“I get a call from Joe’s lawyer, and he says, ‘Johnny, I don’t think Joe’s going to last through the night.’ And I mean, you hear that and you’re stunned. You sit there and you are numb, and you remember and remember and remember.”
He kept on.
Of all the departed players, he was closest to Morgan. “We just understood each other,” he said. “As the catcher, I had control of the game. If somebody came in to talk to the pitcher, I went out there, but so did Joe. And if I got there, and they were already talking, well, I knew Joe was telling that pitcher exactly what needed to be said. We had this thing, this little telepathy. We understood each other on the field, and in life.”
By the time Morgan died, on Oct. 11, the losses among baseball’s greats had been mounting unfathomably. Three other Hall of Famers had passed away in the preceding weeks: the stolen base king Lou Brock and the pitching ace Bob Gibson, World Series winners in 1964 and 1967 with the St. Louis Cardinals; and Whitey Ford, the crafty left-handed pitcher who helped the Yankees win six of their eight World Series from 1950 to 1962, missing the 1951 and 1952 seasons while in the Army.
How could it get any worse?
Then came December and the death of the knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro, whose best years were played as an Atlanta Brave. As 2021 began, it was Tommy Lasorda, the charismatic manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers for three decades and two World Series titles. And shortly after that, one of his dominant pitchers, Don Sutton.
Then, on Jan. 22, the beating heart of baseball: Henry Aaron.
“He was simply a man above,” Bench said. “I called him Henry, and did I ever respect him.”