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'Little Joe' Morgan, A Giant On The Big Red Machine, Dies

joe morgan
Joe Morgan watches the ball fly as he a hit home run in the first inning of the All Star Game at Yankee Stadium in New York, July 19, 1977. Morgan was the National League's first batter.

Editor's note: Joe Morgan passed away Oct. 12 at the age of 77. The Baseball Hall of Famer was a key member of the Big Red Machine, the Reds team that dominated baseball in the 1970s. Many consider him to be the greatest second baseman of all time. USA Today's Bob Nightengale was the first to report the news.

Howard Wilkinson has this profile of Morgan and the trade that brought him to the Cincinnati Reds, first published in August 2019.

Young Reds fans may well believe Tuesday's three-team trade that sent outfielder Yasiel Puig to the Cleveland Indians for starting pitcher Trevor Bauer was the biggest deal in the history of the team. But the trade made by the Reds and the Houston Astros on November 29, 1971 had far more impact. 

It turned a very good Reds team into the Big Red Machine, with one of the most talented lineups in the history of baseball, a team that will never be forgotten and always revered by Reds fans.

And all because it included a 5'7" second baseman with All Star credentials by the name of Joe Morgan.

Morgan was the National League Most Valuable Player in both 1975 and 1976. And it is no coincidence that those were the two years in the 1970s when the Reds won the World Series – a seven-game nail-biter in 1975 against the Boston Red Sox in which Morgan delivered the series-winning hit in Game 7; and a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees the following year.

Those two seasons – along with a career where he was generally acknowledged as the best second baseman of his era – cemented his place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

It is hard to imagine now, but there was considerable grumbling among Reds fans when this trade went down.

The Reds sent first baseman Lee May, The Big Bopper; second baseman Tommy Helms, a former NL Rookie of the Year; and infielder Jimmy Stewart to the Astros. In return, the Reds picked up Morgan, pitcher Jack Billingham, outfielder Cesar Geronimo, outfielder Ed Armbrister, and infielder Denis Menke.

May and Helms were particularly popular with Reds fans in those days, and most people who followed the Reds knew very little of the new Reds – even  though Morgan had been in Houston for 10 seasons and had two All Star game appearances.

Five future Reds Hall of Fame members were involved in that trade – Morgan, Billingham, Geronimo, May and Helms.

As baseball trades go, it was a whopper.

And it didn't take long for Reds fans to figure out that their team had gotten the best of the deal.

He became known to fans as "Little Joe," to distinguish him from the Reds broadcaster and former pitcher, Joe Nuxhall, who became "Big Joe."

Joe Morgan was born on Sept. 19, 1943 in Bonham, Texas. When he was five, his family moved to Oakland, California, where they had relatives and where the job prospects were better.

It wasn't until 1963 when a scout from the Houston Colt 45s – later called the Astros – offered Morgan a contract to play minor league ball at $500 a month. Playing in the minor leagues in Moultree, Georgia, and with the Durham Bulls, he felt the sting of racial prejudice as the only black on the team, with fans hurling racial invectives at him and being prevented from staying with the team in all-white motels on the road.

But the next season, playing AA ball in the Texas League, he faired much better, having a fantastic year that earned him the Texas League Most Valuable Player award.

Morgan skipped over the highest level of the minor leagues – AAA ball – and went straight to the Astros in 1965 to play in Houston's Astrodome.

On the artificial turf, Morgan honed his base-running and fielding skills, becoming one of the premiere base-stealers in baseball.

Still, though, he and other African American players faced racism.

"You could not help but be aware that no matter how fairly others tried to treat you – never a guarantee – it was always a struggle to go from town to town, hotel to hotel, restaurant to restaurant,'' Morgan wrote in his autobiography. "Even in those places where blacks were allowed, there was still an underlying sense of being out of place."

Making it worse was his last manager in Houston, Harry Walker, a man whom Morgan considered an out-and-out racist. So did many others in baseball.

Walker made Morgan out to be a trouble-maker, which he was not. Morgan had had his fill of Harry Walker.

He was disappointed at first by being traded to the Reds, but that disappointment didn't last long. He found a friend and ally in Reds manager Sparky Anderson.

Sparky did something for Morgan in 1972 that is very rare and shows the regard he had for Morgan's skills and brains – Morgan was given the green light to steal or not steal; to bunt or not bunt.

joe morgan
Credit AP
Morgan slides safely into second with a steal ahead of the throw to Pirates' shortstop Tim Foli, October 3, 1979. It was his eighth stolen base in championship series play and with it he set a record.

Five straight years winning the National League Gold Glove for second basemen. A National League All Star in all eight of his years with the Reds.

Many believe he was the spark plug in one of the greatest lineups ever – Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Ken Griffey, Tony Perez, David Concepcion, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo.

Three of them are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Morgan, Bench, Perez). Another (Concepcion) should be. And a fifth (Rose) would be, had he not frittered away his chance with gambling on baseball.

One of the saddest chapters of Reds history came after the 1976 championship, when management and the ascendency of free agency began to break up the Big Red Machine.

Perez was traded away; Rose signed with the Phillies after the 1978 season; and Reds fans were stunned when Sparky Anderson was fired after that 1978 season.

Morgan left in 1980, signing with his old team, the Astros. After that he spent one year each with the San Francisco Giants, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Oakland Athletics. He retired at the end of the 1984 season, and he went into a long and successful career as a broadcaster.

His career statistics are astounding: 2,517 hits, 1,865 walks, 268 home runs, 689 stolen bases and a career batting average of .271.

In 1999, Morgan ranked 60th on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

His number 8 was retired by the Reds in 1987; and a bronze statue of Morgan in mid-stride stands outside Great American Ball Park.

And so Little Joe stands tall in Cincinnati Reds' history.

This story was first published Aug. 2, 2019.

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Cincinnati Reds At 150" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.