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Joe Morgan and the Reds could have selected several familiar poses for the bronze statue that will be unveiled outside Great American Ball Park this year, immortalizing the Big Red Machine second baseman as one of the game’s greatest stars.
Fans from the 1970s will always remember the image of the 5-foot, 7-inch Morgan standing at the plate, flapping his left elbow an instant before the pitcher threw the ball.
“Nellie Fox told me to do that. He taught me my rookie year (in Houston),” Morgan said. Fox, once a star second baseman with the White Sox, was at the end of his career when Morgan came up late in the 1964 season. “He said if I kept my left elbow away from my body I’d hit fewer popups and fly balls.”
There’s also the image of Morgan in the field, pouncing left or right to turn a hit into an out with his Little League-size glove. Morgan was one of the best fielding second basemen in history and yet he claimed to have the smallest glove in the majors. It fit easily inside a standard infielder's model. Morgan said he wanted to be able to find the ball and get rid of it quickly.
"With a small glove, you know where the ball is all the time. The glove is the pocket," he once said.
Marty Brennaman recalls the regular sight of Morgan the base stealer taking a daring lead off first with his right foot planted outside the sliding pit on the Riverfront Stadium AstroTurf.
“When he’d take that lead at first base, with ‘one foot on the carpet,’ it forced us in the broadcast media to use that as a descriptive phrase to convey to people what a tremendous lead he had. Nobody else could consistently take the lead the took,” the long-time Reds broadcaster said in a foreword to the book “Big Red Dynasty.”
So, what to choose to best represent Morgan’s contribution to the Reds’ greatest era:
Morgan the slugger? Morgan the slick fielder? Or Morgan the base stealer?
Morgan, the Reds and sculptor Tom Tsuchiya settled on Morgan the base stealer. The statue will show Morgan breaking toward second from a huge lead off first. The statue will have a 14-foot base, with first base at one end and Morgan coming out of his blocks at the other.
"The pose shows one of the tools that Morgan brought to the table that was so important to the success of the Big Red Machine,” said Rick Walls, executive director of the Reds Hall of Fame & Museum.
And it was the most fitting choice. After all. when Reds General Manager Bob Howsam was looking to remake the club after a disappointing 1971 season, he was looking for speed – and Morgan was the guy he wanted most.
At the beginning of the Big Red Machine era, the 1970 Reds had been a power club, and with Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Lee May, Bobby Tolan and Pete Rose providing the punch, they dominated the National League, finishing 102-60 after moving from Crosley Field into Riverfront Stadium midway through the season. The Reds lost the World Series to the Orioles, but optimism reigned. However, key injuries doomed the 1971 season, and the Reds finished fourth at 79-83.
With more and more teams moving into multi-use stadiums with AstroTurf fields, Howsam saw a revolution changing the game.
In “Big Red Dynasty,” authors Greg Rhodes and John Erardi wrote: “The bigger, slicker fields required faster, more agile players. A club that could blend speed with power would have a tremendous advantage in the plastic turf age. No one saw the revolution coming sooner than Howsam, and no organization was quicker to adapt.”
Playing in the Astrodome, Morgan had already prepared himself for what was coming.
“I was a player of the future, ideally suited to these new parks,” he said in his autobiography, “Joe Morgan: A Life in Baseball.” He worked on his base stealing and running and worked on fielding the ball off AstroTurf.
When Howsam started trade talks with Houston after the 1971 season, he offered May for Morgan straight up, according to “Big Red Dynasty.” But other teams wanted Morgan, too, and as the Astros listened to other offers and weeks passed by, Howsam took the opportunity to expand the deal. The Reds and Astros shook hands at the winter meetings on Nov. 29, 1971.
It turned out to be the greatest trade the Reds ever made – getting Morgan, speedy center fielder Cesar Geronimo, pitcher Jack Billingham, utility infielder Denis Menke and outfielder Ed Armbrister. The Reds had to give up May, their starting first baseman, starting second baseman Tommy Helms and super sub Jimmy Stewart, but they locked in two regulars (Morgan and Geronimo) and a starting pitcher (Billingham) who would be keys to the success of the ‘70s.
Howsam had traded for outfielder George Foster during the 1971 season, and now the pieces were in place.
Before obtaining Morgan, the Reds had the makings of an outstanding team – at least for the short term. After the trade, they became a dynasty.
Next page: But would Morgan work with the rest of the Reds?
%page_break%Going into the 1972 season, the big question was: How will Morgan fit in the clubhouse chemistry, especially with Rose, Bench and Perez?
Manager Sparky Anderson put Morgan’s spring training locker next to Rose’s. “My feeling was a little of what made Rose tick might rub off on Joe,” Anderson told Rhodes and Erardi.
It worked beautifully. “Big Red Dynasty” said Rose welcomed Morgan, and “with their lockers side by side, Rose and Morgan discovered common ground - from their love of the game, to their common need to excel, to their appreciation of the artful put-down.”
During their six years together in Cincinnati, Rose and Morgan lockered next to each other in the Reds clubhouse, and the area became a focal point of clubhouse camaraderie, with Perez, Bench and others joining in. The triumvirate of clubhouse leaders had become a gang of four.
Before Morgan ever played a game with the Reds, Anderson gave him an important vote of confidence – the green light. He told Morgan to bunt or steal as Morgan saw fit. “I will never give you a sign,” Anderson said.
Morgan was so overwhelmed that he never told anyone until he left the Reds.
“It was such a challenge and such an act of trust,” Morgan recalled in his autobiography, “if I had wanted to, I could not have walked away from it.”
The rest is history.
Morgan had such a remarkable career in Cincinnati, blending speed, power, a high on-base percentage and superb fielding in a combination so rare that baseball historian Bill James called him the best second baseman ever.
Morgan himself disputed whether he deserved to be rated above Rogers Hornsby and other greats, but there was no disputing Johnny Bench’s opinion.
“He is probably the best player I ever played with,” said Bench.
Brennaman called Morgan the best all-around player on the Big Red Machine and added: “For two seasons (1975-76), he was the best all-around player I have ever seen – and I’m including Ken Griffey, Jr., and Barry Bonds in that.”
During his eight Reds seasons (1972-79), Morgan was an All-Star every year. The Reds won two World Series (1975-76), three National League pennants (1972, ’75, ’76), and five division titles (1972-73, ’75-76, ’79). Morgan won back-to-back NL Most Valuable Player Awards (1975-76) and five straight Gold Gloves (1973-77).
He only batted over .300 in 1975-76, but he had more than 110 walks in seven of his eight seasons, and if it seemed to pitchers that he was always on base, it must have seemed like they couldn't stop him from going to second when that base was open.
It was no coincidence that Morgan won his MVPs in the same years the Reds won the World Series.
In 1975 he had career highs in batting average (.327), walks (135) and steals (67 in 77 attempts). He scored 107 runs, knocked in 84 and hit 17 home runs, with an on-base percentage of .466 and a slugging percentage of .508.
He was even more lethal in 1976, with career highs in home runs (27) and RBI (111), a .320 average, 113 runs and 60 stolen bases in 69 attempts. He led the league in on-base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.576). And he did it despite starting in only 131 games.
In his Cincinnati heyday (1972-76), Morgan averaged incredible numbers for a second baseman: 22 home runs, 85 RBI, 113 runs, 119 walks, 62 steals, on-base percentage of .436. and slugging percentage of .498.
It was hard to see where “Little Joe” got all his power – he barely weighed 150 – but he worked hard in the weight room to build up muscle, and he had a quick swing.
“I’ll always be happy because I‘ve accomplished more than any little guy who ever lived,” he said.
Next page: After the Reds
%page_break%After leaving the Reds, Morgan, Rose and Perez got together on the Phillies in 1983 for one last go-round together. Morgan turned 40 that season, and though the Phillies went to the World Series (losing to the Orioles), he was only a shadow of himself. He played his 22nd season in his hometown of Oakland and retired after 1984.
Hall of Fame voters rewarded Morgan with election on the first ballot in 1990.
“I take my induction as a vote for the little guy in the middle of the diamond who doesn’t hit 500 home runs,” Morgan said at Cooperstown. “I accumulated my stats for the team, not for myself. I like to think that’s what made me a little special.”
That same year, the 46-year-old Morgan got his college diploma.
“The reason the college took so long was that when I graduated from high school I was offered a contract,” he said. “My father wanted me to take it. My mother wanted me to get an education. I said to her, ‘If you let me sign, I promise I’ll get the degree.’
“I thought my mother had forgotten about my promise.”
Morgan entered the Reds Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Reds retired his No. 8 in 1998.
Morgan went on to a successful career in broadcasting and business. He broadcast major-league games on ESPN for 21 years, along with appearances on ABC and NBC, and owned several businesses, including Joe Morgan Honda in Monroe, Ohio.
In 2010, Morgan rejoined the Reds as special advisor to baseball operations. He has informal sessions with players but said his job mostly involves community affairs and bringing baseball to the inner city through the Reds Urban Youth Academy.
“The Reds have done so much so far with building fields, they have teams, they buy uniforms… I wanted to be a part of that,” Morgan told 9 On Your Side’s Dennis Janson.
With a push from Morgan, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig threw his support behind the Urban Youth Academy.
“I had talked to the Commissioner 15 years ago that we should have academies here for our kids like they have in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Japan,” Morgan said.
If you’re thinking this could be the Reds’ year, Morgan is thinking that, too. He told 9 On Your Side that Shin-Soo Choo is a great addition at the top of the batting order.
“This guy can play, I mean, he’s going to get on base, he can hit and I think he’s going to hit 20 home runs in this ballpark,” said Morgan, who will turn 70 on Sept. 19.
Perhaps Choo might complete the puzzle and get the Reds back to the World Series, like Morgan did in 1972.
But no matter how the Reds do in 2013, this will be Joe Morgan’s year.
A special Joe Morgan exhibit at the Reds Hall of Fame & Museum is on display all season. It features his 1978 Gold Glove Award and other Morgan memorabilia.
Morgan’s statue will be unveiled – next to Bench’s – on Sept. 7. He expects to be overwhelmed with emotion remembering his Big Red Machine teammates.
“There were some really great players on that team – the Davey Concepcions, the Fosters, the Griffeys – and it’s just unfortunate we can’t put all eight of us up there,” Morgan told 9 On Your Side.
“When I went into Cooperstown, I thought that was it – you’ve reached the pinnacle. But for the Cincinnati Reds and the city of Cincinnati to appreciate what I did enough to want to put a sculpture out front, it means I wasn’t finished.”