The offensive catalyst of the great Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s, Joe Morgan was one of the finest all-around players of his generation. The diminutive second baseman possessed a keen batting eye and surprising power for a man his size, and also was an outstanding fielder and an exceptional baserunner. Morgan's rare combination of skills enabled him to capture consecutive MVP trophies during the mid-1970s, and earned him general recognition as one of the greatest second sackers in baseball history.
Born in Bonham, Texas on September 19, 1943, Joe Leonard Morgan was raised in Oakland, California after his family moved to that city when he was still just a young boy. After attending Castlemont High School in Oakland, Morgan signed an amateur free agent contract with the expansion Houston Colt .45's of the National League in 1962. He made his major league debut with the team a little over a year later, just two days after celebrating his 20th birthday. Morgan appeared in only eight games with Houston, accumulating six hits in 25 official at-bats, for a .240 batting average. The lefthanded-hitting second baseman made another brief appearance with the team the following season, struggling terribly at the plate by posting a .189 batting average in 37 official plate appearances. Veteran second baseman Nellie Fox, who was nearing the end of his career with Houston at the time, observed the manner in which Morgan appeared to be out of sync in the batter's box. Noting that his intended successor tended to keep his back elbow too low, Fox suggested to Morgan that he flap his back arm like a chicken to keep his elbow up while he was at the plate. The youngster took his advice, employing that particular technique the remainder of his career.
Morgan became Houston's starting second baseman in 1965, and he remained in that role long after the Colt .45's moved into the Astrodome and changed their name to the Astros. Implementing his new batting style, Morgan batted .271 in his first full season. He also hit 14 home runs, scored 100 runs, and led the National League with 97 bases on balls. The second sacker also performed quite well in each of the next two seasons, compiling batting averages of .285 and .275, and finishing among the league leaders in walks and on-base percentage both years.
After missing virtually all of the 1968 season with an injury, Morgan took a step backwards when he returned to the team the following year. Although the second baseman hit 15 home runs, scored 94 runs, stole 49 bases, and walked 110 times, he batted only .236 and saw his strikeout total increase from 51 to 74. Morgan was more effective in 1970, though, raising his batting average more than 30 points to .268, finishing among the league leaders with 102 runs scored, 102 walks, and 42 stolen bases, and making the National League All-Star Team for the first time. Morgan had another solid season in 1971, but he was subsequently traded to Cincinnati at the end of the year in a blockbuster deal that also sent centerfielder Cesar Geronimo and third baseman Denis Menke to the Reds. Houston, in turn, received slugging first baseman Lee May and All-Star second sacker Tommy Helms.
On the surface, it was difficult to determine at the time which team benefited more from the transaction. The Astros acquired one of the National League's top sluggers in May, and they also got a very solid second baseman in Helms. But the deal turned out to
be a steal for Cincinnati. After capturing the pennant in 1970, the Reds finished well out
of contention in the N.L. West the following year. The team's offense was predicated largely on the slugging abilities of players such as May, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez. However, Cincinnati management felt a need to complement its long ball threats with a smart and aggressive baserunner such as Morgan. The acquisition of the second baseman turned out to be one of the shrewdest moves the organization ever made. Not only did Morgan provide the team with exceptional offense and baserunning at the top of its lineup, but he gave the Reds leadership in the infield and outstanding defense up the middle. Furthermore, Geronimo gave them a very solid defensive centerfielder, and Menke enabled them to shift third baseman Perez back to his more natural position of first base. With all the pieces in place, Cincinnati became the National League's dominant team for the next several seasons.
Despite the presence of several other All-Star players in the Reds' lineup, Morgan was arguably the key to The Big Red Machine. Shortly after he joined Cincinnati prior to the start of the 1972 campaign, Reds manager Sparky Anderson recognized the many unique talents his new second baseman possessed. Morgan was not only a fine fielder and an exceptional baserunner, but he was also an extremely patient hitter and a very intelligent and instinctive player. Anderson turned loose the reigns on Morgan, giving him total freedom both at the plate and on the basepaths. Before long, the 5'7", 165-pound second baseman realized he also had untapped power at the plate, and he became one of the team's better RBI-men. Developing into one of baseball's finest all-around players, Morgan led the Reds to four division titles, three pennants, and two world championships between 1972 and 1977.
Morgan had his first truly great season in 1972, batting .292, stealing 58 bases, and leading the league with 122 runs scored, 115 bases on balls, and a .419 on-base percentage. He followed that up by batting .290 and scoring 116 runs in 1973, while also establishing new career highs with 26 home runs, 82 runs batted in, and 67 stolen bases.
After another solid 1974 campaign, Morgan captured league MVP honors in both 1975 and 1976, leading the Reds to the world championship both years. In the first of those seasons, Morgan finished in the league's top five in five different offensive categories, while capturing the third of his five consecutive Gold Gloves. In addition to hitting 17 home runs and driving in 94 runs, he batted .327, scored 107 runs, stole 67 bases, and led the league with 132 walks and a .471 on-base percentage. Morgan was even better in 1976, establishing career highs with 27 homers and 111 RBIs, batting .320, scoring 113 runs, stealing 60 bases, walking 114 times, and leading the league with a .453 on-base percentage and a .576 slugging percentage. The second baseman had his last big year in 1977, hitting 22 home runs, knocking in 78 runs, batting .288, and finishing among the league leaders with 113 runs scored, 49 stolen bases, 117 walks, and a .420 on-base percentage.
By the time the dust had settled, Morgan finished among the league leaders in runs scored, stolen bases, walks, and on-base percentage each season from 1972 to 1977, topping the circuit in the last category on four separate occasions. He also placed near the top of the league rankings in batting average twice, and, in addition to winning the MVP Award in 1975 and 1976, he finished in the top five in the voting in both 1972 and 1973.
Morgan's offensive productivity began to decline in 1978, and he spent two more years in Cincinnati before rejoining the Astros in 1980. He helped Houston to the Western Division title that year, then split his final four seasons between San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Oakland, before deciding to call it quits at the conclusion of the 1984 campaign. Morgan ended his career with 268 home runs, 1,133 runs batted in, 1,650 runs scored, 2,517 hits, 689 stolen bases, a .271 batting average, and a superb .395 on-base percentage. Morgan's 1,650 runs scored are the third most ever tallied by a second baseman. He scored more than 100 runs and compiled more than 100 walks in a season eight times each, and he stole more than 40 bases on nine separate occasions. In addition to winning two Most Valuable Player Awards and five Gold Gloves, Morgan was named to 10 All-Star teams.
Following his retirement, Morgan entered into a career as a baseball analyst. He continues to serve as a radio and television color commentator on national broadcasts, where he candidly voices his opinion. A longtime critic of the sabermetrical approach to baseball, Morgan has often expressed the belief that statistics are not more helpful than observation when analyzing players. Ironically, Morgan's stance has caused him to refute the opinion expressed by noted sabermetrican Bill James in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that Morgan was the best second baseman in baseball history. Morgan considered the notion ridiculous, arguing that Roger Hornsby batted .358 over the course of his career, while he never came close to batting that high even once in his 22 seasons.
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- 1975 World Series, 1976 World Series, Cincinnati Reds, Gold Glove, Hall of Fame, Houston Astros, Joe Morgan, MVP