Yes, sadly: Another baseball legend is gone. Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame fireplug for Cincinnati’s championship “Big Red Machine” teams of the 1970s—and one of the greatest second basemen ever—passed away on Sunday, at 77, in his Bay Area home. He was suffering from a nerve condition.
Morgan’s death follows the recent passing of four other Hall of Famers: Whitey Ford, the winningest pitcher in New York Yankees history, on Oct. 8 at 91; pitcher Bob Gibson, of the St. Louis Cardinals, on Oct. 2 at 84; Gibson’s ex-teammate Lou Brock, the former stolen base king who spent the bulk of his career in St. Louis, on September 6 at 81; and Tom Seaver, the three-time Cy Young award winner of the New York Mets who died on August 31. Seaver was 75.
This string of bad baseball news counts as nothing more than a sad coincidence. But for fans of these memorable players, these last few weeks have hit hard. Morgan was the back-to-back National League MVP for a Cincinnati team that won consecutive World Series championships, in 1975 and 1976. A generation of Little Leaguers imitated his batting stance, in which he’d flap his left elbow back a few times before the pitch, like a chicken, in order to keep it straight. As the lead ESPN baseball game commentator from 1990-2010, and a postseason broadcaster for NBC in the mid-to-late 1990s, Morgan also spoke to legions of baseball fans who never saw him play.
They didn’t always like what they heard. Morgan stubbornly downplayed the baseball analytics that increasingly influenced decisions in the game; to many, he was an old-school relic who simply refused to adapt to more data-driven times. A group of TV writers including Michael Schur—creator of beloved comedies like Parks and Recreation and The Good Place—started the sports blog “Fire Joe Morgan” in 2005; it was dedicated to lampooning the fuddy-duddy views of Morgan and other media members. The irony of Morgan’s reluctance to embrace analytics was that he was a sabermetric dream: viewed through the numbers, Morgan’s career was even more impressive. As a 5’7″, 160-pound second baseman, he led the NL in OPS—on-base plus slugging percentages — in both of his MVP seasons. He led the NL in walks in four seasons, hit for power and stole bases, all while saving runs with his five straight Gold Gloves, from 1973-1977.
“Joe Morgan was quite simply the best baseball player I played against or saw,” Johnny Bench, the Hall of Fame Reds catcher, writes in an email to TIME. That’s telling praise, especially since Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, was another Bench teammate on those Big Red Machine squads. Morgan could just do it all, especially in big moments. In Game 7 of the 1975 World Series against Boston, for example, Morgan drove in the decisive run with a two-out, ninth-inning single: the Reds won 4-3.
Morgan was born in Texas but grew up in Oakland. The Houston Colt .45s—now the Astros—signed him in 1962. As a minor league player in North Carolina, he experienced segregation firsthand: he heard racial slurs from the stands and saw Black fans separated from whites out in right field. He considered quitting. “It would be nice to say that I changed my mind because of the example of earlier black players who had it tougher, like Jackie Robinson,” Morgan wrote in his 1993 book. “But my decision came from my own sense of shame and embarrassment. When I thought of facing my father and telling him that I had quit — I simply could not go ahead.”
Morgan made his big league debut in Houston in 1963, and soon became the team’s regular second baseman, making two All-Star teams: he was traded to Cincinnati after the 1971 season, and made eight straight All-Star appearances with the Reds. He returned to Houston in 1980, helping the franchise win its first division title. After two years in San Francisco, he played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983, joining former Reds stars Rose, then 42, and Perez, 41, in Philly—they were known as the “Wheeze Kids.” Those Phillies won the NL pennant. Though the Baltimore Orioles beat Philadelphia in five games, Morgan hit two home runs in the ’83 World Series, as a 40-year-old. Morgan played his final season, in 1984, with his hometown A’s.
Morgan has never shied away from speaking his mind. In 2017, Morgan wrote a letter to Hall of Fame voters, urging them to keep steroid users out of Cooperstown. Some read his missive as sanctimonious. Others agreed with his stance. Morgan’s words spoke to his influence in baseball, a game he served with passion and flair, a game now suffering too much loss.
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Write to Sean Gregory at email@example.com