CINCINNATI – At 5-foot-7, he was the smallest cog in the Big Red Machine. And to his star-powered teammates, Joe Morgan was a driving force, too.
Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman who became the sparkplug of dominant Cincinnati teams in the mid-1970s and the prototype for baseball’s artificial turf era, has died. He was 77.
He died at his home Sunday in Danville, California, family spokesman James Davis said in statement Monday. Morgan was suffering from a nerve condition, a form of polyneuropathy.
“Joe Morgan was quite simply the best baseball player I played against or saw,” Reds Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench texted to The Associated Press.
Morgan’s death marked the latest among major league greats this year: Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver and Al Kaline.
“All champions. This hurts the most,” Bench said.
Morgan was a two-time NL Most Valuable Player, a 10-time All-Star and won five Gold Gloves. A dynamo known for flapping his left elbow at the plate, Little Joe could hit a home run, steal a base and disrupt any game with his daring.
Most of all, he completed Cincinnati’s two-time World Series championship team, boosting a club featuring the likes of Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Bench to back-to-back titles.
“Joe would always amaze me,” Rose told the AP. “He was by far the most intelligent player I've ever been around. He rubbed off on all of us. A big part of the Big Red Machine.”
Morgan’s tiebreaking single with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 7 in 1975 gave the Reds the crown in a classic matchup with Boston, and he spurred a four-game sweep of the Yankees the next season.
Morgan was the league’s MVP both years. And his Hall of Fame teammates and manager readily acknowledged he was the one that got it all started.
Often regarded as the greatest second baseman in history, he was an easy first-ballot pick for Cooperstown.
“He was just a good major league player when it didn’t mean anything,” former Reds and Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson once said. “But when it meant something, he was a Hall of Famer.”
In a 22-year career through 1984, Morgan scored 1,650 runs, stole 689 bases, hit 268 homers and batted .271. But those stats hardly reflected the force created on the field by the lefty-swinging No. 8.
Confident and cocky, he also was copied. His habit of flapping his back elbow as a way to keep it high when hitting was imitated by many a Little Leaguer in Cincinnati and beyond.
Health issues had slowed down Morgan in recent years. Knee surgery forced him to use a cane when he went onto the field at Great American Ball Park before the 2015 All-Star Game and he later needed a bone marrow transplant for an illness.
In his prime, Morgan helped to revolutionize the game with his quickness and many talents, especially once he hit the turf at Riverfront Stadium. His statue outside Great American Ball Park portrays him in motion, naturally.
“Packed unusual power into his extraordinarily quick 150-lb. fireplug frame,” he was praised on his Hall of Fame plaque.
There were moments of silence held at Petco Park in San Diego before the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros played Monday in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series and at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, before the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves met in the NL Championship Series opener.
“He meant a lot to us, a lot to me, a lot to baseball, a lot to African Americans around the country. A lot to players that were considered undersized,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, a longtime friend and National League rival. “He was the one of the first examples of speed and power for a guy they said was too small to play.”
Morgan got his start with Houston in 1963, when the team was called the .45s and still played on grass. Once he became a full-time player in 1965 when the club became the Astros and moved into the Astrodome, he began to provide a glimpse of what speedy, multi-skilled players could do on the new kind of turf.
The Reds had already built a formidable team, but they came up short in 1970, losing to Baltimore in the World Series. Cincinnati made a shocking trade for Morgan after the 1971 season, giving up slugger Lee May and All-Star second baseman Tommy Helms in an eight-player swap.
Morgan turned out to be exactly what the Reds needed to take the next step.
“Joe made us better, and we made him better,” Rose said. “We put him in the spotlight. It was a perfect fit.”
Rose was the dashing singles hitter, on his way to becoming the game’s career hits leader. Bench supplied the power. Perez was the clutch hitter. And Morgan did a bit of everything, slashing hits and stealing bases whenever needed.
Skilled at drawing walks, and helped by a small strike zone, Morgan led the NL in on-base percentage in four of his first five years with the Reds, and finished with a career mark of .392.
“That’s when the game went to more speed,” Rose once said. “There were guys who did more, but Joe stole bases when everyone at the park knew he would. He didn’t waste steals. He made them count. Joe probably could have stolen more. Lots of guys just steal to run up the numbers, and then they can’t when it counts to win the game. Joe made them count.”
Morgan scored a major league-leading 122 runs in his first season with the Reds and they reached the 1972 World Series, where they lost in seven games to Oakland.
Morgan hit .327 with 17 homers, 94 RBIs and 67 stolen bases in 1975, then followed with a .320 average, 27 homers, 111 RBIs and 60 steals the next year. He was only the fifth second baseman in the NL to drive in more than 100 runs and also led the league in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 1976.
The next year, he led off the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium with a home run against future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer.
“Small in stature like his idol Nellie Fox, Joe played every game at the highest level. Maybe proving to himself and everyone else that he belong. Did he ever!" Bench said.
A series of injuries in the late 1970s diminished Morgan’s production — the years of throwing his body around on the turf had taken a toll. The Reds decided to dismantle the Big Red Machine, prompting Morgan to also leave.
He spent the 1980 season with Houston, helping the Astros to a NL West title. He played two years with San Francisco — hitting a home run on the final day of the 1982 season against the rival Dodgers to knock the defending champions out of the playoffs — and later was reunited with Rose and Perez in Philadelphia.
Morgan hit two home runs in the 1983 World Series as the Phillies lost in five games to Baltimore, and tripled in his final at-bat.
Morgan finished as a career .182 hitter in 50 postseason games. He played in 11 different series and batted over .273 in just one of them, a stat that surprises many considering his big-game reputation.
Raised in Oakland, Morgan returned to the Bay Area and played the 1984 season for the Athletics before retiring.
Morgan set the NL record for games played at second, ranked among the career leaders in walks and was an All-Star in every one of his years with the Reds.
After his playing career, he spent years as an announcer for the Reds, Giants and A’s, along with ESPN, NBC, ABC and CBS. He was analyst for ESPN's Sunday night telecasts from 1990-2010 and won two Sports Emmy Awards as an Event Analyst — ESPN’s first two wins in the category, in 1998 and 2005.
Morgan also was board vice chairman of baseball's Hall of Fame and on the board of the Baseball Assistance Team.
Morgan was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1990. The Reds also inducted him into their Hall of Fame and retired his number.
“He did it all, and he did it all the time,” said Bench, the first member of the Big Red Machine to enter the Hall.
“Great father and outstanding businessman. He was a friend to so many and respected by all,” he said.
Morgan recognized his place on one of baseball’s all-time greatest teams.
″Bench probably had the most raw baseball ability of any of us,” Morgan said before his Hall of Fame induction. “Pete obviously had the most determination to make himself the player he was. Perez was the unsung hero. I guess I was just a guy who could do a lot of things."
He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Theresa; twin daughters Kelly and Ashley; and daughters Lisa and Angela from his first marriage to Gloria Morgan.
Funeral details were not yet set.
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