CINCINNATI — On Sept. 19, Pete Rose called his friend and former Big Red Machine teammate Joe Morgan to wish him a happy birthday, as he did most years.
When Morgan didn’t return his call or texts, Rose became concerned.
“That wasn’t really Joe,” Rose said by phone on Monday. “Every time I called Joe, he called me back (within) the next hour. I guess the past couple months he was really sick to the point where he didn’t really want to talk to anybody.”
Early Monday morning, Morgan’s wife, Theresa, called Rose to inform him that her husband, the Hall of Fame second baseman and two-time National League most valuable player, had passed away at around 4 p.m. Sunday at his Danville, California, home. Morgan was 77.
Listen to Rose's full interview on Morgan's passing in the player below:
As word spread of Morgan’s passing on Monday, condolences and accolades flooded in from throughout the baseball world.
Morgan is remembered for being the engine that powered the Big Red Machine clubs of the 1970s, leading them to three pennants and back-to-back World Series triumphs in 1975 and 1976 after he arrived in a trade with the Astros in ’72.
"The Reds family is heartbroken," Reds CEO Bob Castellini said. "Joe was a giant in the game and was adored by the fans in this city... He had a lifelong loyalty and dedication to this organization that extended to our current team and front-office staff. As a cornerstone on one of the greatest teams in baseball history, his contributions to this franchise will live forever. Our hearts ache for his Big Red Machine teammates."
The Reds are heartbroken to learn of the passing of baseball legend Joe Morgan. pic.twitter.com/zBoQ2gHZys— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) October 12, 2020
At a campaign stop at Cincinnati's Union Terminal on Monday, former vice president and 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden expressed his condolences to Morgan's family, noting Morgan's stint with the Philadelphia Phillies.
"I'm saddened to hear one of my baseball heroes, Joe Morgan, second baseman, Reds legend, Hall of Famer, and a good man, passed away -- and my condolences to the Morgan family and his teammates and to his fans here in Cincinnati, and all across the country," Biden said.
Morgan arrived in a blockbuster deal that sent power-hitter Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms and outfielder Jimmy Stewart to Houston in exchange for Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Denis Menke and Ed Armbrister. The deal took an already strong Reds ball club under manager Sparky Anderson and elevated it to legendary status as one of the game’s greatest teams.
“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,” Reds Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench said in a statement. “He was a dedicated father and husband, and a day won’t go by that I won’t think about his wisdom and friendship. He left the world a better, fairer, and more equal place than he found it and inspired millions along the way.”
A 10-time All-Star, Morgan was elected to the Reds Hall of Fame in 1987 and to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990. The two-time National League MVP played for the Reds from 1972-79, during the glory days of the Big Red Machine.
Morgan won his first Most Valuable Player award in 1975, when he guided the Reds to a World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox, and he was MVP again in 1976 as the Reds swept the Yankees for their second straight World Series championship.
"He was a super teammate,” said former Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Sr. by phone on Monday. “He understood the game. He made sure all the young players were taken of. And like a big brother to most of us - me, George (Foster) and Davey (Concepcion) and (Cesar) Geronimo. I'm kind of upset because of the fact that I had just called him last week to see how he was doing. And I heard from a friend of mine this morning that he passed yesterday."
Griffey said he emulated how Morgan effectively stole bases.
"You look at Joe – he could've stolen as many bases as he wanted to, but he only stole under pressure," Griffey said. "And that was one of the things I admired about him because I was kind of a basestealer myself, but I would always watch him and how far he got off first base and they couldn't pick him off. And like I said, his stature wasn't that tall but he was a tall person out on the field. He was a giant out there."
Morgan remains the Reds’ all-time stolen base leader (406), and he finished his 22-year professional career with 268 homers, 1,133 RBI and 689 stolen bases for the Astros, Reds, Giants, Phillies and Athletics.
Although he only spent one season with the team, the Philadelphia Phillies offered condolences as well on Monday. The statement read in part: "A gentleman first and foremost, Joe was a model citizen on and off the field. He will be missed by baseball fans not just in Philadelphia, but around the world. The Phillies send their condolences to the Morgan family."
“Joe was a big part of my family during the time we played together and that remained the same long after our careers ended,” said Hall of Famer Tony Perez in a statement. “He was one of those guys who was just special on so many levels in all that he did. Joe was a great player, a great teammate, and a great person. Our group shared some very special moments and experiences that will remain with us forever. At the moment, it’s just hard to put into words how much he meant to so many, and how missed he will be.”
After retiring as a player, Morgan went on to have a successful baseball broadcasting career for the Reds, Giants and ESPN. He teamed with Bob Costas and Bob Uecker on postseason telecasts and hosted a weekly nationally syndicated radio show on Sports USA. Morgan also had served as a special adviser to Castellini and the club's baseball operations department since 2010.
The Associated Press reported that Morgan was suffering from a nerve condition, a form of polyneuropathy. He also had recovered from a bone marrow transplant for an undisclosed illness and had near fatal complications following knee replacement surgery.
During recent visits to Great American Ball Park including for the All-Star Game festivities in 2015, Morgan walked slowly with a cane.
“He went through hell the past couple of years,” said Rose, who had an emotional reunion with Morgan in 2017 when baseball's all-time hits leader had his own statue unveiled outside Great American Ball Park. “He was always in good spirits.”
Morgan is the latest baseball legend to pass away this year, joining former Reds pitcher Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Al Kaline.
“Joe Morgan was a Hall of Famer both on and off the field,” said MLB players association executive director Tony Clark in a statement. “His extraordinary accomplishments as a player were equaled if not surpassed as a born leader whose positive, upbeat personality would naturally bring players together for a common cause. His presence as part of our baseball family will be sorely missed and we send our deepest sympathies to his family, friends and loved ones.”
Rose called Morgan the most intelligent player and the best second baseman he played with or against. He fondly recalled dinners on the road with Morgan and former Reds Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman.
“We just talked baseball,” Rose said. “Joe wasn’t a drinker. He was a class guy. He was great friend. A rock as far as a ballplayer. A rock as far as a father and a husband. He fit all the criteria for that, and we'll miss him.”