Joe Morgan, 77, the Hall of Fame second baseman who tormented the Phillies in the 1970s as the engine of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine before helping to propel the Phillies to the pennant in the twilight of his career, died Sunday.
Mr. Morgan died from the nerve condition polyneuropathy at his home in Danville, Calif. His 22-year major-league career included two World Series titles, 10 All-Star nods, two MVPs, and five Gold Gloves. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1990, his first year on the ballot.
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Mr. Morgan, who was just 5-foot-7, finished his career with 2,517 hits, 268 home runs, and 1,133 RBIs and is one of baseball’s all-time greatest second basemen. He played for Houston, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and the Phillies before finishing his career with his hometown Oakland A’s.
Mr. Morgan transitioned in retirement to the broadcast booth and spent 21 years providing color commentary for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.
“Major League Baseball is deeply saddened by the death of Joe Morgan, one of the best five-tool players our game has ever known and a symbol of all-around excellence,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “Joe often reminded baseball fans that the player smallest in stature on the field could be the most impactful.”
He was the National League MVP in 1975 and 1976 as the Reds won back-to-back World Series titles with a roster led by Mr. Morgan, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, and Tony Perez. In the 1970s, Mr. Morgan led all major leaguers in Wins Above Replacement and led second basemen in home runs and RBIs.
“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,” Bench said in a statement. “He was a dedicated father and husband, and a day won’t go by that I won’t think about his wisdom and friendship. He left the world a better, fairer, and more equal place than he found it, and inspired millions along the way.”
The Reds won all seven of their postseason games in 1976 as they swept the upstart Phillies in the NLCS before sweeping the Yankees in the World Series. Mr. Morgan and Co. were everything the Phillies wanted to be as they chased the franchise’s first world title.
“You think I’m arrogant, that’s cool. You’ll get no hassle from me,” Mr. Morgan said in 1976 about the swagger he played with. “See, I think that to be good you need this air about you, this attitude that you’re good and you know it. What it does is unsettle the other guy.”
After a series of near misses, the Phillies neared baseball’s mountaintop in 1980. Again, they would meet Mr. Morgan. He joined Houston that season as a 36-year-old free agent, returning to the team that signed him as an amateur in 1962.
The Astros and Phillies fought in an epic five-game National League Championship Series that the Phillies captured to reach their first World Series since 1950.
Morgan, playing with a sore knee, tripled off Tug McGraw in the 11th inning of Game 3, leading to the winning run and placing the Phillies on the brink of elimination. The Phillies rallied to win the next two games in the Astrodome and would be world champions nine days later.
Three years later, Morgan joined Rose and Perez in Philadelphia as three parts of the Big Red Machine reunited with the Phillies. Morgan hit just .230 that season, but the “Wheeze Kids” might not have reached the postseason without his late-season surge.
Mr. Morgan hit .337 with a 1.045 OPS in September and turned 40 that month as the Phillies won 23 of their final 31 games to charge past Pittsburgh and win the division title. Mr. Morgan homered twice in the World Series, but it was not enough as the Phillies fell in five games to Baltimore.