Mr. Early was a old-style, cigar-puffing Democrat who represented a working-class district centered on his home town of Worcester. He was a member of the Appropriations Committee and was best known for steering federal funding to his district and for supporting projects of the National Institutes of Health.
He was credited with being a major force in securing NIH research grants for the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. The medical school and its affiliated operations became the city’s largest employer. He supported the New Deal social safety net and helped pass legislation for fuel subsidies for the poor.
“I’m doing things that I think are very important for this district and this state,” Mr. Early said in 1989. “I’m not moving up in anything visible but that doesn’t bother me.”
Mr. Early sponsored no major legislation during his 18 years in Congress and several times was named by the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call as one of the “10 most obscure” members of the House.
“He is a classic, low-profile, inside legislative and political person,” Kenneth J. Moynihan, a history professor at Worcester’s Assumption College, told the Boston Globe in 1989. “I think he would have to make a colossal mistake to lose that seat.”
Mr. Early lost his obscurity — and much more — in 1992, when he was implicated in a House banking scandal. At the time, the House had a self-run bank on which members could write checks. Mr. Early was one of about two dozen congressmen who bounced hundreds of checks — in his case, 140 — and whose accounts were overdrawn.
When he tried to plead his case, the key leaders of an ethics subcommittee would not meet with him and left him speaking to an almost empty chamber.
“They ran like rats!” Mr. Early thundered. “They ran! What’s wrong with going eyeball to eyeball when you’re not afraid?”
It was also revealed in 1992 that Mr. Early’s brother had been on the House payroll, making $72,000 a year as director of a publication distribution service. George Early, who died in 1991, had been promoted to the job in the office of the House doorkeeper ahead of other workers with more experience, but the congressman maintained his innocence.
“I didn’t get him the job,” Mr. Early said.
Mr. Early was never convicted of any wrongdoing, but the ethics cloud spelled the end of his political career. He lost his seat in 1992 to Republican Peter I. Blute.
Joseph Daniel Early was born Jan. 31, 1933, in Worcester. He graduated in 1955 from his home town’s College of the Holy Cross, where he played on the basketball team that won the 1954 National Invitational Tournament.
He served in the Navy from 1955 to 1957, then became a high school teacher and basketball coach in Massachusetts.
Mr. Early entered politics in 1962, winning election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives by a single vote. He served six terms in the legislature before being elected to Congress.
Survivors include his wife, Marilyn Powers Early of Worcester, eight children and 23 grandchildren.
Mr. Early did not hire a press secretary and, after first being elected to public office in 1962, did not hold his first news conference until 1990.
“Most of you don’t know who I am,” he announced.
At the end of the news conference, he said, “I assure you we won’t have another one for another 28 years.”