Halt right there, Mr. Mayor

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan with Cincinnati mayor John Cranley.

Spare us, please, the political (lack of) class and its hyperbolic weigh-ins when sporting events transcend the particular sport itself, for better or worse. Or, when a sport legend passes on to the Elysian Fields. Mourning the death of a Reds legend, Cincinnati’s mayor proclaims concurrently a standing for the Reds’ arguable greatest team that the evidence rejects.

Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan’s death Sunday provoked an outpouring of loss and grief to be expected of a player whose performance equaled his gifts and who was at least as good a man as he was a baseball player. It also provoked Cincinnati mayor John Cranley to amplifying knowledge and wisdom by standing athwart both.

“We all know the Big Red Machine was the greatest baseball team of all time,” Cranley tweeted upon the news of Morgan’s death, accompanied by a photograph of himself and Morgan at an outdoor event. “Joe Morgan was the MVP of both back-to-back ‘75 and ‘76 Reds World Series wins, making him the greatest second baseman of all time. This is a devastating loss to the MLB and Cincinnati. RIP to a legend.”

What do you mean we, white man?

Let’s get the second hyperbolic out of the way first. Back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards are staggering achievements in their own right. If those alone illustrate a player’s cumulative greatness, Roger Maris (1960-61)—whose greatness was short-enough lived, thanks to six parts injuries and half a dozen parts the searing the 1961 Babe Ruth home run chase left upon him—would have reached Cooperstown in a walk. So would Dale Murphy (MVP, 1982-83), if injuries hadn’t hastened and turned his decline phase into a cliff dive.

Back-to-back MVPs alone didn’t leave Morgan as the arguable greatest second baseman in Show history. His all-around play at the plate, on the bases, and at second base, to say nothing of the most wins above replacement-level player for any second baseman playing a truly integrated game, accomplished that. You could remove Morgan’s MVPs and he would still shake out as being that great.

Now to the first. The Big Red Machine was the greatest team in the National League in its time. No questions asked. If you measure by consecutive World Series wins, the 1970s Reds were the only NL team to do it. Two American League teams did it, too: the Bronx Zoo Yankees (1977-78) and the Oakland Athletics earlier in the decade.

Oops. The Swingin’ A’s won three straight Series (1972-74) in the middle of winning five straight American League Wests. Including their beating the Machine in seven in 1972.

If you’re going by Hall of Famers on those teams, be careful. The Machine had three Hall of Famers (Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez) and might have had a fourth (Pete Rose) if he hadn’t had a problem with, you know, all that other stuff. Oh, all right, let’s give the Machine the four Hall of Famers just for argument’s sake.

For much of the 1960s the San Francisco Giants had five Hall of Famers in their ranks: Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Willie Mays. One of them (if you have to ask) is considered the arguably greatest all-around player who ever walked the face of the earth when fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle isn’t. Here’s how many World Series those great Giants teams won: none.

They only reached one World Series and lost in six games to the last of the vintage Yankee teams. Those Giants had a little problem on their hands known as the Los Angeles Koufaxes to thwart them at their peaks. They weren’t the only Hall of Fame-packing team of that time to fall short, either.

Quick: Name the team with four Hall of Famers and not even a single shot at the Promised Land. Hint: Their manager burned them out down the stretch in the one season they almost won the National League East. Since you had to ask: the four Hall of Famers in question are Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams.

Let’s remove the Machine’s should-have-been Hall of Famer now and leave it with three. Well. The 1967-68 St. Louis Cardinals had a trio of Hall of Famers. (Cepeda, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson.) They went to back-to-back Series and won one of them. The 1969-74 Baltimore Orioles packed a trio Hall of Famers. (Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson in 69-71.) They won five of six American League Easts and one World Series in three straight trips. The Seattle Mariners of the mid-1990s had a Hall of Fame trio, too. (Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez.) They’re still looking forward to their first World Series appearance, never mind conquest.

A few days before Morgan’s passage, Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford passed away while watching his Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays in an American League division series. Ford could have told Cranley plausibly that several generations of Yankee teams, including the ones for which he pitched, make the Big Red Machine resemble the Little Red Caboose.

Ford became a Yankee smack dab in the middle of their five-year World Series-winning streak. That provokes me to compare the first seven seasons of those Casey Stengel Yankees to the first seven seasons of the Machine. Allowing for the lack of divisional play in those Yankees’ time and the shorter seasons (by eight games), this is the result:

Team Won Lost Pennants World Series Titles
New York Yankees (1949-55) 686 389 6 5
Cincinnati Reds (1970-76) 683 443 4 2

The Machine is almost dead-even in the wins column but 54 ahead in the loss column. If you were to add eight games a season to the 1949-55 Yankees, it’s not implausible that they’d have totaled 700 wins or better and 400 losses or better.

Those Yankees do have a claim the Machine wouldn’t have wanted: a 103-win season in which they finished second—by eight games, yet, to an Indians team that picked 1954 to have their career year, so to say. (The Machine had three 100+ win seasons and won the NL West in all three.)

Did I forget to mention that those Yankees had four Hall of Famers aboard at a time a few times? The 1950 Yankees (Ford’s rookie season) included Ford, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, and Phil Rizzuto. When Ford returned from military service in 1953, they had Ford, Berra, Rizzuto, and Mickey Mantle. Don’t go there, Mr. Mayor. They’ll match their questionable Hall of Famer Rizzuto to your questionable Hall of Famer Perez.

(Their primary National League rivals, the Boys of Summer Brooklyn Dodgers, had to settle for three, too: Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider. Sandy Koufax was a beyond-marginal 1955 rookie.)

Fair enough. It’s not entirely fair to compare the Machine to the Berra-DiMaggio-Ford-Mantle Yankees. It’s a lot more fair to compare the Machine to a more contemporary aggregation:

Team Won Lost Pennants World Series Titles
New York Yankees (1996-2002) 685 445 5 4
Cincinnati Reds (1970-76) 683 443 4 2

The Machine is almost dead even to the Derek Jeter-Mariano Rivera Yankees. (They, too,  might have packed three Hall of Famers, if Roger Clemens hadn’t been considered persona non grata from Cooperstown because of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance suspicions that have yet to be proven once and finis.) Almost.

Those Yankees, however, won five pennants and four World Series—including three straight—playing in slightly more difficult postseason conditions. I don’t need a lot of convincing that the Machine would likely have done just as well if they’d played in a three-division league having to plow through two postseason sets to reach the World Series. But the Yankees did have to play in such conditions to win one more pennant and two more leases on the Promised Land.

There are lots of teams who would kill for a piece of the Machine’s five division titles, four pennants, and two World Series conquests in seven years. There are also teams who would kill for a .686 single-season winning percentage. The Machine teams never posted a winning percentage quite that large. (Its best: 1975’s .667.) But one of their ancestral teams did.

Wait for it—the 1919 Reds. The ones who could damn well have beaten the infamous Black Sox in a straight-no-chaser World Series. There’s a cause for you if you’re interested, Mr. Mayor. How about a little agitation on behalf of removing the Black Sox taint from the 1919 Reds’ claim on the Promised Land? Your forebears wuz robbed.

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.