Joe Morgan, RIP: The Machine’s main man

A portrait of the artist as a young Astro.

In terms of watching and following and loving baseball, I went back a very long way with Joe Morgan. In the early years of the Houston franchise, from the Colt .45s to the Astros, Morgan was one of the three Astros I knew immediately, the others being his middle infield partner Denis Menke and pitcher/eventual manager Larry Dierker.

At the plate Morgan was already something of an on-base machine whose smarts with a bat, not to mention unusual power for middle infielders in the 1960s, got challenged only too often by the cavernous-enough Astrodome. Around second base Morgan and Menke were as sleek and coordinated a double play team as you ever saw.

The Hall of Famer who’s widely considered the greatest all-around second baseman ever to play the game died Sunday at 77 in his Danville, California home after a long battle with leukemia developed from myelodysplastic syndrome and with a form of polyneuropathy.

We don’t know yet whether Morgan died watching his one-time, long-time Astros opening the American League Championship Series with a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, as Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford died at home watching his Yankees tangle with the Rays last Thursday.

But one thing we do know is that the Astros handed the Cincinnati Reds the keys to the kingdom, not to mention two leases in the Promised Land, when they included Morgan—the final but most important gear in the Big Red Machine—in an eight-player swap with the Reds after the 1971 season.

The question is, why. The answer is, most likely, Harry Walker, the last Astros manager for whom Morgan played.

Aside from Walker tending to treat his non-white players like children with the brains of turnips, Harry the Hat had a habit from hell. He fancied himself a great hitting guru (he wasn’t) who’d had one unlikely success that he couldn’t live without trying to lather, rinse, repeat, repeatedly, in the years to come of his managing career.

The unlikely success was Matty Alou. He let Walker—newly installed to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates for 1966—convince him to marry a heavier bat to choking up and slap-and-tickling his way on base. Just the way Walker himself did in his own playing career. Then Alou made a huge mistake. He won the 1966 National League batting title with one of the emptiest .342 hitting averages you ever saw. He’d finish his career as one of the emptiest .300 hitters you ever saw.

Alou also finished his career with practically the same average run production per 162 games lifetime as Walker did: 120 for Harry the Hat, 117 for Alou.

When Walker took the Astro bridge, he went to work at once. He saw a pack of smart, solid hitters with decent power and able to reach base reasonably enough and failed to see them. Because what he really wanted to see was a lineup full of Matty Alous. He wanted to repeat his striking success with Alou (his batting average in ’66 was 82 points higher than his lifetime average going into that season) in the worst way possible.

And the worst way possible is exactly what Harry the Hat got for his trouble.

He tried to convince Morgan to channel the inner Matty Alou he didn’t have. He tried turning Bob Watson into the all-fields hitter he wasn’t and, while he was at it, turning Watson from a first baseman (which he was, more than capably) into a catcher (which he wasn’t, less than capably). He also tried to convince Jimmy Wynn to barrel up less and worry about his batting average more, never mind Wynn being one of the National League’s most consistent power hitters.

The fact that Wynn was an on-base machine himself by way of his smarts working out walks when need be didn’t turn up on Walker’s limited radar. Walker seemed to believe being smart enough to take the base on balls when the pitches didn’t look too hittable equaled laziness, lack of hustle.

Morgan was self-assured enough to stand athwart Walker regardless. Wynn couldn’t convince Harry the Hat that his strikeouts were an awful lot better than hitting into double plays. And neither Little Joe nor the Toy Cannon were exactly shy about letting the skipper know just that.

They tangled with Walker. (Jim Bouton, whose Ball Four covered his short stint with the 1969 Astros, remembered Wynn holding an empty rifle to Walker’s hotel room door just to blow off steam.) They lost.”The pruning of ‘troublemakers’ is a yearly project with the Astros,” snarked The Sporting News in 1971, “particularly so since Walker has been manager.”

More important, when Reds general manager Bob Howsam offered Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Morgan, Menke, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, and Cesar Geronimo, Astros GM Spec Richardson pounced. Richardson couldn’t yet admit that his malcontents had good reason for their malcontent and that his manager’s inveterate search for a lineup of Matty Alous did the Astros exactly one favour: none.

It did the Reds the biggest favour in their history. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s life as a Machinist, the Reds won four National League Wests, back-to-back pennants, and back-to-back World Series. The back-to-back Promised Land leases were accompanied by Morgan’s back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player awards. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s all-around, elbow-flapping, nail-driving tenure as a Machinist, he was the absolute best player on the team.

He was worth 47.8 wins above a replacement level player in just those five years. No other Red was close. Not Johnny Bench (32.4), not Pete Rose (31.4), not Tony Perez (18.3). The pain in the neck opponents saw at the plate or playing second base wasn’t just in their eyes. The objective and deeper measurements say the Big Red Machine would not have been at peak efficiency and would not have won without him.

Morgan even got to make a return engagement with the Astros after the Reds began dismantling the Machine rather than accommodate to the new free agency era. The Astros brought Morgan home on a free agency signing and he got to be part of the Astros’ surprise but engaging run to the 1980 National League Championship Series.

He even got to help the 1983 Philadelphia Wheeze Kids into the postseason. Not to mention joining the Giants and hitting the season-killing blow for the Dodgers, a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh putting the game out of reach and assuring the Dodgers of a second-place NL West finish.

In later life Morgan became a popular and respected baseball announcer, providing insight astride Jon Miller’s play-by-play for years of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. He also became a member of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors. He was friendly and open, talking to anyone with a brain and discouraging people from calling him anything more formal than Joe, especially fellow former players.

His aplomb could be disarming, such as when he and Miller were at the mikes when the Loma Prieta earthquake rudely interrupted the 1989 World Series. “Well, I grew up in the Bay Area,” he said dryly, “so I’ve been in earthquakes before.” He wasn’t exactly bragging about it.

He was engagingly candid and realistic about his on-air presence and style. “I don’t see myself as a Larry King or somebody,” he once said. “When you do interviews, sometimes it turns to interrogations. I’m more of a conversationalist, not throwing hardball questions.”

Yet even he could never entirely avoid the mistreatment to which black people remain subject. He was once detained roughly in 1988, at Los Angeles International Airport, by undercover police assuming him a drug courier.

“Over the next hours, the nightmare deepened, and it was all because I was just another black man,” he wrote in his memoir. “No longer a celebrity, as anonymous as any other black man, I was exposed to whatever fury was going to be meted out.” He proved his identity at police headquarters and was also exposed to a $796,000 settlement in his favour by the Los Angeles City Council.

Morgan’s most wounding flaw as an analyst was his war against sabermetric analysis. This engaging man, with one of the finest minds his sport has ever known, dismissed the very idea of deep analysis of his sport, of which statistics are the very life blood, in the kind of shrillery and incoherence you’d sooner expect of an office seeker rejecting what was plain to see in front of him as an illusion, if not fake news.

Even when sabermetrics rated Morgan the greatest second baseman ever to play the game, ahead of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. To Morgan, Hornsby’s .358 lifetime batting average reigned supreme. Hornsby’s lackings as an all-around second baseman, and his compiling outrageous batting stats in a heavily hitter-friendly, all-daytime, non-integrated game, didn’t even register.

This was the same man whose gracious Hall of Fame acceptance speech included, “I take my vote as a salute to the little guy, the one who doesn’t hit 500 home runs. I was one of the guys that did all they could to win. I’m proud of my stats, but I don’t think I ever got on for [those].”

So let us remember Morgan the strong-willed little big man, flapping his left arm in the batter’s box before ripping a screaming line drive or a high-lining home run, turning basepaths into guerrilla warfare turf like his hero Jackie Robinson, making second base a place for the death of an enemy rally, the field lieutenant absolutely sure he’ll clear out the thickets for himself and his troops to neutralise all opposing weapons.

Let’s also remember Morgan the family man, raising two daughters who became college athletes, divorced when he and his first wife drifted apart but remarrying happily and having twin daughters with his second wife. Morgan makes the sixth Hall of Famer we’ve lost to the Elysian Fields this surrealistic season, but their loss can only be deeper.

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