Pete Rose liked to boast that winning teams seemed to “follow him around.” But Bill James (I believe) countered that winning teams were even more attracted to Joe Morgan.
It’s true. The Cincinnati Reds did a fair amount of winning before Morgan arrived from Houston in 1972. But only after that did they become a great, championship team.
Morgan returned to Houston in 1980. That year, the Astros won their first NL West crown and came within a whisker of making it to the World Series.
In 1982, with Morgan as their second baseman, the San Francisco Giants came within two games of winning the NL West. It was their best run since 1971 when they won the division.
The next season, Morgan was in Philadelphia. The Phillies won the pennant.
But the true test of a player isn’t how many games his team wins, it’s how many wins the player causes his team to win. The Cincinnati Reds of 1975-76 are among the greatest teams ever to grace the sport of baseball. Their lineup contained three future Hall of Famers (Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez) plus Pete Rose who would have made the Hall easily had he not bet on baseball.
Morgan’s WAR (the number of wins he is estimated to have contributed compared to a hypothetical replacement player) for the two seasons combined was 20.6. That’s almost equal to the combined WAR in those two years of Bench (11.2) and Rose (11.1), who were second and third to Morgan.
Morgan was the National League MVP and Gold Glove winner at second base in both seasons.
There’s irony in my reliance on WAR. Joe Posnanski of The Athletic says that Morgan hated that stat. Morgan was old school and complained that WAR failed to take intangibles into account.
He was right. But WAR takes into account important tangibles that were overlooked throughout most of his career — walks, especially, but also doubles and triples, power in relation to the defensive position one plays, stolen bases in relation to attempts to steal, and fielding with a focus on range.
It was only when these numbers gained prominence that Morgan’s true greatness came sharply into focus.
Consider that in 1967, playing for the Astros, Morgan batted .275. He hit just six home runs. He stole 29 bases. A decent season, but no one’s idea of an all star year at the time.
But Morgan also had 81 walks. And his 29 steals came in just 34 attempts. Throw all of his extra base hits that weren’t homers plus his defensive numbers, and Morgan’s WAR is 5.0.
Who made the all-star team at second base that year? Not Morgan. For the National League it was Tommy Helms (for whom, along with Lee May, Morgan would be traded to the Reds four years later) and Bill Mazeroski.
Helms had about the same batting average as Morgan. However, his WAR was 0.3. Mazeroski batted .261, but hit more home runs than Morgan (nine). His WAR was 2.8, more than two fewer wins above replacement than Morgan produced.
The American League all-star second baseman was a rookie named Rod Carew. He batted .291 with eight home runs. His WAR was 2.8, the same as Mazeroski’s.
Morgan didn’t make an all-star team until 1970. But he was an all-star caliber player years earlier.
Throughout his career, Carew (a great hitter) would be rated ahead of Morgan. In the early 1990s, both went into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. By then, baseball writers had started to evaluate talent using relatively advanced metrics. Even so, Carew received 91 percent of ballots, compared to 82 percent for Morgan.
Morgan’s career WAR is 100.5. Carew’s is 81.3.
Morgan was not an especially productive player in the post-season. Yet, he delivered what is probably the most important hit ever by a Cincinnati Red.
Fans remember the 1975 World Series for Game 6, with its dramatic home runs by Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk. (Less remembered is the great catch by Dwight Evans that deprived Morgan of a likely game winning, Series ending homer in the 11th inning.) But Game 7 was the decider and Morgan’s hit won it. He singled off of Boston reliever Jim Burton (in a lefty-lefty matchup) in the ninth inning to drive home the winning run. Morgan had ended Game 3 with an RBI single in the tenth inning off of another lefty, Rogelio Moret.
What was Morgan like in the clubhouse? When Houston traded him, the Astros manager, Harry Walker, claimed that Morgan was selfish, moody, and a troublemaker. But Walker’s view might have been colored by racial prejudice.
In Cincinnati, Morgan quickly became a favorite of Sparky Anderson. He also had good relations with Pete Rose. But in the Reds’ clubhouse, it was said that being Rose’s friend meant not being close to Johnny Bench (and vice versa).
Yet, on learning of Morgan’s death this week, Bench said, “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.”
At first, Morgan had chilly relations with his double play partner Dave Concepcion because he considered the Venezuelan lackadaisical. Later, Morgan came to respect Concepcion greatly. However, according to his SABR biography, Morgan never granted him the star status he craved.
The same biography says opposing players considered Morgan arrogant. Sparky once fretted that Morgan was antagonizing opponents to the point that “he’ll be dead in another month.”
Morgan didn’t deny being arrogant. He said:
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,’
Especially if you’re only 5’7 and weigh 160 pounds.
After baseball, Morgan went into business and also broadcasting. For 21 years, he was the color commentator on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.
Morgan wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea in that role, but I found his commentary about hitting insightful. He took viewers inside the head of batters (sort of the way Tim McCarver pioneered doing for pitchers and catchers) to explain their approach to an at-bat.
Morgan was the first commentator I recall talking a lot about hitters “sitting on a pitch” (waiting for a particular pitch during an at-bat). He once criticized a batter for sitting on a type of pitch he couldn’t handle well. If you’re going to sit on a pitch, he advised, it should be one you can smash when it comes.
That’s logical, but I had never thought of it.
When ESPN sacked Morgan in 2010, I believe it was mainly because Morgan was too old school. He had little use for the “analytics” that were coming to dominate the game and that had so justifiably enhanced his reputation.