The sky was so blue that late summer afternoon as I sat nestled in the upper deck before the 2015 All-Star Game. The fans were in full throat. Reverie was in the air. This was an evening that would burnish a 12-year old Great American Ballpark down to its rebar’d foundation, give it the kind of gravitas Riverfront long ago earned hosting all those important 1970s games. Cincinnati was once again the center of the baseball universe.

It was a perfect day, a celebration of what was billed as the “Franchise Four.” Bench. Larkin. Morgan. Rose. I was particularly amused when the big screen caught Mike Trout observing the proceedings from the rail, with an expression on his young face that seemed to ask, “who are these guys?”

Perfect, save for one moment. I was not prepared for the Joe Morgan I would see walk out onto the field that evening. He was frail. No longer the Joe of my youth, he walked oh-so carefully, with such trepidation, it shook me to my core.

He’s gone now. The first of the Great Eight has left us. They were my guys. My youth. And now, one of them is gone.

Joe Morgan could find home plate. Oh could he. Joe Morgan could find home plate, because as a player, that’s the name of the game. If you’re a pitcher, you’d better find home plate with your offerings. And if you’re a batter, you’d better find it with your feet.

Joe could find home plate.

Stand Joe Morgan on first base, put a blindfold on him, spin him around three times and turn him loose and he would cross home plate before you could say “rounding third and heading for home.”

The Reds were plenty good in 1970, winning 70 of their first 100 games. But the Reds were built on speed and Bobby Tolan would tear his Achilles tendon on May 6th of 1971. That wouldn’t work in a new ballpark. As advance scout Ray Shore said:

“At Crosley, you could get by with slower guys, but boy, the minute you move to turf, if you don’t have speed, you can get killed.”

Joe Morgan was the missing ingredient, the kind that turns a good meal into a five star Michelin feast. If Pete Rose was the man who lit the fuse, Joe Morgan WAS the fuse. It wasn’t unusual for the Reds’ first run of the game to come with Joe taking a walk, stealing second base, advancing to third on a ground ball or another steal, then coming home on a sac fly. No hits. One run.

On many nights in the 1970s, the Reds were just going to win. You knew it before fans settled into their seats, before you turned on the television. Why? Because no one could stop Joe Morgan.

When it comes to plate approach, well, listen to Joe:

“I get so many walks because I’m the type of hitter who isn’t strong enough to hit bad pitches for base hits. I need to hit strikes. In many ways batting averages can be misleading. There are players in baseball who hit over .300 and don’t help their teams as much as other players who hit .250. The idea is to score runs, and that’s what I’m supposed to do. A batting average is a personal thing. Unless there are men on base, there is little difference between a single to right field and drawing four balls.”

Remind you of anyone, Reds fans?

Yes. Before Joey Votto, there was Joe Morgan. Even as he’d gone on in retirement to eschew sabermetrics and all it stands for, Joe Morgan played the game in a very sabermetric way. It garnered him two MVP awards. And the Cincinnati Reds two World Championships.

To look at Joe Morgan’s Baseball Reference page is to look through the Hubble Telescope. It’s full of wonder. For example, in 1976, his OPS was 1.020 and his OPS+ was a star-gazing 187.

Stifled by the Astrodome’s dimensions and his manager, Harry “the Hat” Walker, who labeled Joe a “troublemaker,” the young Texan needed a serendipitous change of scenery and Reds GM Bob Howsam was happy to oblige. To this day, I believe the trade for Morgan was the yang to the yin that was the regrettable trade of Frank Robinson. Bill DeWitt had his issues with Frank and was looking to move a troublesome Robinson, who would go on to greater heights, just as Joe Morgan would when the Astros were looking to move the “troublesome” Morgan.

Of course, Joe Morgan was anything but troublesome in Cincinnati—unless you asked opposing pitchers. If pitcher nervous breakdowns were crimes, Joe Morgan’s picture would have been in every post office in every National League city. Those Riverfront sliding boxes. One step outside the first base sliding box raised the alarm bells for the visiting team. Joe Morgan would place both feet outside the box and Riverfront would go nuts.

Lost among all Joe Morgan’s accomplishments on the field were his contributions in that place fans can find no purchase: the clubhouse. Joe Morgan was relentless. His presence in the locker room with Bench, Rose and Perez created a cauldron of competitiveness. Each man challenged the other. All of that spilled onto the field.

If you believe in such things, you may know. Know that he’s up there somewhere. Like he always was at Riverfront. Standing at home. First. That was Joe Morgan.

Great Eight. Great. Number 8.

Steal home one more time, Joe.

27 Responses

  1. Mark Moore

    Well done, Richard. Some great memories. That era was when I first became a confirmed Reds fan. I remember listening to games on an old transistor radio, always happy for a cloudy night when the “radio signal skip” was stronger from WLW up to where I lived in Central NY state. A magical time and a great player.

    Reply
    • Jamie

      I am a lifelong Braves fan. I grew up with Maddux,Glavine,Smoltz, and Chipper. Joe Morgan played a little before my time. I remember him working telecasts with Jon Miller I believe. I just wanted to comment on this article. A great piece of editorial work. Thank you.

      Reply
  2. Wayne Nabors

    The more I watch baseball today,makes me realize just how good the guys like Joe were,I remember wanting foster to get mvp in 76 but as I look back it really wasn’t even close,lil Joe could do it all

    Reply
  3. Dave Willison

    Great article. I grew up in Western PA and only got one TV station out of Johnstown. They would show Pirates’ games when they had the great teams with Stargell and Parker. The Reds were always just a little better than those Pirates teams and the reason I became a Reds fan and not a Pirates fan. The Pirates never had a player, much less an infielder, that could match up to Morgan. The man could do it all. Thank you for all great memories and RIP.

    Reply
    • Mark Moore

      Memories of those Pie-Rats teams and the Stargell Stars on the hats. Kent Tekulve’s hat was ringed with them!

      And remember a lot of the guy sin the era we’re talking about were playing Astroturf over concrete, so not incredibly friendly to the knees.

      Reply
  4. indyDoug

    The differenc between Morgan’s approach and Votto’s is contained in the last sentence of Joe’s quote above:

    “…Unless there are men on base, there is little difference between a single to right field and drawing four balls.”

    Votto doesn’t have the different approach with runners on base that Morgan recognised.

    Reply
    • indyDoug

      Don’t get me wrong, both are all-time HOF Reds, but this recognition, along with his speed and defense, separated the very good (Votto) from the great (Morgan).

      Reply
    • Doug Gray

      Joe Morgan’s walk rate with RISP: 18.4%
      Joe Morgan’s walk rate with men on base: 17.1%
      Joe Morgan’s walk rate with no one on base: 16.0%

      Reply
      • Mark Moore

        Well, that’s pretty consistent. The man had a great eye for the zone (at least the zone of that era).

      • Michael Smith

        But doug he said something different that a basic stat does not back up;)

        In all seriousness I was born in 1980 so I did not get to see Joe play. Wish I had and wish I could have seen Robinson.

      • indyDoug

        Thanks for those stats. Very interesting. But they don’t really address my point. I said what Morgan “realized” about walking with runners on not being same as a hit. I’m not sure Votto approaches AB’s that way or even agrees with Joe’s point. Perhaps Joe didn’t really bat that way given the stats you posted, but he seemed to understand the difference according to his quote. Again, both great Reds but Morgan clearly a step above Votto. Do you have Votto’s stats on same three occurences? Or where might I find those? Thanks for your response. I enjoy your site.

      • Doug Gray

        You noted that the quote was what made their approach different. I can promise you that Joey Votto understands a single is better than a walk. He, like Joe, also understands that swinging at a non-strike isn’t a good idea and it’s likely to lead to an out and not a hit, and it’s why neither of them swung at pitches that weren’t in the zone.

        Everything is available at Baseball Reference in the splits section on a players page. You may need to do a little math on your own to get it down to the percentages instead of the raw numbers.

      • greenmtred

        Votto and Morgan were both great hitters. It’s perfectly understandable that neither would see much in the way of hittable pitches with RISP.

  5. KDJ

    The following quote from #8 was interesting:
    “Unless there are men on base, there is little difference between a single to right field and drawing four balls.”
    Morgan appreciated the importance of the qualifier at the beginning of the statement.

    Reply
  6. RedNat

    Great points Richard. Has there been a franchise that has been more devastated by the ” Camden Yard effect ” than the Cincinnati reds? We were dominant at riverfront because we always had the best athletes. Morgan, Davis, Larkin etc. The fast surface and the huge gaps in the outfield were Taylormade for our style.

    Then the whole world went ” retro” back to the 1950s and obviously we haven’t had much success at gabp. I hope the reds consider changing back to the turf and moving back the walls to give us an advantage again.

    Reply
    • Doug Gray

      No team should be playing on turf. It’s bad for careers – even the new stuff – compared to grass.

      Reply
      • Mark Moore

        Hence my comment above. That era turf over concrete was very destructive to knees.

      • RojoBenjy

        I still go back and think “why on earth would pro athletes agree to play on concrete covered in plastic cheese grater?”

        OUCH!

  7. NorMichRed

    Great writing, Richard! The best stories about great baseball players and baseball history have a tendency of turning prose into poetry, and I think you have nicely accomplished that. I was a UC grad student during three years of the BRM (1972-75) and was privileged to see Joe and the rest of the BRM play in person at their peak, after listening to Reds’ radiocasts from the other side of the state for many years and becoming a fan. One of the best experiences I’ve had as a sports fan. (Others were getting to share the birth of the Colorado Rockies and teach/share baseball with my kids in the early 1990’s, and watching Joe Sakic-Peter Forsberg et al. win their first Stanley Cup before moving back to the Midwest. That one also with my wife & kids.) The BRM was a joy I got to experience singularly, and in a way that sharpened the detail and has kept the precise memories that much more intact! Thanks for triggering some wonderful recall!

    Reply
  8. Pat McGrath

    As a Cardinal fan I held the 70s Reds with equal part disdain and respect. I still believe they should have won more than 2 championships during that era. RIP Joe.

    Reply
  9. Indydoug

    So Votto is WAY more selective than Morgan except when bases empty. That why u didn’t post Votto stats?Thanks TBFR!

    Reply
  10. RojoBenjy

    Richard-

    This is now my favorite thing you have written. A worthy tribute to a worthy person.

    Thank you

    Reply
  11. tomn

    Nice article, Richard. I grew up a Reds fan but only got to see them in person occasionally when my family would drive up from Louisville for our summer vacation. I lived for the 2 games we’d see on the trip.

    I was lucky enough to see the Reds then and whenever I could catch them on TV. I didn’t know how lucky I was to be a Reds fan as a youth, that jthey’d have one of the greatest teams in the history of baseball.

    Joe was a great player and, so it seems, a great guy. I loved hearing him when he dropped in on a broadcast with the Reds over the past several years.

    So sad that he’s gone. Thank you, Joe Morgan.

    Reply

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