Morgan the 'heart and soul' of Reds UYA

November 25th, 2020

CINCINNATI -- Drive along Seymour Ave. in the Roselawn section of Cincinnati and you will see Joe Morgan Way. If you make the turn, you will see a legacy of the man the street is named for -- the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy.

Without Morgan’s efforts, the facility may never have stood there. Morgan died on Oct. 11 at the age of 77 after battling a long illness. The next day, the academy re-opened after being shut down for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The guts of our facility, the guts of our programs clearly are impacted by Joe’s vision and leadership,” said Charley Frank, executive director of the Reds Community Fund. “He passed away Oct. 11, but it became news to most people on Oct. 12. The timing of it was very poignant for us and made us reflect on how important Joe was in our ability to reach this point where we have this world-class facility and layers of programs directed mostly to getting a diverse population back in the game. Joe put us on his shoulders and helped us get there.”

When Morgan died, Cincinnati and the baseball world mourned the loss of a Hall of Fame second baseman, a two-time National League Most Valuable Player Award winner, a key component for the Big Red Machine of the 1970s and an iconic ESPN game broadcaster and analyst from 1989-2010.

There was an additional dimension to Morgan, one that impacted the community -- especially Cincinnati -- over the last decade of his life.

“Joe brought so much of his heart, soul and toughness to this community in ways people really don’t know,” Frank said. “When he re-emerged with the Reds under the [Bob] Castellini ownership team, they all of a sudden started seeing him more under a different light. They started seeing him in that third stage of his life, the business and community side.

“Having had the privilege of experiencing that firsthand, I can tell you that I haven’t witnessed that level of passion and determination with any other scenario that I can think of in my business life. Joe was committed, so determined, so tough and fearless.”

As MLB saw interest waning in urban areas and in the African American community, it established ties with Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) in 1991 to bring baseball to underserved kids ages 5-12. By the early 2000’s, Morgan pressed then-Commissioner Bud Selig to make a bigger investment to bring baseball back to urban spaces, one that could potentially provide minority teens the opportunity to play elite baseball and the opportunities toward advanced education.

“Joe Morgan was the primary voice in former Commissioner Bud Selig’s ear, challenging him to do the right thing and open training academies for a primarily minority audience in the U.S,” Frank said. “It seems like such an obvious maneuver now, but Joe was the one singular individual who refused to let go of the message that if we are spending billions of dollars as an industry training players around the world and we are bemoaning the lack of participation in the game on the field and in the stands and we aren’t doing something to turn that around, then we are completely missing the boat. Joe was the one who had that vision first, and Joe was relentless with the former Commissioner.”

MLB opened its first Urban Youth Academy in 2006 in Compton, Calif., near Los Angeles. Four years later, the second academy was located in Houston. Cincinnati opened its academy in '14 and was the first cold-weather city to host a facility.

Morgan, who joined the Reds front office in 2010 as a senior advisor to baseball operations, became personally involved with the planning and execution of Cincinnati’s efforts to build the academy. Frank said Morgan would only commit himself to the program if it was the best of its kind in both the facility and the programming. He was shown how the Reds Community Fund operated academies in its temporary location in the city’s Winton Place neighborhood, where programs began in '09.

“That hard edge, at first, you could see the business side of Joe Morgan and you could see why he was so successful. He was smart, he was informed, he was prepared. And, he was tough,” Frank said. “He didn’t just say, ‘I want this to be the best,’ and walk away. Every conversation in every meeting, Joe made everybody meet his standard.”

In August 2014, the Reds and MLB cut the ribbon on a $7.5 million, 33,000-square-foot academy. Morgan and Selig were there along with Frank Robinson, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and players such as Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips to open a facility that featured state-of-the-art equipment indoors and multiple ballfields outdoors.

“When Joe finally cut the ribbon, we talked about how this was his project,” Frank said. “It was something that meant so much to him throughout Major League Baseball. But this was his town. Joe broke down and wept. Is this his legacy in Cincinnati? It’s certainly one of them.”

Morgan remained engaged in Reds Community Fund initiatives, including his attending dedications to renovated youth fields. Frank and members of his staff often received phone calls from Morgan asking where he could pitch in and help.

A local artist group is developing a mural depicting Morgan for the outside of the academy. The plan is for it to be installed in the spring of 2021.

“Joe will continue to be the heart and soul of our academy,” Frank said. “That will never change.”