. He hit 35 homers in 1987 and the next closest guy was Pendleton with 12.

That was our plan. Hit the ball on the ground, steal bases and wait for Jack Clark to hit a three-run homer. He missed the last month of the year with a high-ankle sprain. I think that cost us in the playoffs. He was a great teammate and a great player on the field. My locker was right next to him for three years and I learned a lot from him. He was like everyone’s big brother.

(Original Caption) Left to right are Jon Warden, who played for the Detroit Tigers for a year in 1968, John Morris, former player for the Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, and California Angels, Lou Brock, former Chicago Cubs and then St. Louis Cardinals player, and Zach Lutz, of Gov Mifflin High School, who was there to recieve the George ``Whitey`` Kurowksi Award Berks County High School Most Valuable Player. They were at the Riveredge Hotel in Bern twp for the Reading Hot Stovers 44th Annual Banquet. Warden, Morris, and Brock were there as speakers.Photo by Ben Hasty (Photo By MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

What was that experience like to play in the World Series in your second year?

I thought it was great to play in the World Series in my second year. I figured we’d get back every year, but that was the only time. There have been many, many great players who never got a chance to do it at all. Ernie Banks comes to mind. I’m grateful I had a chance to do it once, even though we lost. We had five guys from the [New York] metropolitan area in that World Series and four were from Long Island! Me and Gene Larkin were from North Bellmore, Frank Viola was from East Meadow and Sal Butera from Suffolk County.

The Giants were really good led by Will Clark, Chili Davis and Jeffrey Leonard. We came back to St. Louis down 3-2 and Game 6 was an amazing game. We won 1-0 when Candy Maldonado lost a ball in the lights that Jose Oquendo hit. We were fortunate to blow them out in Game 7. I thought it was important to win one game in San Francisco and we won Game 3 there. That World Series nobody won a game on the road. The home team won every game and they had home field advantage. We couldn’t win a game on the road and that’s on us. Congratulations to the Twins.

The Metrodome was so loud and the Cardinals are known for having great fans too. Having played in St. Louis for five years, what was your relationship like with the Cardinal fans?

Cardinal fans are amazing for a variety of reasons. They’re very loyal and have a tremendous amount of respect for the history of the franchise going back to the Gashouse Gang in the 1930s. They really appreciate fundamental play and they pay attention to the game. They come out year after year to the game, all wearing red. The only time they have a problem with you is if you don’t hustle and I would have a problem with that too. I always have a soft spot in my heart for Cardinals fans.

Former Major Leaguer John Morris (left) with Francisco Lindor and donors from a St. Jude Children's Hospital fundraising event. The donors who submitted the winning bid were able to spend time with Lindor at Citi Field prior to a game in 2022. This year's St. Jude's Give to Live Gala is April 28 in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Whitey Herzog was your manager all five years there. What was it like playing for a Hall of Fame manager in Whitey?

I loved playing for Whitey Herzog. He was an amazing man and manager. I would watch him work the room every day and he was masterful at making the 25th guy feel as important as the All Stars. He made it a point to ask about the wife, kids, golf game, fishing. He knew how to connect with his players every day. He let you know that he knew you were in the room. He’d say, “Be ready in the ninth inning, we might need you against Goose Gossage.” He always had a way of letting you know that you had value. Take Tom Lawless. He didn’t play much, but he was maybe the best pinch runner in baseball. Whitey always picked the right spots with him to pinch run. I enjoyed watching how Whitey mastered the art of building relationships and I tried to carry that into my career of coaching, scouting and real life. We’re in the people business. Whitey was my favorite manager and Willie Mays was my favorite player and they’re the two oldest living Hall of Famers!

That’s a pretty incredible duo! This has been great; I really appreciate the time you have taken with us. Just one last question for you. You went from growing up loving baseball as a kid on Long Island to a Major Leaguer and part of multiple Halls of Fame. What do you think of when you reflect on everything you have been able to accomplish in baseball?

I’ve had a chance to spend my entire adult life to be intimately involved with since I was a boy. To be 62 and still be involved, I am very appreciative. I’m very appreciative to all the organizations that gave me a chance besides the Cardinals too; the Royals, Phillies and Angels. I am very grateful to be able to work for the Reds in their scouting department too. As I realize that I’m closer to the finish line than the starting line, the thing that I am most proud of is working with my wife with St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. My wife is on an advisory council with St. Jude Leadership Society and I am on an advisory council that works with teenage leaders around the country to develop the next generation of philanthropic leaders for the world-leading hospital in Memphis.

It’s something I’ve really attached myself to in the last few years. The Reds are so supportive of me acting in that role too. That makes me feel great. We’re working with the Mets and Yankees too for fundraising galas. We have a gala coming up on April 28 and the goal is to raise one million dollars. We had Francisco Lindor involved in a meet-and-greet last year and had Jacob deGrom several years ago. Aaron Judge, Tim Naehring and Suzyn Waldman with the Yankees have been incredibly supportive. The intention is to help kids with cancer and give them a chance to have a life. It’s something I am really proud of. It’s something very special that I can wrap my arms around it and connect it with baseball.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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