A big part of the engine that moved the Big Red Machine to greatness has died. All of baseball is mourning the loss of Hall of Fame player and former broadcaster Joe Morgan, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 77.
Morgan was fortunate to have two enduring careers, first as a 10-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman for five teams, most of them with the Reds and Astros, over 22 seasons from 1963-84, then as the lead baseball analyst on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball telecasts from 1989-2010. After leaving ESPN, he returned to the Reds in 2010 as a senior advisor to baseball operations while also taking on a role in community relations.
Considered perhaps the greatest second baseman to don a Major League uniform, Morgan batted .271/.392/.427 with 268 home runs, 1,133 RBIs, 689 steals and 1,650 runs in his big league career. He was a National League All-Star in eight straight seasons from 1972-79, all while with the Reds.
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“Major League Baseball is deeply saddened by the death of Joe Morgan, one of the best five-tool players our game has ever known and a symbol of all-around excellence," Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "Joe often reminded baseball fans that the player smallest in stature on the field could be the most impactful. On a Big Red Machine roster stocked with greats, Joe earned National League MVP honors during both of Cincinnati’s World Series Championship seasons of 1975 and 1976."
"The Reds family is heartbroken. Joe was a giant in the game and was adored by the fans in this city," Reds CEO Bob Castellini said. "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."
An Oakland, Calif., native, Morgan established himself as a Major Leaguer in Houston with the Colt .45s, later renamed the Astros, from 1963-71. He was a two-time All-Star and finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 1965 for Houston, but a blockbuster trade proved to make him the missing piece the Big Red Machine needed. On Nov. 29, 1971, Morgan, along with Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke and Ed Armbrister, was traded to Cincinnati for Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart.
Thus began the most prolific period of Morgan’s career, as he joined a team that already had greats like Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Davey Concepcion. Batting behind Rose and ahead of Bench and Perez, the 5-foot-7 Morgan played in four World Series and helped the club win back-to-back championships in 1975-76, during which he had a combined .456 on-base percentage and .997 OPS. He was the NL’s Most Valuable Player in both of those title seasons, delivering two game-winning hits in the '75 World Series, including the one in Game 7 of that classic Series against the Red Sox.
“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," Bench said. "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.”
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After the Big Red Machine was broken up in the late '70s, Morgan returned to the Astros as a free agent in 1980 for one season in 1980, helping his original club win the NL West. His final four seasons were spent with the Giants, Phillies and A’s and he finished with the most career home runs by a second baseman at the time (he’s now ranked fourth all-time). Among second basemen, he leads all-time in plate appearances (11,069), stolen bases (678) and runs scored (1,625).
“Joe was one of a kind,” his wife, Theresa, said. “Both on and off the field, he fought for what he believed in and dedicated himself to helping others rise and thrive. His example will inspire people for decades to come."
Morgan was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot he appeared on in 1990.
“Along with baseball fans everywhere, I am terribly saddened by the passing of Hall of Famer Joe Morgan," Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig said. "Joe was great in so many ways. He was a great player. He was a great representative of the game. And from a personal standpoint, he was a great friend. My wife, Sue, and I will miss him, and we send our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.”
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While with ESPN, for which he was a two-time Sports Emmy Award winner, Morgan continued to give back to the game. He served on the board of directors for the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.) and the Jackie Robinson Foundation and supported youth baseball programs around the nation. He contributed to the Youth America Baseball and Oakland Unified School District sports programs.
“Joe was a close friend and an advisor to me, and I welcomed his perspective on numerous issues in recent years," Manfred said. "He was a true gentleman who cared about our game and the values for which it stands. Those who knew him -- whether as a Sunday Night Baseball broadcaster, a Hall of Fame board member or simply as one of the legends of our National Pastime -- are all the better for it. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest sympathy to Joe’s wife Theresa, his family, his many friends across our sport, the fans of Cincinnati and everywhere his 22-year career took him, and all those who admired perhaps the finest second baseman who ever lived.”
Morgan was estranged from the Reds during the 1980s and early '90s, when they were under the ownership of Marge Schott. Relations began to thaw when the club made the overdue decision to retire his uniform No. 8 in 1998.
After the Castellini family took over the club in 2006, Morgan’s ties tightened with the Reds and the city of Cincinnati. Around the time he joined the front office in 2010, he established himself more in the community and opened a car dealership just north of Cincinnati in Butler County.
During the 2015 All-Star Game at Great American Ball Park, for which Morgan helped lobby Major League Baseball for Cincinnati to be host, Morgan was named, along with Bench, Rose and Barry Larkin, as one of the Reds’ “Franchise Four” of all-time greats.
“Joe was a big part of my family during the time we played together and that remained the same long after our careers ended," Perez said. "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.”
Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook.