CINCINNATI — The Big Four of the Big Red Machine have all been more about hijinks and wielding the sharpest needle. They behave like frat brothers around each other — even though the youngest of the four is a few months shy of 70 years old.
You rarely see raw emotion from Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez or Joe Morgan.
But Saturday had a damp-eye moment. It came when Morgan took the podium at the ceremony to unveil Rose’s statue.
“I just want to say I wouldn’t be here without my wife Theresa,” Morgan said, his voice breaking. “She spells her name with a T-H, but to me she’s Mother Teresa. She is. I just wanted to say, ‘Thank you, Theresa,’ and thank you everybody for the reception I received today. Thank you.”
Morgan has been in ill health since 2014. He missed Rose’s induction into the Reds Hall of Fame last year and Rose’s number retirement last summer. Rose’s voice cracked when he talked about Morgan.
Not only did he make the ceremony Saturday. He walked up the stage with the help of a pair of canes. More than a few people in the crowd got choked up watching that.
Morgan’s health problem began with a knee replacement that didn’t go well. He later had a bone-marrow transplant. Morgan has kept the details private — even to those close to him.
“When Joe was sick, I didn’t realized he was that sick,” Rose said. “Because, first of all, he’d never tell you. I called him every other day or every day. He always sounded good.”
But the situation was grave.
“He was near death,” Bench said. “He was an invalid. Now, he sees ahead. He sees the end of the tunnel. It’s not another train coming. It’s something to be happy about.
“Once again, he’s back to being Joe.”
The Big Red Machine would not be mentioned with the greatest teams of all time if not for the trade that brought Morgan, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo from Houston.
“Joe was one of those guys,” Rose said. “I don’t want to say he was the missing link. But we lost in ’70. We had a bad year in ’71. Joe came in ’72. We went to the World Series. We went to playoffs in New York in ‘73. We won the World Series back-to-back.”
Morgan was the best player on team that was stacked with talent. He was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1975 and ’76.
“It was such a huge trade for all of us,” Bench said.
Those championship years are long ago. The Reds have celebrated them many times, but it’s hard to say how many times the Big Four will be together again.
Rose joked that Davey Concepcion has told Rose he’ll be the first to go since he’s the oldest.
“After Davey saw Joe, he told me I wasn’t going to be the first to go,” Rose said. “He said Joe was. You said that, didn’t you, Davey?”
Rose is 76, Perez is 75, Morgan is 72 and Bench turns 70 in December. Rose’s statue means they’ll all live on — at least in bronze — forever. But time is undefeated.
That’s why it was so important for the others for Morgan to be here. It was a long process.
“We’ve been working with Joe, talking with Joe for two years,” Bench said. “The hospital stays, finally finding the donor, getting out of the wheelchair. We talked. I said, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ He’s got the spirit and the determination.”
Bench said Morgan has recently turned the corner.
“To see him from a month ago,” Bench said. “It means so much to him to viable again.”
And it means so much for the Big Four to be back together.
“To put all these four together makes it a very grand moment,” Bench said. “It makes it perfect to top this all off.”
“It’s the same for all three of us,” Rose said. “We love Joe.”