Obituary: Joe Morgan (1943-2020)

RIP to Joe Morgan, considered by many to be the heart and soul behind the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, as well as one of the greatest second baseman in baseball history. He died on October 11 in Danville, Calif., at the age of 77. A statement from his family said that he died from a nerve condition called polyneuropathy. Morgan played for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros (1963-71, 1980), Cincinnati Reds (1972-79), San Francisco Giants (1981-82), Philadelphia Phillies (1983) and Oakland Athletics (1984).

“Joe wasn’t just the best second baseman in baseball history, he was the best player I ever saw and one of the best people I’ve ever known,” Johnny Bench told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He was a dedicated father and husband, and a day won’t go by that I won’t think about his wisdom and friendship. He left the world a better, fairer, and more equal place than he found it, and inspired millions along the way.”

Joe Leonard Morgan was born on September 19, 1943, in Bonham, Texas, but his family moved to Oakland when he was five years old. He attended Castlemount High School and then Oakland City College. He was named to the Big Eight Conference baseball team in 1962 as a unanimous pick for second base. Morgan was spotted by Bob Murray, who was a part-time scout for Houston and a full-time car salesman who also sold the ballplayer a new automobile. Murray initially had him pegged to play second base for his amateur Fitzpatrick Chevrolet ballclub, not the Colt .45’s. Morgan was recommended as “a kid with sure hands.”

“It didn’t take him long to prove that he had a heckuva lot more than that,” Murray told the Oakland Tribune. “He stands only 5’6-1/2″ and doesn’t weigh more than 150 but he packs an amazing amount of power. And he can fly on the bases.” Baseball Reference lists his playing height at 5’7″ and weight at 160 pounds. Morgan ended up with the nicknames of “Little Joe” and “Little General” as a result of his stature.

Morgan later acknowledged that his size was held against him when scouts looked at him. They thought he wouldn’t be durable, but he quickly proved that his size wasn’t a disadvantage — most of the time.

Source: Austin American-Statesman, July 9, 1965.

“Only when I’m the pivot man on double plays,” he said with a grin. “Sometimes it’s tough to see our first baseman when some big guy comes barreling to second base straight up.”

Morgan signed with Houston on October 31, 1962. The next year, he reported to the Modesto Colts of the California League. He was leading the league in stolen bases (21 in 45 games) when the parent club moved him to the Durham Bulls. Morgan batted .332 with 107 hits in 95 games and was named a Carolina League All-Star. Before he had completed his first professional season, he was promoted to the majors at the age of 19.

Morgan made his debut on September 21, 1963, against the Phillies and popped out against Dallas Green. The very next day, he hit a walk-off RBI single against Johnny Klippstein to lead Houston to a 2-1 win over the Phillies. It was his first major-league hit.

Morgan was a part of one of the most infamous starting lineups of all-time when the Colt 45’s fielded an all-rookie team on September 27 against the Mets. The age of the starting lineup was 19, and starting pitcher Jay Dahl was 17. Predictably, the Mets pounded the youngsters 10-3. Morgan was 2-for-5 with an RBI triple. That starting lineup included Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, Rusty Staub and Jerry Grote, so Houston’s farm system was pretty loaded. They didn’t do much with the talent besides make other teams better through bad trades, though.

Morgan hit .240 in 8 games in 1963 and started 1964 with the AA San Antonio Bullets. He knocked in 90 runs with 12 homers and hit .323 — second-best in the Texas League — with 47 stolen bases. While he managed a mere .189 batting average in a 10-game September callup, Morgan had nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.

The newly renamed Houston Astros finished 65-97 in 1965, but Morgan was a revelation. Playing 157 games, he slashed .271/.373/.418 and led all of baseball with 97 walks. He also hit 14 home runs while playing in the cavernous Astrodome for half the season. One of those home runs came against Sandy Koufax and landed in the second deck in right field. Morgan went 6-for-6 on July 8 with two home runs, a stolen base, 3 RBIs and 4 runs scored, but the Astros still lost 9-8 in 12 innings to the Milwaukee Braves. Morgan could only do so much for a woebegone team.

Morgan was robbed of the Rookie of the Year Award, and the fact that the Astros were a ninth-place team probably had something to do with it. The winner, Jim Lefebvre, hit .250 with 12 home runs and 69 RBIs, but he played for the World Series-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. “If Joe Morgan isn’t rookie of the year, they’d better stop giving the award,” said Morgan’s manager Luman Harris, in September. Morgan would end up with a full trophy case in spite of this particular injustice.

Morgan was named to the All-Star Team in 1966, but he was unable to play after suffering a broken kneecap during batting practice in June. Fittingly, Lefebvre made his only All-Star appearance and got the start in Morgan’s absence. The injury slowed down an otherwise fine season, as Morgan hit .285 and got on base at a .410 clip. He was batting .319 at the time he was hurt and missed the entire month of July. He hit just one home run in the second half of the season, giving him a mere 5 on the year.

There is no bigger indictment against the Astrodome that Joe Morgan’s Houston career. It’s… fine. He had some pretty good seasons, making two All-Star teams as an Astro in 1966 and 1970. He also missed most of the 1968 season when the Mets’ Tommee Agee took him out at second base to break up a double play. The collision left Morgan with torn ligaments in his knee, and he underwent season-ending surgery. That leaves Morgan with six full seasons in his first go-around with the Astros. In those six seasons, he hit .264, with an average of 140 hits, 22 doubles, 9 triples, 10 home runs, 46 RBIs, 31 stolen bases and 95 bases on balls. Morgan’s recovery from the knee surgery was a slow one. He batted .236 in 1969, albeit with 15 home runs, 49 stolen bases and 110 walks. His next couple of seasons in Houston were an improvement, but by the end of the 1971 season, Morgan was trade bait.

The trade between Houston and Cincinnati came on November 29, 1971. Morgan, Ed Armbrister, Jack Bellingham, Cesar Geronimo and Denis Menke all went to the Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart. Before that deal went down, Morgan had been the constant target of trade rumors, as Houston seemed bound and determined to ship him off. There were vague rumors that Morgan was a “troublemaker,” too, and he vehemently denied that. He put the source for that rumor on Astros manager Harry Walker.

“It seemed like anyone who friendly with Jimmy [Wynn] was labeled a troublemaker by Harry,” Morgan said. “Well, I was friends with him before Harry got to Houston, and I’ll be friends with him when Harry’s gone.”

Morgan acknowledged that he hadn’t been playing his game, because Houston needed him to be more of a power hitter. “Now I can just try to get on base. I set a goal of scoring 100 runs every year, getting 100 walks and driving in 50 runs. I want to hit .300, too, but I haven’t been able to do that yet.”

The Cincinnati press, initially, wasn’t fond of the deal. Helms and May represented a big part of the team’s leadership, and Helms was offensively on par with Morgan. However, nobody had seen the new Red play like he wanted to play.

Right off the bat, Morgan made an impact with the Reds. He slashed .292/.417/.435 in 1972, leading MLB with 122 runs and 115 walks. He hit 16 home runs, drove in 73 runs and stole 58 bases. The Reds won the NL pennant with a win over the Pirates in the NL Championship Series, and Morgan hit 2 homers in the series. As for being a clubhouse troublemaker, the biggest argument was which Red should win the Most Valuable Player Award. Morgan thought it should go to Johnny Bench, and Bench felt Morgan deserved it. Bench got the award, and Morgan finished fourth. He did win the All-Star Game MVP Award by slamming a walk-off 2-run homer off the Orioles’ Dave McNally for a 4-3 win.

Morgan finished in the Top 10 in MVP voting in each of the next two seasons. He also hit over 20 home runs in 1972 and ’73, while continuing to follow through on his goals of 100 runs scored and 100 bases on balls. He won the Gold Glove Award at second base for the first time in his career; he would win the award every year between 1973 and 1977. The Reds fell short of postseason glory each season, but they rebounded to win back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976. Not so coincidentally, Morgan had his best seasons, winning the MVP Award each year. He remains the only second baseman to be named MVP in consecutive seasons.

Morgan smashed the .300 goal in 1975 with a .327 batting average, good enough for fourth in the NL. He was best in baseball with 132 walks, a .466 on-base percentage and a .974 OPS. He batted .273 in the NLCS, as the Reds defeated Pittsburgh again. He wasn’t as dominant in the World Series, with a .259 average in the seven-game series against Boston. He did, though, drive in the go-ahead run of Game Seven by singling in Ken Griffey to give the Reds a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth inning.

Morgan was the obvious choice for the MVP Award, and his margin of victory over runner-up Greg Luzinski was the largest in the history of the vote to that point. “To me, there is more to baseball than just hitting and running,” Morgan said. “But winning the award this year over guys who hit more homers or drive in more runs — that proved the man who can play well in every phase of the game still is appreciated.”

The 1976 Big Red Machine was even better than the 1975 version, and so was Morgan. He slashed .320/.444/.576, leading the NL in both on-base and slugging percentage. His 1.020 OPS was tops in baseball, and he set career highs in home runs (27) and RBIs (111). He also stole 60 bases in 69 attempts and hit an MLB-leading 12 sacrifice flies. The Reds swept both the Phillies in the NLCS and the Yankees in the World Series. Morgan was hitless against Philadelphia, though he walked 6 times and scored twice. He was 5-for-15 in the World Series and scored the first run of the Series by homering off Doyle Alexander in the first inning of Game One.

Once again, the crowning of Morgan as the NL MVP was almost anticlimactic, because it was just such a dominant season. He finished 90 points ahead of the runner-up, teammate George Foster. With Pete Rose in fourth place and Griffey in eighth, the Reds put four players in the top ten.

The Reds would make just one more trip to the postseason, losing to the Pirates in the 1979 NLCS. Morgan was hitless in the three-game sweep. By then, his numbers had fallen off from his MVP seasons. He had a fine 1977 season, batting .278 with 22 homers, 113 runs scored and 117 bases on balls. It was the final season he broke three digits in either category. Morgan suffered an abdominal muscle injury in 1978, and the resulting discomfort sapped his speed and dropped his batting average to .236. He recovered somewhat to hit .250 in 1979, and the Reds elected to let him depart via free agency at the end of the season.

Morgan was 36 years old in 1980 but not ready to retire. He signed with his old team, the Houston Astros, and the team managed to do something it had never done with Morgan: advance to the postseason. Despite hitting just .243, Morgan led the NL in walks with 93 as the Astros won 93 games to finish first in the NL West. They fell to the eventual champion Phillies in the NLCS, and Morgan was limited to a double and triple in 13 at-bats.

Morgan signed with the Giants for the 1981 season and spent a couple of years with them. He hit .289 in 1982 with 14 homers and 24 stolen bases, dispelling any notions he was too old at 38 to play well. The Giants traded him to the Phillies for 1983, and he helped guide yet another team into the postseason. Morgan was a .230 hitter in the regular season with 16 homers, despite playing most of the season with aching legs, and he hit .263 in the World Series in a losing effort to the Baltimore Orioles. He homered twice in the Series and scored 3 of the Phillies 9 runs.

Morgan finished his career with the Oakland A’s, his adopted hometown, in 1984. He batted .244 in 116 games, and though he turned 40 toward the end of the season, he started 99 of those games. For as long as Morgan’s career was, he spent very little of it on the bench as a part-time player.

Morgan played for 22 seasons in the majors and had a slash line of .271/.392/.427. He had 2,517 hits that included 449 doubles, 96 triples and 268 home runs. He stole 689 bases and drew 1,865 walks against 1,015 strikeouts. Morgan also drove in 1,133 runs and scored 1,650 times. He won five Gold Glove Awards, two MVPs, a Silver Slugger Award (in 1982 with the Giants) and was named to 10 All-Star teams. The Cincinnati Reds have retired Morgan’s #8 and honored him with a statue outside of the Great American Ballpark.

Among all second baseman, Morgan is near the top of most offensive categories. If you are looking for the best-ever second baseman, it basically comes down to Morgan and Rogers Hornsby. Hornsby has the more dazzling batting average and a few more homers, but he also played in a very different, pre-integration era. Factor in speed and fielding, and Morgan gets the edge in my opinion. There have been great second basemen after Morgan, including Jeff Kent and Ryne Sandberg, but nobody had his all-around talent.

Morgan was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990, his first year of eligibility. He would stay active with the Hall and later served as a vice chairman of the organization. He did some broadcasting for the Reds and Giants before moving to ESPN, where he was teamed with Jon Miller for a memorable broadcasting booth. He was on the network for 21 years until he was let go in 2010. His analysis was usually spot-on, but his old-school attitude toward baseball sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. He was also a successful businessman, having majored in business at California State University while attending night school as a player.

When Morgan was inducted into the Hall of Fame, his ex-teammates spoke glowingly about him. Some mentioned his drive and his all-around talent, and many praised his baseball IQ. Ron Oester pointed that he had an actual book on pitchers — what they threw and how to steal off them. “I’ve never known of any player to keep actual books on pitchers the way Joe did. He knew every pitcher, knew what to look for,” he said.

At the time he retired, Morgan was third on the all-time walks list behind Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. He is now fifth, with Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson at #1 and #2, respectively. He was as proud of that as any other statistic, even though his tremendous patience probably reduced his career hit totals. “In my mind, most of the time the base on balls was as good as a base hit,” he explained. “I never stole a base for Joe Morgan, I ran to get something done. So I don’t have hits and steals numbers like some other players.”

Of course, his home run totals for a second baseman were pretty impressive, considering he didn’t look like a prototypical home run hitter. “There were a lot of pitchers who didn’t think I could hit the ball out of the park,” Morgan said. “Pitchers hate giving up home runs to a little guy. I got yelled at a lot as I rounded the bases.”

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, March 31, 2008.

For more information: Cincinnati Enquirer

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