Bill Morris – Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner
Success is difficult to define, not always easy to enjoy, seldom permanent, and apparently, nog guarantee of happiness, or so would seem to be the case regarding the life of the 1948 Brownlow Medal winner, Bill Morris.
His would seem to have been a life along the lines of the main character of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 poem, “Richard Cory,” who despite wealth, education and admiration, took his own life, as did Morris in 1960.
William “Bill” Morris (24 April 1921 – 25 May 1960), known to some of his teammates, good naturedly, as “Pale Face,” because of his light complexion, was described as having personal charm to go along with his tall stature and handsomeness.
He also took pride in his appearance, paying meticulous attention to his appearance. On the field, he had a reputation for sportsmanship and fair play and was often observed picking opponents up from the ground after those opponents had been deposited there by Morris’ teammate, Jack Dyer. That sportsmanship resulted in his club, Richmond, recognising him as best and fairest three times. Here is a look at his career from a statistical perspective.
He began his footy career with the Melbourne Seconds, but like many from his era, he put playing football aside for the larger events that were taking place in the world of the late 1930s and 1940s when he joined the army. He returned to the game in 1942, was traded to Richmond, and made his debut in round eight, a victory over Fitzroy.
He would probably have considered himself fortunate, because the Tigers made it to the Grand Final that year after finishing second on the ladder behind only Essendon, with a record of 11 wins against four losses. The Richmond club was able to play only 15 games that year, the same number as several other teams, and one more than quite a few of the other clubs. Wartime travel restrictions prevented completely Geelong from taking part that year, with many of their players accepting transfers to other teams.
Some teams suspended their reserves. Melbourne and Collingwood barely managed to field teams, often filling sides with available service members. The Brownlow Medal and the Victorian Football Association went into a hiatus that persisted until 1946. Still other teams found themselves displaced from their usual venues, as their home grounds were requisitioned for the war effort.
Such was the case when Richmond met Essendon in the 1942 Grand Final. The venue was switched from the MCG to Princes Park. The game was close in the first quarter, but after that, Essendon pulled away for a 53-point margin, despite the efforts of Richmond players such as Jack Titus and Jack Dyer.
That outcome was reversed in 1943, with Richmond beating Essendon by five points. The game was played again in Princes Park. The name of Jack Morris does not appear on the list for Richmond. For that matter, the official record of the AFL indicates that Morris did not appear in 1943 in any round.
Morris reappeared in 1944, playing in 17 games, including a semifinal loss to Fitzroy, a preliminary wind over Essendon, and ultimately, a Grand Final loss to Fitzroy. He kicked 12 goals that season.
He won the first of his three Richmond Best and Fairest awards in 1945. He kicked eight goals, but his side did not advance beyond the home-and-away season. Morris was also a consistent contributor in 1946, but once again, it seems that his misfortune over having missed the premiership season in 1943 would not be erased. He accumulated 19 Brownlow votes in that year where the award was resumed, leaving him in a tie second with Jack Howell, and only one in arrears of that year’s winner, Don Cordner.
The Richmond Football Club put up quite respectable results in 1947. Morris was on the ground for all games except rounds four and five. He kicked just two goals and earned 14 Brownlow votes. Richmond lost its semifinal against Fitzroy after finishing the home-and-away season fourth on the ladder.
Morris received all possible recognition in 1948, winning the Brownlow Medal with 24 votes and receiving his second Best and Fairest award from his team. Morris kicked 15 goals, what would turn out to be his third best in his nine-season VFL career. Richmond managed 11 wins, played to a draw against Essendon, and lost seven times, finishing fifth on the ladder, one game behind Footscray, and thus ineligible for post-season play.
Bill Morris’ final three seasons, 1949-51, were productive for him, not so much for the Tigers. Morris did kick his career high, 19 goals, that year. The team won 10 against nine losses, slipping to sixth on the ladder, well out of the top four. Morris, never prolific from the goal kicking perspective, did have three four-goal games, in round one against Footscray, round 13 against Hawthorn and in round 19 against Geelong, all winning efforts for the side. Morris received just nine Brownlow votes that season. He earned 17 votes in 1950, good for a tie for third. He was also voted Best and Fairest for Richmond for the third time. Richmond again finished middle of the pack and was unable to advance into the premiership rounds.
Morris played his final season in 1951. He had the second highest goal-kicking season of his career, with 17, yet he received only two Brownlow votes. Richmond was in sixth place.
Bill Morris retired from the VFL after the 1951 season. He next spent three seasons as the captain and coach of Box Hill. He won the club’s Best and Fairest each of those three seasons. His scoring escalated considerably when in the course of 58 games he scored 101, compared to the 98 he scored in 140 games with Richmond.
It would seem that his post-football life was to be disappointing, and it turned out to be short. Domestic problems came to a head in the fall of 1960 when his wife left him in March, moving out of their home in East Malvern. Bill Morris had telephoned Mrs. Morris, threatening to do himself harm. She dismissed this as another instance similar to past ones, but on May 27th, after learning that Morris had not turned up for work or been seen, she went to the house and discovered that Morris had followed through on his threat to turn on the gas jets and the coroner declared the cause of death as carbon monoxide poisoning. He was only 39 when he died by his own hand.
He was inducted posthumously in the Richmond Hall of Fame in 2002 and the AFL Hall of Fame in 2009.
Was Morris’ depressed state of mind after his playing days ended the result of brain damage suffered from the many collisions he would no doubt have experienced on the oval? Much attention is given to that potential nowadays, but in the era when Bill Morris played, it was either not known or acknowledged. Without doubt, however, of all the stories associated with the game and all the attention devoted to Brownlow Medal winners, his story is most assuredly tragic.