Remembering Joe Morgan, the Little General (1943-2020)on October 14, 2020 at 6:00 pm

Remembering Joe Morgan, the Little General (1943-2020)

Though undersized by baseball standards — just 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds — Joe Morgan stands tall in baseball history. As the second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds during his prime (1972-79), he helped elevate an already-strong team that starred the more famous Pete Rose and Johnny Bench into a powerhouse for the ages, earning back-to-back NL MVP honors on the Big Red Machine’s 1975 and ’76 championship teams. Over the course of a 22-year major league career (1963-84) with five franchises, Morgan made 10 All-Star teams, won five Gold Gloves, and built a case as the best second baseman in the game’s history, less by attaining traditional milestones and awards than by standing out in ways that became more apparent with advanced statistics. In 1990, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility; he would leave a stamp on that institution later in life as well.

Morgan died at home on Sunday in Danville, California at the age of 77. According to a family spokesman, the cause was nonspecified polyneuropathy, a condition that affects the peripheral nerves of the body. He had endured other health woes in recent years, having received a bone marrow transplant in 2016. He’s the sixth Hall of Famer to die this year, after Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Whitey Ford, the last two of whom passed away earlier this month. He’s also the third member of the late 1960s and early ’70s Astros to die in 2020, after Jimmy Wynn and Bob Watson. It’s enough to make any baseball fan cry, “Uncle.”

Justifiably hailed as “the game’s most complete player” in a 1976 Sports Illustrated cover story, Morgan had more tools in his belt than the standard five, including an off-the-charts baseball IQ that earned him the nickname of “The Little General,” and, by his own admission, a brand of arrogance. As he told Mark Mulvoy in that SI feature, “To be a star, to stay a star, I think you’ve got to have a certain air of arrogance about you, a cockiness, a swagger on the field that says, ‘I can do this, and you can’t stop me.'”

Morgan hit .271/.392/.427 (132 OPS+) for his career, racking up 2,517 hits, 268 home runs, and, thanks to his keen batting eye and compact strike zone, 1,815 walks (and just 1,015 strikeouts). His walk total ranks fifth all-time, while the 266 homers he hit as a second baseman rank fourth. While he only posted batting averages above .300 in his two MVP seasons, and never finished higher than fourth in that category, he drew at least 100 walks in a season eight times, and topped a .400 on-base percentage eight times as well, leading the league in four of those years, and finishing among the top 10 11 times. He also stole 689 bases, a total that ranks 11th; of his 11 times cracking the league’s top 10 in that category, seven times he ranked second, five of those behind Brock. His 81.0% success rate ranks 17th among players with at least 300 attempts since 1951 (caught stealing data was not consistently available earlier), but fifth among those with 600 ore more attempts.

“Joe could beat teams more ways than anyone else around,” wrote Joe Posnanski in The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds.

“That little man can do everything,” said manager Sparky Anderson of his second baseman, whom he called “the smartest player I ever coached.”

Thanks to his on-base and advancement abilities, Morgan ranks fourth in JAWS at the position (79.9, via 100.5 career WAR and 59.3 peak WAR), behind only Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie, all of whose entire careers took place prior to integration and thus against lesser competition. For what it’s worth, in his Win Shares-driven ranking system published in his 2001 New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James ranked him number one at the position even while calling him “a self-important little prig” for the closed-mindedness he had demonstrated as a broadcaster for ESPN — a role in which he became a polarizing figure during his 21-year run (1990-2010) at the network. As Posnanski wrote, “More than one person has pointed out the great irony that envelops Morgan’s baseball life: Joe Morgan the broadcaster never seemed to understand exactly what made Joe Morgan the ballplayer so electrifying and wonderful.”

Joe Leonard Morgan was born September 19, 1943, in Bonham, Texas, the oldest of the six children of Leonard and Ollie Mae Morgan. When Joe was five years old, the family moved to Oakland, California, where his father worked for Pacific Tire and Rubber Company. Leonard passed the basics of the game along to Joe, and the pair became devoted followers of the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks (the A’s did not arrive until 1968). Joe didn’t play Little League, preferring to play stickball with friends who weren’t good enough for the team, but by the time he began playing Babe Ruth League ball at age 13, he was good enough to make his league’s All-Star team three years in a row.

At Castlemont High school, Morgan ran track and played basketball as well as baseball; future major league pitcher Rudy May was a teammate. Unable to get a baseball scholarship to a four-year college, he enrolled at Oakland City College in 1961, and starred for the baseball team. He was scouted by the Mets, but ultimately signed with the NL’s other expansion team, the Houston Colt .45s, netting a $3,000 bonus and a salary of $500 a month. He began his professional career at A-level Modesto of the California League, but spent just 45 games there before moving up to Durham of the Carolina League, where as the only Black player on the team he was exposed to the racism of the South, enduring epithets and segregated facilities. Not even a game-winning pinch-hit homer in his Durham debut could put him at ease; he was ready to quit, though manager Billy Goodman talked him out of it. “It would be nice to say that I changed my mind because of the example of earlier black players who had it tougher, like Jackie Robinson,” wrote Morgan in his 1993 autobiography. “But my decision came from my own sense of shame and embarrassment. When I thought of facing my father and telling him that I had quit — I simply could not go ahead.”

Despite the adversity he faced, Morgan hit .332/.482/.528 with 13 homers in 95 games at Durham, and earned a September call-up from the Colt .45s. He debuted on September 21, 1963, two days after his 20th birthday, popping out in a pinch-hitting appearance against the PhilliesDallas Green. He collected his first hit the next day, off the Phillies’ Johnny Klippstein, and went 6-for-25 in eight games that month. On September 27, he joined Wynn, Rusty Staub (first base), and Jerry Grote (catcher) — all of whom went on to long and distinguished major league careers — as part of the majors’ first all-rookie lineup.

Morgan spent most of the 1964 season with Double-A San Antonio, where he hit .323/.440/.512 with 12 homers and 47 steals. After going 7-for-37 in 10 games during another September call-up, he made the newly-renamed Astros out of spring training in 1965, and took over the starting second base job from Nellie Fox, a 12-time All-Star who, along with Robinson, had been one of his heroes as a youth. “He taught me in one year what it takes most players five years to learn,” Morgan said just before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. “He told me I had twice as much ability as he had. He taught me mental sides of baseball I’ll never forget.”

“Every day I put a uniform on, I thought of Nellie Fox and the things he taught me,” said Morgan in 1997, when his mentor was posthumously elected to the Hall via the Veterans Committee.

It was Fox who noticed Morgan tended to keep his back (left) elbow too low while batting, causing him to get under the ball. As a way of remembering to keep it higher and create a more level swing that would produce more line drives, Fox suggested flapping it like a chicken wing. The move became Morgan’s signature, imitated by countless Little Leaguers (this one included).

Thanks in no small part to Fox’s mentorship, Morgan turned in an impressive rookie season, batting .271/.373/.418 with 12 triples, 14 homers, 20 steals, and a league-high 97 walks; his 5.7 WAR (Baseball-Reference version, as are all of the figures in this piece) was good for 10th in the league. He placed second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind the DodgersJim Lefebvre. In his .285/.410/.391 follow-up season, he placed second in the NL in on-base percentage, but missed nearly six weeks due to a fractured kneecap, suffered when he was hit by a Lee Maye line dive in batting practice. The injury came just a few weeks after he and shortstop Sonny Jackson landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and were featured in a story within. Though selected to the NL All-Star team for the first time, he was unable to play.

After a similarly solid 1967 season, Morgan was limited to just 10 games in ’68 due to torn ligaments in his left knee. He was initially injured in the season’s fifth game when the Mets’ Tommie Agee upended him while trying to break up a double play — a slide that teammates felt was beyond the pale, but Morgan refused to criticize — and played just five more games before undergoing season-ending surgery.

Morgan returned to play three more seasons in Houston, hitting a combined .253/.366/.392 (113 OPS+) while averaging 12 homers, 100 walks, 44 steals, and 4.3 WAR, and made the NL All-Star team again in 1970. However, he did not get along with manager Harry Walker, who had taken over during his absence. Walker viewed Morgan as a troublemaker, and tried to change his hitting style; Morgan viewed Walker — whose brother Dixie started an infamous petition to keep Robinson off the Dodgers in 1947, and who himself was viewed as a likely culprit in the Cardinals’ threat to boycott Dodgers games that same year — as a racist, and said so in his autobiography.

Something had to give, and on November 29, 1971, Morgan was traded to the Reds alongside outfielders Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo, pitcher Jack Billingham, and infielder Denis Menke for second baseman Tommy Helms, first baseman Lee May, and infielder Jimmy Stewart. The blockbuster turned out to be a heist. The Reds, who under Anderson and with Bench, Rose, and Tony Perez as the top stars, had won 102 games and the NL pennant in 1970 — the year the nickname Big Red Machine gained prominence — but had slipped to 79-83 in ’71. With Morgan on board over the next eight seasons, they would average 96 wins and take five division titles, three pennants and two championships. Morgan hit for a 147 OPS+, averaged 7.2 WAR, and made the All-Star team every year in that span, while Geronimo won four Gold Gloves as a center fielder and Billingham made an All-Star team and served as a rotation mainstay.

Anderson arranged to have Morgan take a locker next to Rose, whose obsessive competitiveness rubbed off. The two became best friends, and the 28-year-old Morgan, who batted second behind Rose, raised his game to the next level, hitting .292/.417/.435 (149 OPS+) with 16 homers and 58 steals while leading the NL in on-base percentage, walks (115), runs (122), and WAR (9.3). In an August 14 feature in Sports Illustrated, he explained his hitting philosophy to William Leggett:

“I get so many walks because I’m the type of hitter who isn’t strong enough to hit bad pitches for base hits. I need to hit strikes. In many ways batting averages can be misleading. There are players in baseball who hit over .300 and don’t help their teams as much as other players who hit .250. The idea is to score runs, and that’s what I’m supposed to do. A batting average is a personal thing. Unless there are men on base, there is little difference between a single to right field and drawing four balls.”

The Reds won the NL West with a 95-59 record, then beat the Pirates in the NLCS (Morgan homered in the first two games) before falling to the A’s, who won the first of three straight World Series. Morgan went just 3-for-24 against Oakland, albeit with six walks, but his series wasn’t without its highlights, particularly when he caught a pop foul off the bat of Bert Campaneris and then threw home to double up Blue Moon Odom — who for some reason had tagged up — for the final out of Game 5.

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The Reds won 99 games and the NL West the next year, with Morgan again producing an NL-high 9.3 WAR while setting carer highs in homers (26), steals (67), and OPS+ (154). He won the first of five straight Gold Gloves; for what it’s worth, where Total Zone measured him as 24 runs above average in those years, but 72 below average for the rest of his career, with average or better performances in only four other seasons, not that the other facets of his game didn’t make up for it. Again, however, Morgan struggled in the postseason, going 2-for-20 as the Reds were upset in the NLCS by the 82-79 Mets.

Though he began a streak of three straight years leading the league in on-base percentage with a .427 mark, Morgan “slumped” to 8.6 WAR in 1974 and the Reds, despite going 98-64, finished four games behind the Dodgers. Though hungry to get back to the playoffs, the Reds split their first 40 games in 1975, but lineup changes — including the moves of Rose from left field to third base, and George Foster from right to left, which allowed Ken Griffey to play regularly — began to pay dividends, and the team stormed to a 108-54 record. Morgan couldn’t sustain the .405/.551/.519 he hit in April, but put up a season for the ages, batting .327/.466/.508 with 17 homers, 67 steals, and league highs in on-base percentage, walks (132), OPS+ (169), and WAR (11.0), the last of which is tied for ninth in the integration era. He was a runaway winner of the MVP award, receiving 21 of 24 first-place votes.

He wasn’t done. Though Morgan’s 1975 postseason numbers were modest (.263/.383/.368) as the Reds swept the Pirates in the NLCS and outlasted the Red Sox in a classic seven-game World Series, he had two game-winning hits in the Fall Classic. He singled home Geronimo for a walk-off win in the 10th inning of Game 3, and drove in Griffey with the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of Game 7, giving the Reds their first championship since 1940.

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Morgan’s offense was even better in 1976, as he hit .320/.444/.576 with 27 homers and 60 steals, and led the NL in on-base and slugging percentages, OPS+ (187), and WAR (9.6), the latter for the fourth time in five seasons. During that span, he totaled 47.8 WAR, an average of 9.6 per year. Just to provide some perspective, via bWAR, Mike Trout‘s best five-year span (2012-16), he averaged 9.5 WAR; in Barry Bonds‘ best (2000-04), he averaged 10.2. Similarly, there’s this:

The Reds won 102 games and went undefeated in the postseason, sweeping the Phillies and Yankees. Morgan, after going 1-for-11 in the NLCS, homered in his first at-bat of the World Series off Doyle Alexander, and hit .333/.412/.733 for the Series. In winning, the Reds became the first NL team to repeat as champions since the 1921-22 New York Giants. In the NL MVP voting, Morgan beat out Foster, Rose and Schmidt, becoming the majors’ first repeat winner since Ernie Banks in 1958-59.

Morgan played three more years in Cincinnati, albeit with diminishing returns both individually and as a team; he averaged 137 games per year, and after a 5.8-WAR 1977 season, totaled just 4.3 WAR over the next two years as his offense declined to a 106 OPS+. The Reds won one more division title in 1979, after Rose had departed for free agency and Anderson was fired, but Morgan went 0-for-11 in a sweep by the Pirates.

A free agent for the first time, Morgan returned to the Astros, and at age 37 delivered a 3.7-WAR season while helped them reach the playoffs for the first time. He then spent two years with the Giants, highlighted by his Game-162 winning three-run homer against the Dodgers, a blow that prevented them from tying the Braves for first place in the NL West on the final day of the season. The next year, the 39-year-old Morgan joined the 42-year-old Rose and 41-year-old Perez with the Phillies. The “Wheeze Kids” (as Sports Illustrated christened them) won 90 games, then beat the Dodgers in the NLCS before losing to the Orioles in the World Series; Morgan hit 263/.333/.684 with a pair of homers in defeat. He played one more season with the hometown Oakland A’s, and even at age 40, in his lone foray into the American League, put up a 104-OPS+, 1.6-WAR season before hanging up his spikes.

Morgan stayed active and visible in his retirement. He ran three Wendy’s franchises, became a distributor for Coors Beer, and completed his college degree at Cal State-Hayward, fulfilling a promise to his mother. He joined the Reds as a broadcaster in 1985, and was in the booth to call Rose’s record-breaking 4,192nd career hit. He then spent nine years announcing for the Giants and one for the A’s, and picked up national work with ESPN, ABC, and NBC as well. Most notably, he paired with Jon Miller on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts, where alas he became a polarizing figure. He was critical to the point of incoherence when it came to the use of analytics in front offices and went on a crusade against Moneyball, publicly attacking A’s general manger Billy Beane for writing the book when in fact it was Michael Lewis who did so. From Lewis’ 2004 epilogue in Sports Illustrated:

In one of his early season chat sessions Morgan was asked what he thought of the book. He wrote: “It’s typical if you write a book, you want to be the hero. That is apparently what Beane has done. According to what I read in the Times [The New York Times Magazine had excerpted Moneyball] Beane is smarter than anyone else. I don’t think it will make him popular with the other G.M.’s or the other people in baseball.”

One person pointed out to Morgan, in print, that Beane hadn’t written Moneyball. It had no effect. A week later, during another chat, someone else asked Morgan what he would do to improve the A’s if he were Beane. To which Morgan replied, “I wouldn’t be Billy Beane first of all!! I wouldn’t write the book Moneyball!”

Oy. As Morgan continued to dig in his heels without fully engaging with the game’s evolution or the subjects of his critiques — at one point he dismissed James’ book as “a book about a computer, that gives computer numbers… The computer is only as good as what you put in it. How do you think we got Enron?” — he became a target within the sabermetric community, a caricature within a larger culture war. In 2005, television comedy writers Michael Schur, Alan Yang, and Dave King started the Fire Joe Morgan blog, which took aim not only at Morgan’s tirades but retrograde sports writing in general.

Morgan’s tenure at ESPN outlasted the blog, which shuttered in 2008. In the wake of his passing, Schur (a.k.a. Ken Tremendous) confronted the legacy of the site, telling ESPN’s Pablo Torre on a podcast that it “spoke to this kind of generational divide where this sort of old-school ’60s, ’70s kind of players were fighting against the modernization of the way that we look at the game analytically… He was there all the time [on ESPN], calling games and analyzing games, and so as a result we just kind of located all of our discontent onto him specifically, but we could have located it on any of a hundred different people.”

Once Morgan left ESPN, he became a special adviser to baseball operations for the Reds. He also served on the boards of the Baseball Assistance Team, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In his capacity for the latter, via which he eventually became vice-chairman, he left an imprint on the institution and found yet another controversy with his 2017 letter to the electorate pleading with voters to reject “players who failed drug tests, admitted using steroids or were identified as users in Major League Baseball’s investigation into steroid abuse, known as the Mitchell Report.” Sent from his Hall of Fame email address, it was the institution’s clearest attempt to put its thumb on the scale regarding the candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose momentum has since been thwarted

I took issue with that position, and I was among those alternately exasperated and amused by Morgan’s ongoing battle with sabermetrics — in this community, how could I not be? Even so, whatever frustration I could feel towards the man’s public persona was drained when I was briefly in his orbit at the 2019 Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. Following the presentation of the Spink and Frick Awards and the parade of Hall of Famers down Cooperstown’s Main Street, I was lucky enough to attend a post-awards cocktail party in the Hall of Fame plaque gallery. Wandering around this baseball nirvana while juggling cheese cubes and bottled beer, I spotted a table where Bench, Morgan, George Brett and Rod Carew were all seated in the general vicinity of their bronze plaques. There they were, the legends of my childhood, Topps All-Stars not only come to life but confronting their own brushes with mortality; Carew had been the recent recipient of a heart transplant, and Morgan by that point was frail and in need of crutches due to his neuropathy.

A short while later, in a fruitless attempt to track down Edgar Martinez for an introduction, I hurriedly tried to weave through the crowd back to the Hall’s lobby, but came to a screeching halt as Morgan was slowly helped along a few feet in front of me. I briefly confronted my own baseball mortality with a vision of the outcry that would have ensued if this longtime critic accidentally knocked over the ailing legend. Thankfully, no contact ensued, but the episode helped to re-humanize Morgan. In my mind, our WAR war ended.

Not everybody in the world of baseball may have agreed with Joe Morgan. Even so, nobody could deny the place that he carved within the game, or the heights that he attained at his peak, playing at a level that few others have attained.

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