Joe Morgan, 1943-2020

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

One of my favorite Joe Morgan stories is one I first came upon in Joe Posnanski’s book on the Reds (The Machine, 2009). In a 1975 game against the Giants, Morgan doubled off of Charlie Williams. When the pitcher threw the next pitch in the dirt and Morgan saw the ball roll away from catcher Marc Hill, he sprinted towards third only to stop suddenly 20 feet from the bag. Hill, sensing an opportunity, gunned his throw to third but wild, and Morgan scampered home.

In the clubhouse after the game, Morgan explained that he had deliberately stopped running to draw a throw which he thought might go wild. The Giants players were livid, calling Morgan an arrogant son-of-a-bitch for disparaging their catcher. Morgan, believing arrogance to be a necessary quality in a star, was thrilled. He had gotten in their heads, which was his plan.

“If Joe keeps up his current pace,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson, “he’ll be dead in another month.”

——-

Many complimentary words have been written about Joe Morgan, the player, since his death last week, and there is no need to gild the lily here. Suffice it to say that I believe Morgan to have been one of the two greatest players of the 1970s (along with his teammate, Johnny Bench), and the greatest second baseman to ever play the game.

Today, I am here to praise his baseball cards.

A couple of things are very striking about Morgan’s cards. First, so many of them are spectacular–he was a good looking man his entire life, but never more so than on a baseball field. And second, his cards are remarkably affordable compared with contemporaries of comparable or lesser accomplishment. You could buy 10 of his rookie cards (1965) for the price of a single rookie card for Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, or Nolan Ryan. And none of his later cards have price tags that reflect his stature in the game’s history.

You can actually tell the story of Topps baseball cards using Morgan as a central figure. His 1966 and 1967 cards are fine specimens of those classic Topps sets–posed photos of a player doing baseball things, with easily recognizable faces. Beautiful.

I bought my first cards in 1967 but I do not believe I saw this Morgan card until a few years later. Which means that my first Morgan cards were these two.

These Morgan card were, as you all likely know, the victim of two unrelated problems: the MLBPA boycott, and Topps’ dispute with the Astros over the use of their name and logo. The latter led to the hatless, uniform-less image, and the former to Topps using this uninspiring image a second time.

It got better the next year.

The card above left, from 1970, is one of my all-time favorites. The ending of the disputes referenced above allowed many kids across America to see these glorious uniforms for the first time. In addition, what we later learned about Joe’s dissatisfaction with his years playing for Harry Walker (being asked to bunt, chop the ball on the ground, etc.) is well captured here, as is Joe’s sour expression. (Good times were coming, Joe.)

In 1971 Topps (above right) first dabbled in action shots, and Morgan was one of their test subjects. Presumably, he is roping a base hit in this gorgeous image.

In 1972 Topps introduced “Traded” cards for the first time, limiting the feature to just seven players who received a second card showing them on their new team. Both of the Morgan cards are excellent, highlighted by Morgan’s well-lit face and his new sideburns.

By the mid-1970s, Topps’ card sets were a mix of action and posed shots, and they would remain so for 20 years. Kids who got Joe Morgan cards in their pack were getting a superstar, one of the game’s best players, a two-time MVP. Whether he was posing, or vaulting out of the batter’s box, Joe Morgan was a card you wanted in your stack.

Joe Morgan’s career had three acts. At the start were 6 full seasons with the Astros as an under-appreciated player, occasionally a star. He finished in the top five in walks every year, an accomplishment no one noticed, stole a lot of bases, made a couple of All-Star teams. His second act was his first 5 years with the Reds (1972-76), when he was as valuable as Willie Mays or Mike Trout, and played for one of history’s greatest and most glamorous teams (The Big Red Machine). Finally, he finished up with 8 years as a very good player, making a positive contribution all the way to the end. The Silver Slugger award was introduced in 1980, and Morgan won it in 1982 at age 38. Had the award come long earlier, of course, he could have won a dozen.

The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, and it is fun to look at some of Morgan’s cards from this era, at a time when he was changing teams almost every year.

A sampling of his Donruss cards:

Morgan returned to the Astros for one season (1980), and helped them to their first division title. The next year we got this gorgeous shot of Joe at Wrigley Field, and one is struck that Joe looked very much like this for 20 years. He moved to the Giants in 1981, and almost led them to a pennant the next year, then was back in the World Series with the 1983 Phillies. None of this was surprising, nor was Joe vaulting out of the box on his 1984 Donruss card.

Now for some Fleer cardboard:

Not surprisingly, 1981 Joe looked great in Houston’s “Tequila Sunrise” togs, just as he had in their glorious late 1960s uniform. The 1983 Joe looks a little more serious, and his 1985 Fleer (he retired at the end of the 1984 season), he looks like peak Joe Morgan about to lace a double to left-center.

Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8% of the vote. I understand none of this matters–he’s an all-time great, beloved by historians and fans and statheads. Still: what exactly were the 18.2% thinking? Joe Morgan doesn’t get your vote?

Joe went on to great success as a sportscaster, was a respected executive with the Hall of Fame, and was admired by all of his former teammates and opponents and apparently everyone else. Sparky Anderson said he was the smartest player he ever saw. Johnny Bench said he was the best player he ever saw. That’s not nothing.

I rooted against Joe Morgan in the All-Star game every year, though I knew that the National League was better and that Morgan played a brand of baseball of which my team was unfamiliar. (Morgan was on 10 All-Star teams, and his side won all 10 games). I also rooted against Morgan in the 1975 World Series, and his game winning single into centerfield in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 broke my heart.

But none of that matters now, as we mourn yet another hero in this Godforsaken year. I just remember the greatness.

RIP Joe. Thank you for elevating this game.

Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, founder and past chairman of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, current President of the SABR board of directors, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

9 thoughts on “Joe Morgan, 1943-2020”

  1. Mark, that was a great tribute to Joe Morgan! I loved the display of his cards through out his career. All ex-mint I think. This next period of years I think are going to unfortunately start a cascade of our baseball hero’s passing as they are from the golden age of baseball.

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  2. Regarding Joe’s shockingly low HOF vote percentage, I saw a discussion about this shortly after Morgan’s passing, and I believe John Thorn commented that some of the old-school voters of the era still gave a heavy weighting to batting average in evaluating a player, and thus did not consider a .271 lifetime a slam-dunk HOF-er. That’s my family, Kay, not me….

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    1. I am sure this is right. Interesting that he and Palmer reached the ballot together and Palmer got 92.6%. Not disparaging Palmer at all (he’s an easy call), but he also had the easy markers (including 8 20-win seasons).

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    2. Jon Miller once told Joe Morgan about Bill James Historical Abstract, and how Morgan was ranked so highly in it (1st amongst 2nd basemen I believe).

      Morgan resisted this, probably in part because of modesty. But he also argued that he didn’t have as high of a batting average as many of the other players in the rankings. So. naturally, he shouldn’t be ahead of them.

      I wish I could find the source for that but I am pretty sure my memory is correct about the story.

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  3. I looked up the all time base on ball leaders.

    Morgan is 5th, right behind Ted Williams (4th). Morgan had more walks than Mantle, Musial, and Mays.

    If you look at the top 50 guys in walks all time, there are only 2 second basemen–Morgan (1865 total walks) and Eddie Collins (1499). Collins ranked 19th all time, but played in a very different era (1906-1930).

    Lastly, in that arbitrary top 50 walk leaders, nearly everyone is an outfielder or corner infielder.

    There are only 4 or so middle infielders by my count–Morgan (5th), Collins (17), Alex Rodriguez (35th), and Appling (47th). There may have been some other guys who played at 2nd or short, but by my estimation those are the guys who would be defined as “middle infielders”.

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  4. One of the few perks of 2020 baseball were the re-broadcasts of some classic games before the truncated season started. While the games were interesting I was fascinated by the bygone announcing teams, including Morgan. During one game in particular involving the Marlins he started talking about the effect of artificial turf on his legs. He mentioned that by odd circumstance just about everywhere he played at home had artificial turf. He then went on to rate the various artificial surfaces he played on, rating Philadelphia’s the worst. He went on to mention that artificial surfaces, although tough on the legs to run on, made it much easier to play infield because you always got a true hop.

    Although, being a Yankee fan, I always found myself rooting against him, I recognized he was extraordinary. I was gratified to have the opportunity to enjoy him as a broadcaster. I recall him telling Jon Miller, and us, one particular evening, that he had just finished obtaining his college degree, which I thought was a rather personal and revealing item of information to share on national television. And, yes, his cards were frequently beautiful. Don’t forget the 1976 and 1977 issues, which may actually be the best. RIP.

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  5. Am surprised you left out the 1964 and 1965 Joe Morgan rookie cards. To those of us who came originally from Oakland, Morgan was already a superstar then. No one could understand why the Giants hadn’t signed him.

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