A stunning autumn of terrible baseball news, lowlighted by the passing of Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford, just got worse. Joe Morgan has died at age 77.
Morgan is best remembered as the sparkplug for Cincinnati’s unstoppable Big Red Machine, which won back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976 behind Morgan’s back-to-back National League MVP Awards. He was small (5-foot-7, 160 pounds) but strong, hitting 289 homers while stealing 689 bases over a 22-year career. Remarkably, Morgan’s reputation was cemented prior to the time when on-base percentage was truly appreciated, even though that was a key part of his offensive game. Morgan batted better than .300 only twice in his career, but topped 100 walks eight times and led the league in OBP four times. To judge by Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, Morgan’s 1975 season was among the 20 best campaigns of any player ever, at any position.
Speaking personally, growing up as a Giants fan in the early 1980s, I got to see up close what a guy like Morgan could do for a foundering ballclub. The Giants of the late 1970s, when I achieved baseball consciousness, were more or less terrible until Morgan joined the team as a free agent in 1981. This was awesome for 11-year-old me; I’d been imitating his back-arm batting-stance flap for years, and was excited to see it in orange and black.
In 1982, his second season in San Francisco, Morgan kept the Giants in contention until the schedule’s final week. They wouldn’t win, of course, because back then the Giants never won. For me, Morgan’s lasting impact came on the season’s final day. I wrote about the moment just last week for the Pandemic Baseball Book Club.
The Giants-Dodgers rivalry is among the best in sports, but from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s it was a decidedly one-sided affair. The Dodgers were a much better team, frequently in the playoffs and occasionally winning it all, while the Giants seemed to be perpetually in fifth place.
Really, all we Giants fans had was beating the Dodgers, and even that did not go well. In 1980, The Sporting News ran an entire feature about the Giants having won only 15 of 60 against LA to that point since Tommy Lasorda took over as Dodgers manager in 1977. Willie McCovey once said that he’d rather lose to a college team than to the Dodgers. One can only imagine his particular anguish.
Then came ’82. Even after the Giants dropped out of the race, they were in prime position to affect the outcome. The Dodgers, battling Atlanta for the division title, closed their season with three games at Candlestick Park. We Giants fans were ready to play spoiler.
So what happened? The Dodgers roared into town and won the first two games by a combined score of 19-2. That put everything into play for the season’s final day, when, with the Braves losing to San Diego, the Dodgers needed one more victory to force a divisional tie.
I was 12 years old, at the stadium with my father, sitting in the grandstand along the left field line. I remember how packed Candlestick was—a rare occurrence for a stadium used to hosting fewer than 10,000 fans at a time—and how the energy was downright palpable. It was my first real taste of meaningful baseball, even though, win or lose, San Francisco’s season would end that day.
Giants starter Bill Laskey, wrapping up his rookie campaign, gamely matched Fernando Valenzuela into the sixth, each pitcher giving up a pair of runs. (Even then, the teams’ methods of scoring seemed to represent the franchises as a whole, the Dodgers scoring on a two-run homer by Ron Cey while the Giants leveraged a bases-loaded walk and a double-play grounder.)
This is where the magic happened. This is where Joe Morgan happened.
The seventh inning started hopefully, with Bob Brenly singling and Champ Summers doubling him to third with nobody out. On the broadcast, Vin Scully called Candlestick Park “a chamber of horrors.”
Then Greg Minton, the Giants closer who was for some reason already pitching in the seventh inning, was allowed to hit for himself. He struck out. Of course he struck out. Then Jim Wholford also struck out. It was turning into a very Giants inning in every imaginable way … until Morgan stepped to the plate.
Reliever Terry Forster worked the count to 1-2, and then hung a slider that Morgan pummeled over the right field fence for a three-run homer. We fans at Candlestick lost our damn minds. The seemingly insane move of letting Minton bat with the winning run at third paid off when Moon Man held LA to two hits over the final two innings, cementing a 5-3 win and ending the Dodgers’ season.
That home run—Morgan’s home run—is my first meaningful baseball memory, an event for which I can firmly place the date and situation. It is what I recall first when thinking about prime baseball moments early in my life. It showed me what a truly great player, even one at the end of his career, can bring to a ballclub.
Joe Morgan was only a Giant for two years, but those years were utterly influential in cementing me as a baseball fan, and for that I am grateful.
Rest in peace.