Fifty years ago, some of the final pieces to the Big Red Machine puzzle were put together in an eight-player trade with the Houston Astros, headlined by the acquisition of second baseman and future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.
On Nov. 29, 1971, the Reds traded Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart for Morgan, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, César Gerónimo and Denis Menke.
At the time, the consensus seemed to be that the Astros, a division rival in the then-National League West, were getting the better end of the deal. Houston had been hovering around .500 the previous few seasons and seemed on the verge of taking the next step. By adding a slugger and Reds team MVP in May, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glover in Helms and a quality utility player in Stewart, it was understandable why some may have thought that way. But in the end, the trade turned out to be arguably the most pivotal -- and perhaps the most beneficial -- in Reds history.
Both teams were coming off 79-83 seasons in 1971. The Reds, however, were just one year removed from a 102-win season in which they reached the World Series. With a roster already boasting Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, Ken Griffey Sr. and more, they were on the fringe of contending again. And with the addition of slugger George Foster early in the ’71 season, the Big Red Machine was off and running.
Helms, who started his career with the Reds and spent eight seasons in Cincinnati, had been manning second base at the time. He didn’t expect to be traded in the ’71 offseason but understood what lead scout Ray Shore and the Reds were after when they made the deal.
“The big thing was the AstroTurf was coming in all the parks,” Helms said. “Everybody was trying to build a team around speed, so they went for the Geronimo’s and the Morgan’s. And they already had speed in Cincinnati with Griffey and Davey (Concepcion). But it seemed like everyone was going to AstroTurf, so that’s how they would start building clubs: with pitching and speed.”
After seeing what Morgan accomplished in a Reds uniform, it seems unfathomable that a team would willingly get rid of a player of his caliber at age 28, right at or entering the prime of his career. It begs the question of whether those involved were aware of just how good Morgan was or would become.
“At the time, I knew he was a good player with good speed,” Helms said. “Houston had a tough park to hit home runs in, and then he came to Cincinnati and hit 26 [in 1973]. Joe was the type of player who was so smart about the game that he’d just look up at the scoreboard and that would tell him what to do every time he’d come up. He never swung at a bad pitch. He would steal a base every time the team needed it. And at first, a lot of people thought he didn’t have enough arm to be a really good second baseman, but he proved them wrong too.”
Billingham had been Morgan’s teammate in Houston for three years before the pair went to Cincinnati. He, too, hadn’t expected to be traded. In fact, it was the Astros’ team doctor who first told Billingham that he might be packing his bags after hearing his name tossed around in the front office. The team called him shortly after to inform him of the trade, followed by Reds manager Sparky Anderson.
“I was pretty excited to stay with Houston because they had just started playing good baseball, and we had a pretty good team,” he said. “But then they said Cincinnati and I was OK with that. I think Sparky called me after that and one of the first things he said was, ‘Welcome to the Reds. Get a haircut.’”
While Morgan was undoubtedly the focal point of the Reds’ haul from the Astros, Billingham doesn’t believe the Reds even knew just how special No. 8 was going to be. Neither did Billingham.
“When you play with the Big Red Machine and you’re playing and winning, everybody becomes better,” Billingham said. “I always said that Joe Morgan was an All-Star second baseman in Houston. Then he came to Cincinnati and after a year or two he became a Hall of Famer. He’s the best overall player that I ever played with. He could do just about anything.”
And just about anything he did. When it was all said and done, the first-ballot Hall of Famer finished his eight seasons in Cincinnati with two World Series titles, two NL MVP Awards, eight consecutive All-Star appearances and five Rawlings Gold Glove Awards. He is also a Reds Hall of Fame inductee, had his No. 8 retired in Cincinnati and has a statue dedicated in his honor outside of Great American Ball Park. Add to those accomplishments everything he contributed off the field to the Greater Cincinnati community, and the return on investment becomes unquantifiable.
Now, a half-century later, it doesn’t take a lot of number-crunching to determine which team came out on top of the trade. The Astros put together a couple winning seasons in 1972 and 1973, but wouldn’t reach the postseason again until 1980. Meanwhile, the Reds reached the postseason in four of the five years following the trade, making the World Series three times and winning back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976.
If that doesn’t make it clear enough, here are some cut-and-dry numbers sabermetrics fans will love to hear. The Astros players acquired from the Reds posted a collective 9.6 WAR (wins above replacement) during their time in Houston. The players Cincinnati acquired tallied a combined WAR of 77, 57.9 of which can be attributed to Morgan.
After 50 years, the legacy of the late Joe Morgan remains one of the most cherished in the city of Cincinnati. And the trade that brought him to the Queen City will continue to rank at the top of the Reds' record books for years to come.