Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman who was the National League’s Most Valuable Player for two consecutive seasons and the engine of the Big Red Machine — as the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, one of baseball’s most powerful teams, were known — died on Sunday at his home in Danville, Calif. He was 77.
James Davis, a family spokesman, said the cause was nonspecified polyneuropathy. Morgan had a bone-marrow transplant in 2016.
Morgan’s was the latest in a string of recent deaths of Hall of Fame baseball stars, following those of Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford.
For younger fans, Morgan may be mainly familiar as a television commentator, most memorably for ESPN, for which he shared a Sunday night broadcast booth with Jon Miller for 21 seasons. For anyone who saw Morgan play, however, especially in his finest years with the Reds, his performance on the field is far more memorable.
At 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, Morgan, who was sometimes called Little Joe, was among the smallest great players in the history of the game. He was also among the greatest second basemen, and some, like Bill James, the groundbreaking interpreter of statistics, say he was the greatest of all.
He won five consecutive Gold Gloves, led National League second basemen in fielding percentage three times and finished second six others. In an era when sliding base runners routinely tried to take out the second baseman to prevent double plays, Morgan was known as especially tough in the pivot.
But he was most distinguished as a player for being a run-producing force at the plate and on the bases. Though his lifetime batting average over 22 seasons, .271, was not extraordinary, for six straight years in the heart of his career he hit .288 or better, walked more than 100 times and scored more than 100 runs. Four times in those six years, he led the league in on-base percentage.
He had surprising power for a man his size, hitting at least 22 home runs in four seasons and 268 overall, and he was among the most accomplished base-stealers of all time. He stole 689 bases, baseball’s 11th-highest total, in 851 attempts, for an 81 percent success rate.
Morgan made his big league debut with the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros), a second-year National League expansion team, in September 1963, just after his 20th birthday. The next year he came under the tutelage of Nellie Fox, a veteran second baseman at the end of his career, also small in stature, whom Morgan credited with helping him mature as a player.
It was Fox who suggested to Morgan that if he held his left elbow higher in the batter’s box — the rear elbow for a left-handed hitter like Morgan — he wouldn’t hit under the ball as often and would hit fewer pop-ups and more line drives.
To help him remember, Fox suggested that, just before the pitcher delivered, Morgan flap his elbow the way a chicken flaps his wing. Morgan employed this distinctive motion, which sometimes seemed to be convulsive, throughout his career, and it became a kind of trademark.
Fox, a future Hall of Famer, joined the Astros in 1964. Morgan replaced him as the regular second baseman in 1965, and in 1966 he made the first of his 10 All-Star teams.
“Fox drove one point home very hard,” Morgan said in an interview with The New York Post in 1976. “He said when you lay down the bat and pick up the glove, forget about hitting. When you pick up the bat, forget about everything bad that happened in the field.”
After the 1971 season. Morgan, who had feuded with the Houston manager, Harry Walker, was traded to the Reds. It was an unpopular trade in Cincinnati at the time because two of the Reds’ stars, Tommy Helms and Lee May, were sent to Houston. The Reds already had a strong nucleus; managed by Sparky Anderson, they had gone to the World Series in 1970, losing to the Baltimore Orioles, but had faded to fourth in the National League West division in 1971.
After the trade they rebounded, winning the division in 1972 and going to the World Series, where they lost in seven games to the Oakland Athletics. Morgan, along with other players in the trade — outfielders Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo and pitcher Jack Billingham — became useful cogs in the dominating Big Red Machine, which produced six National League M.V.P.’s, won five division titles and appeared in three World Series from 1970 to 1977.
In 1975, that team, whose stars included future Hall of Famers at catcher (Johnny Bench), first base (Tony Perez) and second base (Morgan), and the all-time hits leader (Pete Rose) at third, won 108 games and defeated the Boston Red Sox in one of the most memorable World Series in history.
Morgan, the league’s M.V.P., batted .327 for the season, hit 17 homers, drove in 94 runs, stole 67 bases and won a Gold Glove. He didn’t have a great postseason, but in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the Series, he drove in the winning run with a single to center. The next year, again the league M.V.P., his production was arguably even better: a .320 batting average, 27 homers, 111 runs batted in, 60 stolen bases in just 69 attempts, a league-leading slugging percentage (.576) and another Gold Glove.
The Reds weren’t quite as dominant during the season — they won six fewer games — but they powered through the postseason, sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies in three games for the National League pennant and the Yankees in four games in the World Series.
“Joe Morgan was a genuinely great player,” Bill James wrote in his analytic volume, “The Bill James Historical Abstract.” His 1976 season, James wrote, which included leading the league in sacrifice flies (12) and fewest double plays hit into (two), “is the equal of anything ever done by Lou Gehrig or Jimmie Foxx or Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial.”
Joe Leonard Morgan was born in Bonham, Texas, north of Dallas near the Oklahoma line, on Sept. 19, 1943, to Leonard and Ollie Mae (Cook) Morgan. He was 5 when his parents moved the family — Joe would eventually be the oldest of six — to Oakland, Calif., where his father worked for a tire and rubber company and encouraged his interest in baseball, taking him to minor league games (there were no major league teams on the West Coast until 1958) and teaching him the rudiments of hitting and fielding.
Morgan, who idolized Jackie Robinson, was a star second baseman on Castlemont High School’s league champions; one of his teammates, Rudy May, went on to pitch for four major league teams, including the Yankees, winning 152 games in the big leagues.
Morgan also played and excelled for Oakland City College, where scouts took notice. One reportedly tried to interest the Mets, then a fledgling franchise, in signing Morgan, but only the National League’s other expansion team, Houston, was interested. He spent most of the 1963 and 1964 seasons in the minor leagues before taking over from Fox as Houston’s regular second baseman.
By the end of the 1970s, the Big Red Machine was kaput. Anderson was managing in Detroit; Rose was playing for the Phillies; Perez had left for Montreal and then Boston; and after the 1979 season Morgan, then 36, became a free agent and signed with his former team in Houston. After one year there, he played three more, with stints in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Oakland, before retiring at the end of the 1984 season at 41; he hit a double in his final at-bat. Jim Palmer, the star Oriole pitcher, retired that season as well, and in 1990 the two men were first-ballot inductees into the Hall of Fame.
After his playing career, Morgan entered several business ventures — he operated Wendy’s franchises and a Coors beer distributorship — and philanthropic enterprises. He joined the board of the Baseball Assistance Team, which provides financial help for former major and minor leaguers, Negro leagues players and others formerly affiliated with professional baseball who have fallen on hard times. He also served on the board of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And he finished college, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Heyward.
He began working as a broadcaster in the mid-1980s, first locally in Cincinnati and San Francisco, later for ABC, CBS and NBC. But his public profile did not prevent his being mistaken for a drug courier and knocked to the ground by policemen at Los Angeles International Airport in 1988. Morgan, who claimed he was targeted because he was Black, sued the city. The case was settled in 1993 for $796,000.
Morgan’s most prominent television role was on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” where he appeared from 1990 to 2010. Teamed as color commentator with Miller, an upbeat play-by-play man who was the lead broadcaster for the Giants and a Hall of Fame inductee in 2010, Morgan was a popular figure within the game and with many fans, but over time he grew crusty and disputatious on the air — “the Grumpy Old Analyst,” Richard Sandomir called him in The New York Times.
A self-described “baseball traditionalist,” Morgan was especially known, and sometimes ridiculed, for the disdain he frequently expressed for the statistics-based approach to the game described in Michael Lewis’s best-selling 2003 book, “Moneyball” — a philosophy of roster-building and game management that has now been accepted as wisdom by analysts of every stripe and adapted in various modifications by virtually every team in the major leagues.
Morgan’s marriage to Gloria Stewart ended in divorce. His survivors include his wife of 30 years, Theresa; their twin daughters, Kelly and Ashley; and two daughters from his first marriage, Lisa and Angela.
In his induction speech at the Hall of Fame in 1990, Morgan amused the gathering with a story about being a small man in a big man’s game, though he embellished history just a little bit.
“The Hall of Fame is really just icing on what has been a very big and filling cake for me,” he said. “In fact, making it to the major leagues was so important to me I remember my first at-bat like it was yesterday.”
What he described was in fact his second big-league at-bat, on Sept. 22, 1963. (His first, the day before, resulted in a pop-up to second base.)
“My first at-bat was in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies,” Morgan said. “The Phillies were fighting for the National League pennant. The winning run was on second base” — actually it was on third — “and I got a base hit and the winning run scored. And Gene Mauch, who was the manager of the Phillies, was so mad that when he went into the clubhouse he yelled at his players, and told them, ‘You guys got beat by a guy that looks like a Little Leaguer.’
“Well,” Morgan said, “he was right.”