Obituary: Billy Moran (1933-2021)

RIP to Billy Moran, an All-Star second infielder who had a 7-year career in the majors in the 1950s and ’60s. He died on October 21 at the age of 87. Moran played for the Cleveland Indians (1958-59, 1964-65) and Los Angeles Angels (1961-64).

William Nelson Moran was born in Montgomery, Ala., on November 27, 1933, and he grew up in East Point, Ga. His father, Joe, was an amateur pitcher and hoped Billy would become the next hurler in the family, but the boy found his home in the infield instead. The younger Moran attended Russell High School in Atlanta, and in 1950 he was named the Honor Boy Athlete of the Year, in a program sponsored by the Atlanta Constitution. He was also one of the top backs in the city when it came to football and a starting shortstop on a Gate City amateur club in the summer. He also placed in the top three in a city-wide field day contest for the 200-yard dash and football throw contests.

When it came to athletics, Moran had his choice of sports to play. His Russell High football coach, Alex Truitt, thought that he could have been a gridiron star.

“Billy is the best all-around athlete with whom I have ever worked,” Truitt said. “He did our punting, passing and plenty of our tackling. He ran back punts as well as any you’ll see, and he is a magnificent runner.” His baseball coach Larry Dodd echoed those sentiments. “He is the finest all-round baseball player I have ever coached or seen,” he said.

Auburn University gave Moran a football scholarship in January of 1952. However, he got his wish to play baseball when he signed with the Cleveland Indians that June for a bonus that the Constitution reported was at least $40,000. Scout Joe Sewell called him “one of the best young infielders we have seen in many a moon.” He was initially compared to famed Southern infielders Luke Appling and Marty Marion.

Source: Akron Beacon Journal, March 16, 1965

Moran debuted with the Green Bay Bluejays in July of 1952 and hit .277 in 63 games. He played in Cleveland’s low minors in 1953 and ’54, when he wasn’t attending Georgia Tech University. He hit consistently in his first couple of seasons but struggled in 1954 while playing for Class-A Reading of the Eastern League. He batted just .242 and slugged .332. He then entered the military, where his baseball career continued at Fort McPherson, an Army base located in Atlanta. The Macs had a strong baseball team that included major-league pitchers Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell and Billy O’Dell and second baseman, Frank Bolling, as well as future big-leaguers Taylor Phillips (pitcher), Norm Siebern (outfielder) and Moran. In 1955, the shortstop had 4 hits, including a grand slam home run, to help dismantle Donaldson Air Force Base 16-0.

Corporal Moran was discharged from the Army in December of 1956, after two years out of organized baseball but two sensational seasons at Fort McPherson. Cleveland sent him to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1957, and his return to the pros was a rocky one. He batted .211 with 4 home runs for the Padres, though he played very good defense at second base and shortstop. Still, it was with some surprise that Moran came to spring training in 1958 with a very good chance of making the Cleveland roster. The Indians needed a reserve middle infielder, and coach Eddie Stanky worked with Moran to help him adjust to second base, and Tris Speaker and Bob Kennedy gave him batting tips.

Akron Beacon Journal sportswriter Jim Schlemmer said that each morning, Moran had his roommates Gary Geiger or Carroll Hardy look out the window and assure him he was still in Tucson and not back in Triple-A in San Diego. But before long, Moran proved his presence in training camp was no accident. He hit over .300, driving the ball with power to all fields, and his play in the middle infield was excellent. He earned his roster spot.

Moran spent 1958 as a backup to shortstop Billy Hunter and second baseman Bobby Avila. He batted .226 but played very well defensively. The batting average might not look great, but Moran showed strong growth during the season. He got a hit in his very first game, singling off Kansas City’s Ned Garver on April 15 as the Opening Day second baseman. After a hot start, Moran fell into a deep slump, and his batting average fell into the .180s. His only home run of the season, a 3-run blast off Washington’s Chuck Stobbs on June 13, briefly pushed it over .200. Moran started hitting the ball well in the second half of the season. He started nearly every game at second base or shortstop in the second half of August and batted .328 in that span.

“You’ve heard what they say of major-league pitching. It’s all true. In the minors you meet a really good pitcher every fourth or fifth night. In the majors you see one every game,” Moran said after the season. “Still, I believe I can improve. It was encouraging to better my average at the end of the season. Gave me a lot of confidence.”

Cleveland improved its infield considerably for the 1959 season, adding second baseman Billy Martin and shortstop Woodie Held. Moran found himself back in San Diego for the bulk of the season, only rejoining the Indians in August after Martin had his jaw broken by a fastball. With limited opportunities to play, Moran hit .294 in 11 games. Cleveland kept him in the minor leagues with the Toronto Maple Leafs for all of 1960 and half of 1961.

The thing that wrecked his chances with Cleveland wasn’t his bat; it was his brain. Moran asked in 1960 if he could report to spring training 10 days late in order to complete his classes at Georgia Tech. General manager Frank Lane didn’t see it as a reasonable request. “If that dumb so-and-so thinks getting an education is more important than playing baseball he’ll not report to Tucson at all,” he declared, as reported by the Akron Beacon Journal in a 1966 article. Sure enough, Moran didn’t play for Cleveland again until much later in his career.

Moran finally started to shed the dreaded “good field no hit” label in 1961, when he hit an even .300 in Toronto. His major-league career was resuscitated by the Los Angeles Angels, who purchased his contract in June of 1961. In his third game with the Angels, he played all 14 innings of a game in Baltimore and went 3-for-6 with a 2-run homer, a walk and a sacrifice hit. He played steady ball and rattled off a 12-game hitting streak to finish the season with a .260 batting average in 54 games.

That taste of success set the stage for an All-Star 1962 season. The Angels installed Moran as the starting second baseman, and he responded by slashing .282/.324/.407. He played in 160 games and reached career highs with 17 home runs, 80 RBIs, 186 hits and 90 runs scored. He also went 58 games into the season before committing his first error at second base. After the season, he even picked up a few MVP votes.

According to one story, Moran’s turnaround was helped along by one of his teammates. Early in the season, Moran struck out, and as he walked to the bench, he threw his bat down and said to himself, “I’ll always be a .200 hitter.” Then Eli Grba grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “You’re darn right Billy Moran. As long as you think you’re only a .200 hitter that’s all you’ll ever be!” Maybe that change in mindset accounted for some of the second baseman’s success.

Moran was selected as the starting second baseman for the AL in both of the 1962 All-Star Games, beating out bigger-name stars like Nellie Fox or Bobby Richardson. He was 1-for-3 in the July 10 game, which the NL won 3-1. He was a part of the most controversial play in the game on July 30. With the AL leading 4-1 in the seventh inning, Brooks Robinson walked against Turk Farrell, and Moran hit a looper into center field. Hank Aaron raced in and made a diving attempt at a catch. With Robinson caught between first and second base, it looked like an inning-ending double play. However, umpire Ken Burkhardt ruled that Aaron trapped the ball, and both runners were safe. Roger Maris forced Moran for the second out of the inning, but then Rocky Colavito smashed a 3-run homer to give the AL an insurmountable 7-1 lead. The final score was 9-3.

Moran earned a Bachelor of Science in industrial management from Georgia Tech in 1963 — 11 years after he started. He joked that he took so long to complete his classes that one of the instructors in his class was a former classmate. When asked about his future after baseball, Moran said, “I have to find out what industrial management means first. I’ll tell you this, it’ll never mean managing a baseball team.” Unlike Cleveland, where his higher education got him run out of town, the Angels encouraged it. Gene Autry reportedly attended his graduation ceremony.

Moran couldn’t repeat his success in 1963, though he had another solid season. He batted .275 with 7 homers and 65 RBIs, and he led the AL in putouts and assists by a second baseman. He also led in errors committed, though, and his fielding percentage fell from .986 to .973. In 1964, the Angels wanted to move Moran to third base, with newcomer Bobby Knoop taking his place at second. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Moran, who injured his throwing arm and didn’t play much in the spring. Once the season started, Moran hit .268, but he struggled to play the hot corner well, with a .929 fielding percentage. He was part of the three-team trade between the Angels, Cleveland and the Minnesota Twins on June 11. The Twins got Frank Kostro from Los Angeles and Jerry Kindall from Cleveland. The Angels got Lenny Green and Vic Power from the Twins, and Cleveland re-acquired Moran.

Moran’s first game with Cleveland happened to come against his old Angels teammates on June 11, and he hit a pinch-hit single off Bob Lee that spurred a game-tying rally. As a whole, though, Cleveland got exactly the opposite from Moran that Los Angeles had. Moran hit pretty well with the Angels but struggled to field. In Cleveland, he handled third base well, but he couldn’t hit. His average with his new team hovered around .200, and he played himself into and out of the starting lineup. Cleveland bounced him back and forth between the big league club and Triple-A Portland in 1965, and he had just 3 hits in 25 at-bats in the majors. It was the final season of Moran’s ballplaying career. In an attempt to get out of Cleveland, Moran asked permission in 1966 to secure a deal with a different club. The only club that interested him was the Braves, who had just moved into his home town of Atlanta. The Braves, however, had a surplus of infielders and didn’t need another, so Moran opted to make his offseason job of selling insurance his full-time job, retiring from baseball at the age of 32.

Billy Moran, left, is welcomed back to Cleveland by manager George Strickland. Source: The Atlanta Constitution, June 12, 1964.

In seven seasons, Moran had a .263/.308/.355 slash line, with 545 hits that included 88 doubles, 10 triples and 28 home runs. He scored 242 runs and drove in 202 more. He had a .976 fielding percentage at second base and twice led the American League in both putouts and assists.

After baseball, he formed Bill Moran and Associates, an insurance business located in Fairburn, Ga., returning occasionally to the diamond to participate in Old-Timers’ games. He was a source of baseball expertise whenever a sportswriter needed some information about a baseball player of note. When rookie manager George “Sparky” Anderson started to make a name for himself with the Reds in 1970, who better to give a rundown of the man than Moran, who knew of Anderson as a friend, a teammate, an opponent and, in Los Angeles, a landlord?

“I predict that although most people don’t know who Sparky was when the season began, everybody will know him by the end of this season,” Moran said astutely. “I always figured he’d be a great manager if he would just act like Sparky, not be too intense and not try to overcoach.”

Moran’s biggest regret, he said, was accepting the position change from second base to third base with the Angels, knowing that his arm wasn’t strong enough to handle the throws from third after years of playing second and shortstop. “I was so rah-rah-rah for the game,” he said, explaining why he went along with Angels manager Bill Rigney. “And of course, I had no idea wat the consequences might be. If I had my career to do over again, though, that is one thing I would have changed. I wouldn’t have done it because it was a bad decision on my part.”

Moran was married twice, to Peggy and to Annette, his wife of 41 years. He is survived by her, three sons and two stepdaughters.

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