In old, grainy videos, the Cincinnati Reds second baseman is at the plate facing Boston Red Sox left-hander Jim Burton, top of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1975 World Series and the game tied 3-3. Joe Morgan pumps his left elbow four times before lifting a single to center field at Fenway Park, driving in Ken Griffey Sr. with what would be the title-clinching run.
“Certainly not the hardest ball Joe ever hit, but a little blooper into center wins the World Series,” said former longtime NBC Sports broadcaster Bob Costas. “Morgan was distinctive because of his stature, 5-foot-7. If a guy’s distinctive, there’s something about him — achievement is one thing, but presence and distinctiveness are harder to define.”
Morgan, who was 77 when he died Sunday, is the latest baseball great to join a list of Hall of Famers who have died in 2020, five alone in the last seven weeks. Yankees lefthander Whitey Ford, Cardinals flamethrowing ace Bob Gibson and his teammate Lou Brock, and Mets pitching legend Tom Seaver have all passed since August 31. Detroit Tigers 18-time All-Star Al Kaline died in April at age 85. The six men were part of a bygone baseball era, when superlatives alone were not enough to describe the performances and feats achieved on the diamond.
“All of the Hall of Famers who passed away this year, they were iconic,” said Costas. “Not simply excellent enough so that looking at their numbers, they belong in the Hall of Fame. They were all part of the public imagination.”
Morgan won back-to-back National League MVP awards (1975-76) when he played for Cincinnati’s great “Big Red Machine” teams. The Reds were World Series champions those same two years, and the roster featured Cooperstown inductees Morgan, catcher Johnny Bench, infielder Tony Perez and manager Sparky Anderson, as well as baseball’s all-time hit king, Pete Rose.
“Joe Morgan was quite simply the best baseball player I played against or saw,” Bench said in a statement. “He was a friend to so many and respected by all. We have lost six Hall of Famers this year. All champions. This hurts the most.”
Costas, a Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster, was paired with Morgan in the TV booth for NBC nationally-televised games during the 1990s. Costas has also covered the NBA and NFL during his career but said baseball still was king during the 1960s and throughout the 1970s. It was a stretch of time before Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan transformed the NBA, and before the NFL grew to become the country’s most popular sport.
“Baseball had primacy in the American imagination,” said Costas, who works for the MLB Network. “There weren’t as many things competing for our attention. Baseball was still, in every sense, the national pastime.”
Morgan was also a 10-time All-Star and won five Gold Glove awards. Brock, in addition to collecting 3,023 hits, had a career 938 stolen bases, which is second all-time to fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson’s 1,406 thefts. Kaline had 3,000-plus hits, won 10 Gold Glove awards, a World Series ring and one batting title.
Among the three pitching legends, Seaver was a three-time Cy Young award winner (1969, ‘73, ‘75), while Gibson won two (‘68, ‘70) and Ford one (‘61), although the Yankee great collected his Cy Young when the award was only given to the best pitcher in the majors. Ford was on six Yankee World Series champion teams and the lefty still owns several World Series records, including most World Series starts (22) and innings pitched (146.0).
Gibson, who was 84 when he died, also won the National League MVP in 1968 when he was 22-9 and pitched to a miniscule 1.12 ERA over 304.2 innings. He had 28 complete games and 13 shutouts that season, although his and Brock’s Cardinals lost to Kaline and the Tigers in the World Series.
During Gibson’s 17-year career, he had 255 complete games. In a testament to how the game has changed, injured Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, a two-time Cy Young winner and former American League MVP, has pitched for 16 years and has 26 complete games.
“Performance is one thing and presence is another,” said Costas. “You talk about Bob Gibson. You talk about Tom Seaver. You’re talking about presence, tremendous presence.”
Rose played with Morgan on both the Reds and Phillies (1983), and was also briefly teammates with Seaver in Cincinnati after Tom Terrific was traded from the Mets in the middle of the ‘77 season.
“Seaver, (Steve) Carlton and Gibson were probably the three most severe competitors that I faced in my career,” said Rose. “Here is Seaver’s secret. Tom was one of the rare guys that really had good giddy-up on the ball down. His fastball down was one of the best in baseball.”
Seaver and the Miracle Mets toppled the mighty Baltimore Orioles in the ‘69 Fall Classic, what was part of a calendar year in which New York sports fans were spoiled in three of the four major sports.
“The Jets upset the (Baltimore) Colts in January of ‘69,” said Costas. “The Mets come out of nowhere and win the World Series and then in the following spring, the ‘69-’70 NBA season, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and the Knicks win the NBA title.”
Namath and the Jets shared Shea Stadium with Seaver and the Mets back then, and while Broadway Joe was as fierce a competitor as Seaver on the field, the Hall of Fame quarterback was more of a man about town than the married Mets pitcher.
“Tom was a sharp man, a different kind of personality, a little quieter, softer,” said Namath. “But very diligent. You knew he was going about his business.”
Many baseball cognoscenti consider the ‘75 World Series one of, if not the greatest in baseball’s history, when the two clubs played a seesaw affair through seven games. Fans remember Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk’s dramatic 12th-inning home run to win Game 6, but Cuban right-hander Luis Tiant started three games in the Series and won twice for Boston, including a complete-game, 6-0 shutout in Game 1.
Tiant called Morgan a great player and “good people,” and said he was surprised to learn that Morgan had joined the group of Hall of Famers lost in 2020.
“Oh man. It’s sad,” said Tiant. “We don’t know when the time gonna come and we have to go. Look at how many players died already — all Hall of Famers. That’s crazy.”