Baseball and Oakland Lose a Legend With the Passing of Joe Morgan

Joe Morgan gained national stature playing a flawless second base for the Cincinnati Reds' Big Red Machine, but Oakland was at his heart. The final season of his Hall of Fame career came in an A's uniform. He'd go on to gain a national platform on ESPN's Sunday baseball telecasts and would make an effort to buy the A's. He died Sunday night at home in the East Bay.
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Joe Morgan, who spent the last year of his Hall of Fame playing career with the Oakland A’s and who passed away Sunday night at 77 in his Danville home, had a habit when talking about himself of referring if the third person that held him in good stead.

Morgan, an Oakland native who extended his Cooperstown-bound career one additional year in 1984 in large part because two of the most important things in his life were Oakland and baseball, wanted to make on more contribution. He felt his contributions to a bad team would be limited, but necessary.

“I am Joe Morgan.” he told me that spring. “But I can only be Joe Morgan about three times a week.”

Joe Morgan was a 10-time All-Star, a two-time National League MVP, a five-time Gold Glove winner at second base and owned two World Series rings. But Joe Morgan, in his only season as an American Leaguer, hit just .244 with six homers while playing just 116 games.

“I get that, completely,” Roy Eisenhardt, the then-A’s president who lured Morgan back to his hometown for his final bow, said Monday. “It’s hard to be 24/7 perfect. He had that kind of personality. He had to allow himself to be lower-case Joe Morgan by then.”

Sparky Anderson, the manager of the Reds for much of the time Morgan was there, said that was true even in his peak with back-to-back MVP wins in 1975 and 1976.

“He was just a good Major League player when it didn’t mean anything,” Anderson once said. “But when it meant something, he was a Hall of Famer.”

And while he wasn’t a Hall of Fame hitter or defender when he got to Oakland, Morgan was an impact personality.

“By adding Joe’s experience and maturity to the clubhouse could be valuable for a whole lot of reasons,” Eisenhardt said. “And that was, frankly why he played another year. It was just to help the organization bridge its way through our rebuilding.”

Steve Boros, the A’s second-year manager, needed help in the clubhouse. Morgan provided it, serving as a sounding board for a bunch of talented young players, some of whom like Tony Phillips, Carney Lansford, Dwayne Murphy, Mike Davis and Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

“The value he added long-term was helping the younger players who were coming up at that time,” Eisenhardt, who went on to become a close friend and doubles tennis partner of Morgan’s, said. “Just to be able to sit down and talk to a player with his skill and background and everything. You don’t learn that in the minor leagues. He did everything for us we hoped he would.”

In a 22-year career that saw him begin as a 19-year-old in Houston in 1963 when the team was known as the Colt .45s, Morgan averaged .271, scored 1,650 runs, hit 268 home runs and stole 689 bases. Those numbers only scratched the surface of his impact.

Andy Dolich, Billie Jean King, Steve Page, Joe Morgan and Roy Eisenhardt brought the Oakland Aces to the World Tennis Association in 1985-86.

Andy Dolich, Billie Jean King, Steve Page, Joe Morgan and Roy Eisenhardt brought the Oakland Aces to the World Tennis Association in 1985-86.

“Joe wasn’t just the best second baseman in baseball history,” longtime teammate Johnny Bench said in a statement. “He was the best player I ever saw and one of the best people I’ve ever known."

An already good Reds team that had been to the World Series in 1970 went after Morgan after the 1972 season, giving up a homer threat in Lee May and an All-Star second baseman in Tommy Helms. As good as May and Helms were, the deal was a steal for the Reds.

Or, as Pete Rose, the fiery outfielder and leadoff hitter who would retire with the most hits in MLB history, once put it, “Joe fit in with the rest of us like the missing link in the puzzle.”

Morgan led the majors in runs scored with 122 in his first season in 1972 and helped the Reds to the World Series, where they’d lose to the A’s in seven games. The A’s World Series dominance carried through 1974. In 1975 Morgan and the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati would take over, winning back-to-back titles in 1975-76 with Morgan the NL MVP both seasons.

Morgan was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1990, the obligatory five years having passed since his last game with the A’s.

“I take my vote as a salute to the little guy, the one who doesn’t hit 500 homers,” Morgan said when inducted into Cooperstown. “I was one of the guys who did all he could to win. I’m proud of all of my stats, but I don’t think I ever got one for ‘Joe Morgan.’ If I stole a base, it was to help us win a game, and I’d like to think that’s what made me a little special.”

Following his induction, Morgan became one of the Hall’s most active members, championing election reforms to allow inductees to have greater involvement in the election process and also advocating for a steroid-free Hall of Fame.

“When I was going into the Hall of Fame, I didn’t go in until July, obviously,” Hall of Famer and former A’s closer Dennis Eckersley said Monday. “But in March, President Bush had this breakfast for the Hall of Famers before opening day, so I had a chance to meet with all the Hall of Famers before I went in which was helpful.

“Joe was great that day. He and Johnny Bench had me sit at their table. And they just sort of talked the ropes, really went out of the way for me. I got to know him a lot better after that, another East Bay guy, and he really was a driving force with the Hall of Fame. I think he was Jane Clark’s (Jane Forbes Clark, the Chair of the Directors of Board of the National Baseball Hall of Fame), guy, the guy she went to about Cooperstown stuff.”

Morgan spent much time lobbying for the same status to be given another Oakland native, Curt Flood, who suit against baseball in the early 1970s opened the way for free agency.

“He left the world a better, fairer and more equal place than he found it,” Bench said, “and inspired millions along the way. A day won’t go by that I won’t thing about his wisdom and his friendship.”

Morgan's two-year stint in San Francisco had loyalty to Oakland at its core. The Giants manager was another Oakland product, Frank Robinson. He always said how much he liked playing for his longtime friend. His final at-bat with the Giants saw him hit a three-run homer off Dodgers’ lefty Terry Forster, breaking a 2-all tie in the seventh inning. The Giants’ 5-2 win cost Los Angeles a National League West Division title.

“That 1982 Giants team, Frank Robinson led us to where we got to go,” Morgan would say later. “He was the inspiration. We had a lot of good players. Reggie Smith, Darrell Evans, Chili Davis, Jack Clark. I mean, we had a group of guys who played their tail off. They didn’t have the ability the Big Red Machine had, but they played hard, and I was probably as proud of that team, led by Frank Robinson, as any team I played on.”

Having left the Giants after that homer, Morgan spent one season playing for the Phillies before Eisenhardt lured him home to Oakland.

In 1985, retired from baseball, Morgan became one of the investors in his second-favorite sport, tennis as part of Eisenhardt’s Oakland Aces squad in World Team Tennis. Morgan loved tennis and became a first-class player after his baseball career was over.

“He had a lack of confidence in his volley, particularly in his backhand volley,” Eisenhardt said. “So, he kept telling me, `I can’t volley. I can’t volley.’ I said to him, `Joe, you are a Hall of Fame baseball player who hit left-handed and you’re telling me you can’t hit a backhand?’ And he thought about that and turned it around and became a really good player.”

A few years after that, Morgan joined with Jon Miller to do the ESPN “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasts, a pairing that lasted from 1990-2010.

The Morgan-Miller tandem almost came to an end about halfway through when Morgan and Reggie Jackson joined a group in 1999 that attempted to buy the A’s from the ownership team of Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann. 

Even with the backing of then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown before Brown’s return to the California governorship, the Morgan-Jackson grouping, fronted by former A’s executive Andy Dolich and the wealth of Save-Mart Supermarkets owner Bob Piccinini, a group that also included Men’s Wearhouse front man George Zimmer, got pushback from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

Baseball had had a falloff following the sport’s 1994-95 shutdown, and there was some thought at the highest levels of the sport of downsizing, with Oakland being one of the targets.

“I think Bud’s view came down to the fact that these guys have an actual strategy,” Dolich said Monday. “`They have people. They have sales. They have sponsorship and they had credibility. How do I pull the plug on their effort?’

“You can’t put a dollar figure on what kind of credibility Joe and Reggie brought. Piccinini had the money. George was literally and figuratively riding high. In Joe and Reggie, the group had two guys who are absolutely not shrinking violets. No matter what the issue, if they have something to says, they’re going to say it.”

Ultimately the franchise was sold to John Fisher, who is a Selig guy in that he never says anything to the media about baseball, his team or much of anything else. 

A Morgan family spokesman said the cause was non-specified polyneuropathy. Morgan had a bone-marrow transplant in 2016.

In a statement, the A’s said: “We are beyond saddened by the passing of Joe Morgan. A trailblazer on and off the field, his impact on our sport and community will be felt for generations to come in Oakland. We send our condolences to his loved ones and the baseball family.”

Morgan’s passing was the most recent in a string of recent deaths of baseball Hall of Famers, following those of Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Al Kaline.

Eckersley said it’s overwhelming.

“Nobody’s getting the stoplight they deserve,” Eckersley said. “They’re all being thrown together, which is very strange just because of this year being strange. It’s bad.

“Joe is right there with any of these great, great players. I was just a kid and he was the best player in the game. He was such a hell of a player. And a great guy. He’ll be missed.”

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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