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Billy Reed: Joe Morgan, first of Big Red Machine to pass away, was ‘manager on the field,’ likeable guy

And then there were seven.

The starting eight players for the Cincinnati Reds’ back-to-back World Series champions of 1975 and ’76 – the “Big Red Machine” – are still revered as legends 44 years later. The Reds still sell paraphernalia with their names on it. It’s almost as if time stopped for the Reds when the last out was made in their ’76 World Series sweep on the New York Yankees.

Every true Reds fan can rattle off the names almost without thinking. Catcher Johnny Bench, first-baseman Tony Perez, second-baseman Joe Morgan, shortstop Dave Concepcion, third-baseman Pete Rose, and outfielders George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, and Ken Griffey Sr. The Magnificent Eight, never to be forgotten.

When Morgan recently became the first one of the eight to pass away, the loss was felt deeply throughout Reds’ Country. Along with Bench and Perez, he belongs to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Rose would be there with them had it not been for his gambling addiction. It’s easy to make the case that both Concepcion and Foster also should be inducted into the shrine at Cooperstown, N.Y.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

When Morgan joined the Reds in 1973, he was a big-league veteran of nine years, all with the Houston franchise. He was regarded as a solid but not spectacular player, better known for defense than offense. But with the Reds, he became a superstar both at the plate and in the field, earning National League Most Valuable Player honors in both ’75 and ’76.

Only 5-foot-8, Morgan hit for both average and power, stole bases, and played second base as well as that position has ever been played. He was a complete player, which always had been his goal. A left-handed hitter, he usually batted third in the lineup and is best remembered for the way he flapped his right arm while waiting for a pitch.

Some numbers: Counting his return to the Astros after leaving the Reds, Morgan spends 10 years with Houston, eight with Cincinnati. His batting average was .261 with Houston, .288 with Cincinnati. He blasted 152 home runs for Houston, 268 for the Reds. He had 327 runs batted in for Houston, 612 for Cincinnati. And he stole 219 bases for Houston, 406 for Cincinnati.

In the field, Morgan wore a glove that was impossibly small. One of his competitors laughed that Joe could wear it to play golf in the daytime, then wear it again for baseball games. But he caught everything within his reach and was a gritty pivot man on a double play

Even with his back turned toward a runner thundering toward him with mayhem in his heart, Morgan never flinched. He took the throw from Rose or Concepcion and rotated toward first to get the ball out of his glove in the blink of an eye.

He won the Gold Glove given to the best fielders at their positions five straight seasons, from 1973 through ’77.

Unsurprisingly, Reds manager Sparky Anderson, himself a second baseman in his playing days, loved “Little Joe,” as he was known. He was the proverbial “manager on the field” who made few mental errors, always kept his head in the game, and set a terrific example for his teammates. Like Rose and Perez, he also had an effervescent personality that lit up the clubhouse.

That personality endeared him to the writers and broadcasters who covered the “Big Red Machine.” Unlike Bench and Foster, who could be aloof, and Concepcion and Geronimo, whose broken English was difficult to understand, Morgan was accessible and always ready with some meaningful quotes. He often would hang around until the last question was asked and answered.

So nobody who covered Joe in Cincinnati was surprised that he went on to a superb broadcasting career at both the national and local levels. He was the same guy on TV he was in the clubhouse, ready and able to analyze strategy moves and other “inside baseball” topics.

Although he had not been well in recent years, his death still came as something of a surprise in Reds’ Country. It was like everyone believe that the starters for the “Big Red Machine’ were truly immortal and would live forever. But all are in their 70s now, and, incredibly, Rose will turn 80 next year.

One reason some Reds fans still cling so hard to the “Big Red Machine” is that it is arguably the best baseball team ever. Its main rival is the 1927 Yankees of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Kentuckian Earle Combs. But it’s indisputable that the Reds are the best “small market” team ever. It’s likely that never again will a city the size of Cincinnati have the wherewithal to field a team so brilliant.

Now there are seven. May they all enjoy peace and happiness the rest of their lives.

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One Comment

  1. Raymond Rekers says:

    This is an outstanding article. Thank you.

Reply to Raymond Rekers Cancel Reply