Saturday, May 24, 2014

Players I Love More Than I Should: Second Base Joe Morgan

More than 18,000 players have appeared in Major League Baseball games since the start of the league.  Some players have short careers that last one at bat or one appearance in the field.  Others have 20+ year careers.  As I read more and more about baseball history there are certain players I find myself enjoying reading about more than others.  It is obviously illogical since many of them retired, or in some cases passed away, long before I was even born.  I have no first hand experience in watching them play but for whatever reason their personalities and perseverance strikes me above and beyond the other players I read about.  Over the next few weeks I will be giving you short biographical histories*of some of these players.  Some of them will be Hall of Fame players.  Some of them will be players only casual fans may know.  Regardless, I chose one player from each position for this series to explore.  This week we will explore the Second Baseman  I chose for the series: Joe Morgan.

In last week's article about Hank Greenberg I told you I felt that he may be one of the most under rated players of all time.  I say this because when I hear people mention the all time great players I almost never hear his name dropped in the conversations.  The focus of this week's  article can probably be put into that category as well.  Only 19 second basemen have reached the Hall of Fame.  When you list the top at this position of all time Napoleon Lajoie, Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins are the names that usually are mentioned.  Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar are the more recently named.  There is one name that I rarely hear mentioned as the greatest 2B of all time and it is honestly sad that he does not get more attention. Not only was he a great fielder and a great hitter, he has become one of the great statesmen of the game.

Early Years
Joe Morgan was born in Bonham, TX in 1943.  Growing up in the south in the 1940's was not the easiest thing in the world and Joe's family moved west to the Oakland area.  Joe's father, a former semi-pro baseball player, taught Joe everything he had learned himself and Joe worked harder than anyone else.  His efforts paid off as he was scouted as a high school baseball player at Castlemont High School in Oakland.  Morgan was not your average major league player.  He was smaller than most.  He didn't "look" like a ball player.  That was until you had watched him play and then you wondered why you had ever doubted he could play.  On November 1, 1962, just shortly after the end of their first year in existence, the Houston Colt .45's took a chance on the little guy.  Joe started at the Class A Durham Bulls in 1963 and played 95 games there.  He hit .322 with 13 Home Runs before being shifted to the Modesto Colts of Class A.  By the end of the year he was moved up to the big league club for some major league experience.  He got little experience, only 8 games at the end of the year but in those 8 games he got six hits (including a triple), scored 5 runs and drove in 6.  He went back to the minors for 1964 and played 140 games for the Texas League San Antonio Bullets.  Morgan definitely impressed the Colt .45's with 47 steals and 113 runs scored while driving in 90 with a .323 average.  Again with a late season call up Little Joe got into a few games but had less success.  Nevertheless, it was clear this kid was good and he was better than anything the Colt .45's had.

Growing up in Houston
The Colt .45's had a new look for 1965.  First of all they were now the Houston Astros so new uniforms were in order.  The new stadium was open now, the Astrodome, and Colt Park was empty.  Most importantly, there were new players.  The starting second baseman was now Joe Morgan, replacing an aging Nellie Fox.  Fox knew he was on his way out and did what he could to help Morgan.  He even helped Morgan gain his most memorable trait, "the chicken wing".  The story goes that Morgan had trouble keeping his elbow down so Fox told him to flap it as a reminder. What developed was what appeared to be an involuntary twitch of the back hitting elbow.  Whatever it was it seemed to work for Joe.  Morgan worked hard and gained success in a bad situation.  The Astros were bad but Joe had a tremendous rookie year finishing second (behind Jim Lefebvre of the Dodgers) in the Rookie of the Year voting.  His strong performance continued in 1966 and 1967 (representing Houston in the All Star Game) but in 1968 disaster struck.  As he was trying to turn a double play he received a rolling block by Tommie Agee that destroyed his knee.  He played only 10 games that year.  He struggled a bit in 1969 as the league moved to division play but in 1970 he came back stronger than ever and again represented the Astros in the All Star Game.  It was clear that Joe would be a star if he played for a team that was not ignored by the major media.  At the time the Astros were almost irrelevant.  If that was not bad enough, his manager, Harry Walker hated him.  He called Morgan a trouble maker and labelled him as a problem.  It is unclear what exactly Joe did that would cause Walker to form this opinion.  Many have suggested it was a race issue and it is one possible reason.  Walker, brother of former Dodgers Outfielder Dixie Walker who had started the petition to keep Jackie Robinson out of baseball, grew up in the deep south.  Former Cardinals First Baseman Bill White told stories about Walker's racist attitude while playing with the Cardinals, however, also said that in later life Walker was a close friend and grew as a person.  In Jim Bouton's book "Ball Four" he often references the positive attitude of the club in that 1969 season and mentions Joe Morgan as a part of that attitude so it is odd that Walker would feel so different. Whatever it was,  it led to a disaster for the Astros and glory for another organization.

Driving The Machine
Some trades don't reveal all levels of the impact until years later.  For the Astros it should have been clear immediately.  This one was bad.  The Cincinnati Reds were a successful organization throughout the history of the National League.  As recently as 1970 they had reached the World Series only to be swept by the Orioles.  They were close to something big.  Sparky Anderson could feel it.  They just needed a little bit more. So on November 29, 1971 the Reds sent three key pieces (Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart) of their near championship team to Houston.  In return they received Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, Dennis Menke and Joe Morgan.  Moving Helms and May opened up the entire right side of the infield so Tony Perez (who had played third base in 1971) moved to first and Joe took over at second.  With Johnny Bench behind the plate and Dave Concepcion at shortstop the legendary machine was beginning to assemble pieces.  The 1972 season saw Joe represent Cincinnati in the All Star Game for the first time, finish 4th in MVP voting and reach the playoffs for the first time.  It was not the best experience for him.  He did not hit the way he would prove he could in the future and the Reds fell to the A's in a seven game classic World Series.  This was Sparky Anderson's second World Series and second World Series loss.  The belief was that the Big Red Machine ran out of gas late in the year and that Sparky would never get a World Series title.

The 1973 season was very similar to 1972.  Morgan was an All Star, an MVP candidate (4th again), won a Gold Glove, the Reds reached the post season, Morgan struggled (he hit .100 in a five game series) and the machine failed to produce the big win.  It was frustrating for everyone involved.  Morgan played well again in 1974, establishing himself as the best second baseman in the game without doubt.  He was an All Star for the third straight year, Gold Glove winner for the second straight year, finished 8th in the MVP voting and established himself as one of the leaders on the club.  It was clear that Bench, Rose, Perez and Morgan were the leaders and Joe was the spark that got them all going.

Although Joe had established himself as the best second baseman in the game, 1975 saw him take a step above that.  His numbers had been great previously, and his passion and leadership spectacular, but no one was ready for the number he established.  Having never hit above .300 for a season, he hit .327. He walked over 100 times, stole 67 bases, scored over 100 and drove in over 90.  This was his year.  An All Star for the fourth straight year, Gold Glove winner for the third straight year and he helped drive one of the greatest teams in the history of the game.  Morgan was the clear MVP of the league.  The Reds ran away with the division, cruised through the Pirates and ran smack into the Red Sox.

Game 1 saw Luis Tiant retire 10 straight Red Sox before Joe knocked a single to center in the third.  He was balked to second but was stranded there.  With one out in the 6th Morgan doubled.  He was stuck there.  The Red Sox scored 6 runs in the 7th and went on to win the game 6-0, shocking the Reds.  Game 2 saw the Red Sox enter the 4th with a 1-0 lead.  Joe walked, took third on a Bench single and scored when Tony Perez grounded to short.  The Reds won but Morgan was shut down the rest of the day.  The third game was where all hell broke loose.  Morgan was 0-3 as the game entered the 10th, though he had hit a sacrifice fly.  Cesar Geronimo opened the 10th with a single.  Ed Armbrister pinch hit and laid down a bunt, tried to run to first as Carlton Fisk tried to field the ball and neither could get out of the others way.  Fisk threw wild to second allowing Geronimo to reach third, Armbrister to reach second and Pete Rose was walked intentionally to load the bases.  That's where Joe proved he was the MVP.  He lined a single scoring the winning run and the Reds were up 2-1.  Game 4 saw the Reds struggle against Tiant again and Morgan went 0-3 with two walks as the Sox tied up the series.  Game 5 saw the Reds seemingly take control of the series, though Joe had only one hit, a steal and scored a run.  Morgan scored on a three run Home Run by Perez.  In the infamous Carlton Fisk game (Game 6) Morgan had a hit but it meant little in the end as Fisk became a legend.  In the final game it was Joe's turn to become legend.  The Sox took a 3-0 lead in the 3rd and Sparky started updating his resume.  The Reds cut the lead to 3-2 in the 6th on a two run Tony Perez Home Run.  The Reds tied it in the 7th and it remained there until the top of the ninth.  Ken Griffey led off the inning with a walk.  Geronimo bunted him to second and pinch hitter Dan Driessen grounded to the right side, moving Griffey to 3rd.  Pete Rose walked and now it was time for Joe to do something.  He took a ball then missed two swings.  On the fourth pitch of the at bat the ball is down and away.  Most people would pop it up but Joe got it just where he needed to and the ball dropped in front of Fred Lynn for a single scoring Griffey and the Big Red Machine were World Champions.

1976 was even better for Joe.  He hit .320, drove in 111, hit 20 Home Runs, stole 60 and scored 116.  Again he represented the Reds in the All Star Game, again won a Gold Glove and again won the MVP.  No one would dare challenge him as the best second baseman in the game.  The Reds faced the young Phillies in the NLCS and although the Phillies had a young Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski and a dominant Steve Carlton, the Big Red Machine rolled over the team in three straight.

Their opponent in the 1976 World Series was the newly reborn Yankees led by Thurman Munson.  Game 1 of the Series moved to the bottom of the first and the Reds quickly had two outs.  Morgan stepped to the plate.  He took a called strike.  Watched three balls go by and stepped out of the box for a second.  He set himself back in the box, the wing started flapping and the fifth pitch of the at bat came in and it quickly went out.  The Reds led 1-0 and never looked back.  They took game 1 and kept rolling.  The Yankees had a great team but they were no match for the machine.  Joe kept hitting and helped the Reds greatly.  He had 5 hits and a .333 average for the series.  The star of the series was Johnny Bench who had 8 hits (including a double, triple and two Home Runs), 4 runs, 6 RBI and a .533 average for the series.

With the birth of free agency the face of the Reds started to change.  1977 and 1978 were still an All Star appearance for Joe and a Gold Glove but no MVP votes and no post season.  The Reds fell off the pace.  In 1979 they were right back on top in the NL West.  The Reds lost to the Pirates in three straight in the NLCS and Joe went hitless for the entire series.  It was his last appearance in a Reds uniform.

Short Lived Home Coming
He was granted free agency after 1979 and he returned to his roots in a way.  The Houston Astros had signed Nolan Ryan as a free agent and were looking to push for their first ever playoff appearance.  Joe was not the player he had been in the past.  His average fell below .250 and his stolen bases dropped to 24.  What Morgan brought to the Astros was more than just numbers.  He brought experience and he brought leadership.  The leadership of Morgan and Ryan helped get the Astros in the NLCS.  They pushed the eventual World Champion Phillies to the fifth game.  Morgan played in four of the five games and hit well.  Unfortunately, the Phils were too much and Morgan and the Astros went home disappointed.

Near Miss in the Bay
A free agent again Morgan moved on to the Giants.  His manager this time was the first African American manager, Frank Robinson.  Robinson pushed the general manager hard to sign Morgan along with the veteran Reggie Smith.  Morgan had received a big money offer to stay in Houston another year but he wanted to play for Frank.  "The thing about Frank is that he really hates to lose.  A lot of people hate to lose, but they don't really mean it.  Frank does."  Frank was just as excited to have Joe on his team.  Joe and Frank worked great together.  Joe was the leader in the clubhouse, the in between for the players and the manager.  1981 was a disaster for the league as the strike split the season.  Joe came back to the Giants for 1982.  He had a great season. He even made an impact on the Giants-Dodgers rivalry when he hit a Home Run on the last day of the 1982 season to knock the Dodgers out of the playoffs.  In the off season Frank Robinson was blindsided when he found out his second baseman and best relief pitcher, Al Holland had been traded to the Phillies for relief pitchers Mark Davis and Mike Krukow.

If You've Already Beat Them, Join Them
The 1983 Phillies were at the end of the most successful period of the team's long history at that time.  Pete Rose, Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt were aging.  Manny Trillo, Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski were gone.  Tony Perez and Joe Morgan were here now.  The press dubbed them the "Wheeze Kids" or the "Over the Hill Gang".  Three key pieces of the Big Red Machine were all together for one more run at a title.  For the better part of the season it looked like the Expos would run away with the pennant but the Phillies got hot in September.  The leader of the charge was Morgan who led the Phillies into the playoffs.  He struggled in the NLCS and the World Series as the Phillies lost to the Orioles in the World Series.

Final Lap Around the Bay
Confident that Juan Samuel would be their second baseman of the future, the Phillies released Morgan at the end of the 1983 season. Since he was no longer needed in Philadelphia, he went home.  He signed a one year deal in Oakland to play for the team in his old home town.  The A's were going through a rebuilding phase and although Morgan played in 116 games it was clear his career was at an end.  Morgan retired at the end of the year.  He retired as the greatest second baseman the game has seen.

Baseball Genius
Morgan began his broadcasting career almost immediately after retirement. He broadcast local games for the Reds, A's and Giants for years as well as broadcasting for ESPN, ABC and NBC.  Morgan was well respected for many years and has a strong opinion of how the game should be played. Unfortunately, Morgan's opinions were in stark contrast to the current theories of SABRmetrics. Morgan strongly criticised Moneyball, SABRmetrics and the over use of statistics. Because SABRmetrics are so strongly entrenched in the game now, people took strong offense.  Instead of realizing that Morgan's theory of the game was just as valid as theirs, people started a campaign to fire Morgan from broadcasting.  Morgan's argument was not that statistics are useless.  His argument was that they are not a substitute for watching what is actually happening in front of you.  Morgan currently hosts a sports talk show where he interviews players from all walks of life.

*This is not intended as a full biography and due to space I have done my best to summarize the life of the players in this series.  For further information on Joe Morgan please check out:
Ken Burns Baseball
The Cincinnati Reds 1975 World Series Collector Edition


Ball Four by Jim Bouton
The Summer Game by Roger Angell
Four Seasons by Roger Angell
Swinging '73: Baseball's Wildest Season. By Matthew Silverman
The Machine: A Hot Team, A Legendary Season and a Heart Stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds  By Joe Posnanski
The Long Ball: The Summer of '75-Spaceman, Catfish, Charlie Hustle and the Greatest World Series Ever Played by Tom Adelman
Occasional Glory: The History of the Philadelphia Phillies by David M. Jordan
Phillies Encyclopedia by Rich Westcott, Frank Bilovsky and Foreward by Harry Kalas
Extra Innings by Frank Robinson
Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame by National Baseball Hall of Fame
National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac (2013 Edition)  By Baseball America

Joe Morgan was the MVP of the Reds but Johnny Bench was the media darling of the team.  Bench was so popular that he was even given a television show which aired from 1982-1985.   What was the name of the show?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Bing Crosby was part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates when they won the 1960 World Series. His partner in the movie White Christmas, Danny Kaye, was one of the original owners of the Seattle Mariners.  Crosby's long time partner Bob Hope was a partial owner of the Cleveland Indians.  In the 6th season of I Love Lucy (1956) Bob Hope showed up as the owner of the Cleveland Indians.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the history lesson on Joe Morgan.
    On that trade in November of 1971, what was Houston thinking? That was really a lopsided trade!
    Interesting how Joe got that unusual batting movement in batters box. I always thought Nellie Fox had a lot of class.
    Interesting the reason Sunday night baseball axed Joe. I just thought his banter with the play by play man wads getting old.
    I myself hate the Saber-metrics guys, not so much as what they say as how they say it. They are always in your face and their position is 100% right and the opposing sides opinion doesn't matter.

    I have no idea on the trivia. I was going to say The Johnny Bench Good Time Show, but my guess is " Catcher On The Rye".



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