The late, great Reds skipper Sparky Anderson told the story often.
It was during the winter meetings, after an abysmal 1971 season which saw injury-riddled Cincinnati plummet to fourth in the National League’s Western Division. General Manager Bob Howsam made a trade for the ages with Houston -- and made Sparky a very happy manager.
The Astros received slugging Lee May and popular second baseman Tommy Helms. In return, the Reds received second baseman Joe Morgan, pitcher Jack Billingham, outfielder Cesar Geronimo and journeyman infielder Denis Menke.
“Mr. Howsam, you have just brought a world championship to the Cincinnati Reds,” Anderson told his boss.
It was less of a trade and more of a robbery. While May was a run-producer for several years in Houston, his power was somewhat muted by the cavernous Astrodome. Helms, meanwhile, was a serviceable second baseman, but past his prime.
The Reds, meanwhile, received several key pieces to a team that would dominate the remainder of the 70s. Menke emerged as a starting third baseman for the Reds’ pennant-winning ‘72 team; Geronimo would settle into a starting role in center field by 1975; and Billingham was a solid starting pitcher.
Then there was Morgan.
“Joe fit in with the rest of us like the missing link in the puzzle,” Reds great Pete Rose said.
Rose provided the Reds’ winning spirit.
Catcher Johnny Bench was the heart and soul.
Tony Perez was the steady, quiet leader.
And the 5-foot-7 Joe Morgan came in and provided the spark -- he ignited the Big Red Machine.
The Reds won five NL West flags after the trade, including three National League titles and back-to-back world championships in 1975 and 1976. In those two World Series-winning campaigns, Morgan was voted the league’s MVP.
Morgan hit .327 with 17 homers, 94 RBIs and 67 stolen bases in 1975, then followed with a .320 average, 27 homers, 111 RBIs and 60 steals the next year. He was only the fifth second baseman in the NL to drive in more than 100 runs and also led the league in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 1976.
On defense, he won five Gold Gloves and he made the NL All-Star Team 10 times.
Reds Nation lost Morgan on Monday. Little Joe died at his home in Oakland, California, at the age of 77.
“Baseball lost a rock today and I lost a best friend,” Rose said on social media. “Joe made us all better players in Cincinnati.
“His leadership was second to none,” Rose added. “He was a Hall of Fame player and a Hall of Fame person.”
Said Bench: “Joe wasn’t just the best second baseman in baseball history. He was the best player I ever saw and one of the best people I’ve ever known.”
We live in an era where athletes are often taken to task for being outspoken against racial inequality. Particularly if they do it in a demonstrative manner.
As sports commentator Roy Firestone pointed out on Monday, “Short of Jackie Robinson, who had played Joe’s same position, there probably hasn’t been a more forthright, frank and activistic African American player than Joe.”
Joe was very outspoken about the lack of opportunity for Blacks in baseball -- particularly in key roles such as manager and GM.
Yet Morgan did it in a way that did not ruffle the feathers of the very white Cincinnati Reds fan base. In fact, Joe was as beloved as Rose and Bench.
Joe Morgan made the Reds better. He made baseball better. He spoke out against injustice and made the world better.
If you were a Reds fan during that grand era, I’m sure you can close your eyes and see Joe flapping that left arm -- a trick he learned from a minor league batting coach to keep his elbow the proper distance from his body. You can see him bloop a base hit into center field to plate the winning run in the 1975 World Series. You can see the little infielder lace a home run over the right-field wall at old Riverfront, or steal a base to give the Big Red Machine a needed boost.
It’s a sad era for Major League Baseball. In the past few months, we’ve lost all-time greats Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and now ... Little Joe.
For a life-long Reds fan, this one hurts the most.
JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.