Bill Morlan Pt II: A LIFE DEDICATED TO SERVICE
By BRANDON HURLEY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This week’s Jefferson Herald marks part II of the late Bill Morlan’s extraordinary life. It was a journey that began in Jefferson and suddenly took him to North Dakota, where he helped shatter baseball’s color line. This week, we analyze Morlan’s post-playing career. Check out part I here on Morlan’s baseball days.
Following Bill Morlan’s incredible barnstorming baseball career and sudden washout in North Dakota, he returned to Iowa to marry Ada Faye Davis in 1939. Ada was a 1931 graduate of Scranton High School. Their three boys - Tom, Don and Bruce - distinctly remember living in Jefferson for a few years, attending some of their dad’s ball games, though who exactly he played with escapes their memories.
Surprisingly, despite father Bill’s five year stint in the semi-pro ranks, baseball wasn’t a central theme in the Morlan household.
Hearing of their father’s exploits up north with the likes of Hall of Famer Satchel Paige and other Negro Leaguers surprised the Morlan kids. They heard brief tales from their late mother, Ada, but didn’t know how deep it went. She only recently filled them in on their father’s playing career before she passed a few years back.
Bill did coach in the local California Little League program, but he never elaborated on his successful past. Tom, the oldest of the three Morlan children, remembers attending a few games in Jefferson, but that’s about to the extent he knew of his father’s playing career.
“I remember being taken to some games and watching him play,” Tom said. “That had to have been in Iowa.”
Morlan likely played on the Jefferson town baseball team, at times with his brother Dale. Town baseball was fairly popular until the late 50s and early 60s. The Morlans lived in Jefferson until they moved out west to California in 1948. Father Morlan kept his barnstorming North Dakota days rather hush-hush, even as he matured and grew, leaving his children in the dark along with his color barrier-breaking ways.
“I didn’t get anything straight from him, but my mother gave me some information a few years back,” Don said, who is 76 years old living in California. “She referred to it as being North. One of the things mom told me, he said the man he roomed with was Satchel Paige.”
There is really no concrete way to confirm whether Bill roomed with Paige or not, though it seems likely as the Bismarck team toured the country and even made several visits to Winnipeg, Canada. The team was on the road quite frequently in search of stronger competition, sharing hotel rooms in a time when comfortable accommodations weren’t the easiest to come by for African’Americans. Though in Tom Dunkel’s 2013 book, “Color Blind,” he said the Bismarck didn’t typically have trouble finding rooms for their African American players.
Tom Morlan played Little League and followed the game up through high school in California, but recalls with distinct clarity his father refused to coach his sons’ teams. He didn’t want to dabble in that delicate dance, rather, leaving it up to his sons to learn from someone else. Bruce, now in his mid-60s and youngest of the Morlan children, was the resident baseball-lover. He even managed to parlay his enthusiasm for the sport into a brief semi-pro career, just like his father.
Don, the middle son, only once remembers attending a professional game with his father in LA, likely to watch the Dodgers play. That’s as far as the baseball connection went with the pair. Bill oddly kept his childhood roots close to his chest, despite raising two of their kids in the Greene County area.
“He didn’t talk about growing up in Jefferson,” Don said. “But I don’t think he was a private guy. When we moved to California, he moved on.”
In reality, the Morlans didn’t have much time for the sport of baseball once they left Iowa. Bill gravitated toward the family profession of plumbing, later opening his own plumbing business in Idyllwild, California, which he ran until his death. Instead of learning how to swing a bat, Tom said, he was taught the family trade.
Don vividly recalls his father being of upstanding character, becoming a fireman while joining various service clubs and becoming heavily involved with his church in California. He was a man who loved to offer up his many talents.
“My dad was (a) very good (man),” Don said. “In fact, his obit writer said they had never heard him say something bad about anybody. He was a gentleman.”
That’s not to say “Wild” Bill didn’t have an edge to him. The father of three ran a tight ship at home. Perhaps his Bill’s dream-chasing was something he didn’t want to pass onto his kids. Semi-pro baseball was quickly fading into the past when the kids were born. There wasn’t much money left in the lower-levels.
“Sports weren’t much of an activity in our family,” Tom said matter-of-factly. “(Dad) didn’t talk about baseball much.”
Bill was straight-laced with his kids, but still sought out family fun. The crew navigated the coast line, taking various road trips, looking for a new spot to eat. Despite such cherished memories, there wasn’t a ton of laughter coming from the former catcher and outfielder.
“He was pretty strict (and) stern,” Tom said. “I don’t remember him joking or being lively. He worked hard. We had family rules and we had to abide by them.”
Bill’s intense yet caring demeanor shone through brightest in his service work. He never missed a Sunday mass at the local church and took up an important role with the Idyllwild Fire Department. Tom spent a good chunk of time alongside his father, plumbing and joining him on the local volunteer fire staff.
They even shared the darkest day the Morlan family had ever witnessed up to that point. What began as a normal August afternoon in southern California ended in tragedy in 1961.
Bill had been called out to a structure fire while Tom was just arriving home for lunch. The father was a heavy smoker, often blowing through three packs of cigarettes a day. Coupled with constant smoke inhalation from fire fighting and the intense California heat, Morlan’s final call was a deadly one.
The father of three collapsed while climbing a hill attending to that August fire. Tom received the distress call for backup and arrived on scene just as his father succumbed to the heat and smoke. He was too late, the 50-year old father had sustained a heart attack, taking his life. Bill Morlan passed away serving his community at the young age of 50. His stories forever locked within.
“it was a bad thing that his life was shortened from a heart attack,” Don said.
Don, despite enduring the pain of his father dying at the scene of a roaring blaze, went on to serve with the local fire department for 30 years. He pushed hard to have his father included on a memorial at the California state capital in Sacramento. Bill’s name graces the wall, and it still impacts his middle son whenever he swings by.
Tom, perhaps hurt by his father’s sudden passing, quit the family plumbing business only a year later in 1961, electing to enroll in the Army. He served a stint in Germany as a heavy equipment operator, navigating the divided streets of Mannheim, Germany. After he returned from his time overseas, Tom joined the Idyllwild fire department, likely over the traumatic experience and ready to make his dad proud. In a touching honor to the Morlan blood line, Tom was given his dad’s old position. He’d later move to Hemet, California, where he served with the fire department for 28 years. The Morlans certainly had public service ingrained in their blood, they all helped make a difference in their community, including the youngest boy, Bruce. After his ball playing days wrapped up, Bruce attended seminary school and became a preacher in central California.
In a way, even without sharing the ground-breaking history with his sons, Bill still transferred many of his best characteristics through them, a notion that has carried on for decades.
Morlan and the Bismarck, North Dakota team’s legacy are eternally etched in our country’s history thanks to a spectacularly researched book by Tom Dunkel, published in 2013. The words in “Color Blind” elicit wonderful and insight dance off the page, detailing the unusual rise and sudden fall of a North Dakota team who shattered the color barrier. Dunkel only mentions Morlan by name a small handful of times, but regardless, he’s forever immortalized alongside Paige and the other Negro League greats. Dunkel spent six years researching the book on Bismarck baseball, studying the landscape of North Dakota in the 1930s and analyzing every possible angle of the exceptional league of the Great Plains. Dunkel unfortunately does not spend much time on Morlan, but his connection to Paige and the other Negro Leaguers is noted on occasion. Dunkel’s depth and knowledge of the 1935 National Baseball Congress semi-pro tournament is riveting on its own, and his insight on Neil Churchill, the sometimes manager and frequent owner of the Bismarck team takes one deep into it.
It’s worth the read, if only for the enticing Satchel Paige anecdotes and the shocking ties to Jefferson. Paige would eventually break through Major League Baseball’s color line at the age of 42, signing with the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948.