Hall of Famer Joe Morgan Passes Away at 77

Joe Morgan, SF Giants

Joe Morgan with the SF Giants in 1982. (The Enquirer/Dick Swaim)

Former SF Giants second baseman Joe Morgan passed away in his Danville home on Monday at the age of 77. The Hall of Famer lived one of the most storied lives in baseball history.

There is no easy time for loss. In a year rife with struggles, the death of so many MLB legends adds another piece of difficulty to 2020. Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan joined a long list of baseball legends who have passed away this year on Sunday. Morgan, whose playing career included time with the Astros, Reds, SF Giants, Phillies, and Athletics, died at his home in Danville, California at 77 years old.

Though Morgan spent the bulk of his best seasons with the Reds, his time with the Giants included one of the best moments in team history. On the final day of the 1982 season, Morgan hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning against the Dodgers that would help eliminate them from the postseason.

Morgan, born in Bonham, Texas, moved with his family to Oakland at the age of 8. At Castlemont High School, Morgan played baseball and basketball and ran track, but he drew no scholarship offers. Many will point to his small size, but Morgan’s Blackness likely played a role as well.

With no NCAA opportunities, Morgan enrolled at Oakland City College. He majored in business and played for the college’s baseball team until he signed a minor-league contract with the Houston Colt 45s at the age of 19.

Throughout his minor-league career, Morgan was often the only Black player on his team. During his time with the Durham Bulls, Morgan was constantly subjected to racist epithets. When the team traveled to Winston-Salem, he was subjected to the hallmark of the Jim Crow era south. Morgan was prohibited from staying in the same motel, drinking from the same water fountain, and using the same bathrooms as his white teammates. At the ballpark, a specific section of the right-field stands was fenced off, the only seats available to Black attendees.

The racism caused Morgan to quit before he ever played a big-league game. While he ultimately returned to the team, even considering the proposition shows the levels of mistreatment Morgan faced. Yet, in spite of the heinous conditions, Morgan produced whenever he played. Soon, Morgan earned a promotion to the Astros big-league team.

At the major-league level, Morgan finished second in the 1965 Rookie of the Year voting and soon became a mainstay in the Astros lineup. He reached the All-Star team in 1966 and 1970. However, Morgan faced explicit racism from his manager Harry Walker.

Walker managed the Astros from 1968-1972 and was instrumental in Houston’s choice to trade Morgan following the 1971 season. According to SABR, “Walker claimed that Morgan was selfish, moody, and a troublemaker,” all classic dog-whistle of stereotypes often ascribed to Black people. Of course, Walker is best remembered as the brother of “Dixie” Walker, a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 who threatened to boycott playing if the team integrated.

Morgan is easily the greatest MLB second baseman post-integration and arguably the best we’ve ever seen at the position. A 10-time All-Star, 5-time Gold Glove winner, and 2-time National League MVP, Morgan was everything scouts dream of when they describe a 5-tool player.

Incredibly, Morgan’s star has only shined brighter with time. His incredible propensity to walk (he led the league four times and racked up at least 100 bases on balls in a season six times) has made him a darling of modern metrics as well. At his peak with the Big Red Machine, from 1972-1976, Morgan amassed at least 8.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in every season.

Honus Wagner is the only other player to achieve at least 8.6 WAR in five consecutive seasons. Mike Trout, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays all fell short of that mark. Morgan remains the only player to have such a stretch in the last 110 years.

Morgan nearly combined the longevity of Cal Ripken Jr. and the peak of Willie Mays. His MLB career lasted parts of 22 seasons and amassed 2517 hits, 268 home runs, 689 stolen bases, and 1865 walks. Only Morgan, Rickey Henderson, and Bonds have recorded at least 200 homers, 500 steals, and 1500 walks in an MLB career.

Following his retirement as a player, Morgan became a voice of baseball. He was an announcer for local broadcasts of Reds, SF Giants, and Athletics games and soon became a mainstay for nationally televised games. Over his 25-year broadcasting career, Morgan worked for nearly every major national baseball broadcasting network, including ABC and NBC Sports.

His signature broadcasting work came alongside Jon Miller on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. The pair was tagged for the job in 1990 and became the voices of the biggest weekly baseball game for the next twenty years. To an entire generation of fans, Morgan was the voice that helped them fall in love with baseball.

Still, he was not protected from anti-Blackness in the United States. In 1988, members of the Los Angeles Police Department assaulted Morgan at the Los Angeles Airport. In his memoir, he wrote about the incident, “It was all because I was just another Black man… as anonymous as any other Black man, I was exposed to whatever fury was going to be meted out.” Morgan would later receive a settlement from the city of $796,000.

In his post-playing career, Morgan was one of baseball’s most powerful voices. He became heavily involved in MLB’s Urban Youth Academies, which aimed at increasing baseball’s popularity among Black people in American cities. He also became heavily involved in the Hall of Fame, where he has been critical of players tied to performance-enhancing drugs.

Morgan’s life is an amazing story of his talent, intelligence, and thoughtfulness on and off the field, but also a tremendous indictment of his country. His greatness occurred in spite of those who hoped to ensure failure. On the field, Morgan was one of the greatest to ever play the game. Off the field, Morgan was a voice of baseball that tried to open the game for the better.

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Morgan is survived by his wife, Theresa; their daughters, Kelly and Ashley; and daughters Lisa and Angela from his first marriage to Gloria Stewart. We at Around the Foghorn send our condolences to Morgan’s family, friends, and loved ones.