Every generation in baseball produces a handful of seasons for the ages, performances that will never be forgotten. In the 1970s, despite winning only two World Series, the Big Red Machine of the Cincinnati Reds put together a two-year stretch of dominance in 1975 and 1976 that few teams have ever approached. Sitting at the helm of The Machine was little Joe Morgan, who won National League MVP honors both season. With just a week and a day left until Reds’ pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, Morgan is Number 8 on our Countdown Team.
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Morgan was signed as an amateur free agent by the Houston Colt .45s in 1962 and made his Major League debut a year later at just 19 years of age. By 1965, Morgan was the starting second baseman in Houston, and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Jim Lefebvre after hitting .271 with 14 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Playing for the lowly Colt .45s, and then the Astros, Morgan’s star waxed and waned throughout the rest of the Sixties, and the 1970s looked to bring little winning relief to the talented middle infielder.
Then, after the 1971 season, the Astros traded Morgan, still just 27, to the Reds. It was a mammoth eight-player trade that rid the Reds of three veterans and loaded them for the future.
Morgan made an immediate leap forward in 1972, jump-starting his OPS from 117 to 149, garnering an All-Star berth and finishing fourth in the MVP vote. Morgan’s on-field efforts also helped Cincinnati take the National League West crown and the NL pennant before losing the World Series in seven games to the Oakland A’s.
In 1973, the Reds lost the NLCS to the New York Mets, and in 1974, they finished second in the NL West. Along the way, though, Morgan continued to improve and entered 1975 fresh off a 22-homer, .921-OPS, 159-OPS+ campaign that earned him All-Star and Gold Glove honors.
Everything came together for the Reds in 1975, as they won 108 regular-season games and took one of the most memorable World Series in seven games over the Boston Red Sox. The team was chock full of superstars, but Morgan led the way with 17 home runs, 94 RBI, 67 stolen bases and a slash line of .327/.466/.508, good for an OPS+ of 169 and 10.9 WAR. He was an easy choice for MVP and took the honor with 21 of 23 first-place votes (teammate Pete Rose picked up the other two).
It was more of the same for Morgan and the Reds in 1976, as the second baseman connected on 27 home runs, drove in 111 and slashed .320/.444/.576, finishing with 9.6 WAR. The Reds won the Series again and Morgan won the MVP again. Ho hum.
In 1977, at age 33, Morgan saw his OPS drop from a staggering 1.020 to a merely fantastic .895. The next season, that number dropped to .733, and Morgan was clearly in his decline phase. Nevertheless, he turned in one more season on the Riverfront and six more in the Majors before retiring at age 40 in 1984.
For his career, Morgan slammed 268 home runs, stole 689 bases, picked up 2517 hits and slashed .271/.392/.427. Along the way, he set the offensive standard by which future second baseman would be measured, and he forged a legacy in Cincinnati that will live as long as men play ball next to the Ohio River.
Joe Morgan was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990. His Cooperstown plaque, naturally, bears a beautiful Cincinnati Reds cap.