Several Reds players appeared on the most recent ESPN Hall of 100, the network’s list of the one hundred greatest players of all time. Here’s my general post on their rankings. I’ve previously covered Barry Larkin (#75), Pete Rose (#38), Ken Griffey Jr. (#35), Johnny Bench (#26), Tom Seaver (#22), and Frank Robinson (#20). The numbers in parentheses reflect the player ranking on the ESPN list.
Joe Morgan (#18) has long been my favorite of the Big Red Machine members. He provided value in so many ways that he created endless headaches for opposing managers and players. Morgan’s size made him an unlikely baseball legend. Standing at 5’7 and weighing 160 pounds, Morgan was shorter than Billy Hamilton and weighed a similar amount. But Morgan’s talent was at large as they come.
Morgan was born in Bonham, Texas in 1943. After his playing career at Castlemont High School ended, Morgan was signed by the Houston Colt .45’s in 1962. The Colt .45’s would become the Astros in 1965, the same season Morgan finished second in the Rookie of the Year award race.
The trade that brought Morgan to Cincinnati was controversial to say the least. Many Reds fans panned the trade immediately as the Reds gave up popular slugger Lee May, second baseman and former Rookie of the Year Tommy Helms, and a strong bench player in Jimmy Stewart. In return, the Reds received Morgan, pitcher Jack Billingham, Outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and third baseman Denis Menke.
What Reds fans couldn’t have anticipated was that a previously good Morgan would transform into a Hall of Famer upon putting on the Reds uniform. Sparky Anderson foresaw something special in Morgan. When the trade was made, Anderson told general manager Bob Howsam that Howsam had “just won the pennant for the Reds. The Reds, with Morgan’s help, would prove Anderson prophetic.
Joe Morgan’s first five seasons make up the best five-season stretch in Reds history. From 1972-1976, Morgan put up historic numbers. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) totals from those seasons are as follows:
- 1972: 8.7
- 1973: 9.5
- 1974: 8.6
- 1975: 11.0
- 1976: 9.5
For some context, Tony Perez had one season in his entire career with a WAR over 6.5 (8.2 in 1970). Pete Rose’s highest WAR total was 7.4 in 1976. Even Johnny Bench had only two seasons with at least an 8.0 WAR. Morgan had five of the best seasons ever in five consecutive years.
In Cincinnati, all of Morgan’s elite skills flourished. He hit for average (.288) and power (152 homeruns, .470 slugging percentage). Morgan showed elite on-base skills as he posted a .415 OBP with the Reds. His ability to get on base was boosted by his high walk rate throughout his career (16.5%). He was a prolific base stealer (406). His reputation for excellent defense is verified by the metrics and the eye test alike.
Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards in 1975 and 1976. In 1975, he hit an astounding .327/.466/.508. Morgan stole a career-high tying 67 bases and scored 107 runs. His 11.0 WAR are still the highest total by any Red in one season. Sparky Anderson famously stated that he had never seen someone play better than Morgan played in 1975.
Morgan had an even better offensive season in 1976. He hit .320/.444/.576 with career highs in homeruns (27) RBIs (111), and runs created (184). He again led the Reds to a World Series title.
Morgan eventually left the Reds before the 1980 season via free agency. He retired after the 1984 season having played for 20 years. Morgan finished his career with 98.8 WAR, roughly 26 more career WAR than Rod Carew and 38 more career WAR than Ryne Sandberg. Frankly, he was significantly better than many other Hall of Famers at his position.
After retiring as a player, Morgan spent many years as a baseball analyst for various networks. In 2010, the Reds hired Morgan as a “special advisor to baseball operations. The Reds also put a statue of Morgan outside of Great American Ball Park in 2013.
On Reds teams full of All Stars and future Hall of Famers, Morgan was likely the best player on the Reds best teams, often batting third for the Big Red Machine. Legendary baseball analyst Bill James called Morgan the “best percentages player in baseball history”. Joe Morgan was as complete a player as baseball has ever seen and at his peak, he may have been the greatest Reds player ever.
[I want to thank Nick Carrington for coming up with the idea for and writing this series of posts. This is the eighth and final installment. It’s been great to read about the all-time great players who have worn the Cincinnati Reds uniforms. Thanks, Nick! – SPM]