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This year has been a terrible year in many ways for just about everybody. It’s been no exception for baseball fans. This year had so far seen the loss of five Hall of Famers; Al Kaline, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Whitey Ford. This Sunday, a sixth has been added to that list, Joe Morgan. Morgan passed away at his California home on Sunday at the age of 77 due to non-specified polyneuropathy.
Joe Leonard Morgan was born on September 19, 1943, in Bonham, TX, the youngest of six children. He moved to Oakland, CA with his family at five when his father found work with the Pacific Tire & Rubber Company. As a boy, Joe played baseball, basketball and ran track. His best sport was baseball, but he was not considered a major league prospect in high school because of his lack of size (he is listed at 5′-7″, 160 lbs during his playing career) and he was, at best, the second-best player on his team behind Rudy May who was highly sought after in high school and would have a fine major league career as a pitcher. He played baseball at a local junior college where he did attract the attention of the scouts and he signed a contract with the Houston Astros for all of $500 per month plus a $3,000 signing bonus. He worked his way through the expansion Astros minor league system rapidly, getting cups of coffee in the bigs in 1963 and 64 becoming the Astros starting second baseman in 1965 at age 21.
With the Astros, “Little Joe” quickly blossomed into a fine player. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1965 and made two All-Star teams while in Houston. However, the combination of the dismal performance of the team (they were always in the second division) and playing his home games in an awful hitter’s park (The Astrodome) helped to hide his light behind a bushel. A blockbuster trade between the Cincinnati Reds and the Astros in the winter of 1971 would change that. The Astros sent Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke, Jack Billingham, and Ed Armbrister to the Reds in exchange for slugging 1B Lee May, fellow 2B Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart. Morgan was initially upset with the trade. He’d made a home in Houston, and he and his wife were expecting their second child. However, the trade would kick his career into overdrive. Over the next six seasons, he was probably the best player in baseball. And, playing for manager Sparky Anderson and teaming with all-time greats Johnny Bench and Pete Rose in one of the best eight-man lineups in history, the Reds would average 98 wins per season and win back-to-back World Championships in 1975-76.