Joe Morgan looked at the baseball he was handed and laughed. “I don’t want to jinx this,” he said. “But it’s a great idea for a picture, let’s do it.”
The conversation took place on a bitterly cold Cincinnati night, November, 1975, following a banquet Morgan headlined. He had flown in from his Bay Area California home for the event and was heading back the next morning.
The baseball, a worn batting practice ball, had one distinctive feature: an artist had drawn, in prominent black ink, “MVP.”
The jinx Morgan referred to was the fact that he had not yet received the award. The picture of Morgan holding this ball was being snapped a few weeks prior to the official announcement. Although he was an odds-on favorite, the result was not certain.
Morgan agreed to the photo to help two fledgling sportswriters. If he was named MVP, the two would have a unique shot ready to go. If he didn’t win, the photo would not be printed. It was an act of kindness and trust. Vintage Joe Morgan.
No need to have been concerned. As The New York Times declared, it was Morgan “by a landslide.”
Times’ writer, Joe Durso, summed it up: “He batted .327, fourth highest average in the league; he drew 132 walks, the most in the league; he reached base 295 times, stole 68 bases in 78 attempts, scored 107 runs and made only 11 errors on defense. In an era of specialists, he was considered a throwback to the complete ballplayer.”
What made the MVP award even sweeter was that the last NL second baseman to win it was Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. “Jackie was an idol of mine,” Morgan emphasized. “I played second base because that’s where Jackie played. It is an honor to be named in the same sentence with him.”
The MVP Award punctuated a dazzling 1975 season where the Reds won the National League West with 108 victories and then brushed off the Pittsburgh Pirates in a Championship Series three game sweep. The ’75 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, considered by many to be among the best, went seven games — Joe Morgan, not surprisingly, delivered the Series wining game hit for the Big Red Machine. “It’s a team sport first and an individual thing second,” Morgan stated. “We always thought we were the best team in baseball and now we proved it on the field.”
The following season was a repeat, played a notch higher. The Reds powered through the West with a 102-60 record (best in MLB), swept the Phillies in three games and then devastated the New York Yankees in four straight World Series games.
The celebration in the Reds clubhouse at Yankee Stadium that October evening featured flowing champagne — but it was subdued, low key. One veteran New York writer wondered if he was in the wrong locker room. “We took care of business tonight,” Morgan explained. “We will celebrate with the fans back in Cincinnati.”
The 1976 National League MVP was another runaway victory for Morgan. “I was ecstatic last year when I was named MVP because I had never won any big award like that,” he said. “It’s a different feeling this time…winning it twice puts you in a different category in baseball lore. It’s tougher the second time around. People expect more of you.”
Morgan heaped praise on skipper Sparky Anderson for putting him third in the batting order, one reserved for the best hitter on the team. “I owe a lot to Sparky for moving me to number three last season,” he said. “That’s the reason I won two MVP awards. It allowed me to do all things I am capable of as a ballplayer.”
The entire Reds roster played to the full extent of their capabilities in ’75 and ’76 — Rose
moved to an unfamiliar position at third base to solidify the infield; George Foster bloomed into superstardom; Tony Perez and Johnny Bench played through their prime seasons. But the key that turned all the tumblers was the Reds trade with Houston for Joe Morgan.
Morgan admitted that he had been a moody player who fell into funks while in Houston. That behavior disappeared when he arrived in the Queen City. Morgan became a team leader: there was no one who reached out to struggling ballplayers, welcomed rookies, or set an example of playing hurt (once, memorably, with 14 stitches in his shin) more than Morgan.
In the clubhouse, he was a master needler. Sitting in an orange director’s chair in front of his two lockers (the stars all had two lockers), Morgan aimed one-line insults at everyone in sight, all of whom returned fire in kind. The clubhouse was a spirited environment, but when the team took the field, it was like that celebration in Yankee stadium in 1976 — strictly professional, always serious business.
On a personal level, the 5′ 7″ Hall of Famer who so towered over the game was devoted to his family. He listened to jazz (Miles Davis particularly). He favored Mouton Cadet. And, when he wasn’t playing baseball, he was talking about it. “I’m a little guy, but I used that to my advantage in baseball, where it’s skill, not size, that counts.”
After Morgan passed away on October 11, 2020 at the age of 77, Johnny Bench spoke for many: “For those who knew Joe Morgan, no words are necessary. For those who didn’t, no words are adequate.”
Postscript: When the photo shoot in November of 1975 concluded, Morgan flipped the MVP ball to this writer — one of the fledgling journalists — and said, “Hold on to this, I may want it.”
Morgan had a reputation for being a sentimental collector: after the 1976 World Series, he asked the grounds crew to dig up second base so that he could take it back home to California.
“I stole it,” he quipped.
Morgan never asked for that MVP ball, so 45 years later, it’s still with me.