I am not old enough to have seen Joe Morgan play the game of baseball in person. As a child of the 80s, I had barely checked-in to my time on this planet when Joe was wrapping his career back in the Bay, sharing lineups with a young Rickey Henderson to end his career in Oakland.
The Cincinnati Reds of my youth featured Barry Larkin’s emergence into a star, Eric Davis creating magic with every step he took. The four-game sweep of Rickey’s 1990 Oakland club was the clincher, the first chance I had to lay my own eyes on the success of the team I’d pinned to my young heart, one that featured ace Jose Rijo - who became a staple in the big leagues at age 20 with Oakland the year after Joe retired - firing lasers past every A’s batter he could.
But why was I watching the Reds in the first place?
When grandpa has a creek that runs through the back of the farm, past the last cow pasture, there’s a good chance you’ll end up parked down there as soon as you can stand. Slinging mud, chasing crawdads, learning to fish. If there was a piano in the living room when you came down the steps each day, one of those days you’d start slapping the ivory. If Mom spoke some French, you picked up a bit of French here and there. If an Allman Brothers 45 was spinning, your ears picked up the sound.
On the wall of the small basement rumpus room in the house where I grew up hung a framed ticket stub. Game 3 of the 1975 World Series, a game the Reds won over the Boston Red Sox on a 10th inning sac-fly that scored Cesar Geronimo, one that came off the bat of Joe Morgan. Despite Carlton Fisk’s best efforts, the Reds eventually won that series, you know, as Morgan’s 9th inning single in Game 7 to score Ken Griffey brought a World Series back to Cincinnati for the first time in decades.
That framed stub was my piano, my French in many ways. From April through to October, Reds baseball was served up for my eyes and ears as often as it was available, with the neverending quest to replicate the exploits of the Big Red Machine the constant driver. I grew hooked on Larkin, on Davis, on Rijo because the generation before me had grown hooked on Joe, on Johnny, on the Big Red Machine.
I was not alive to experience Joe’s Game 7 single in person, nor to bear witness to 11 WAR campaigns, 108 win seasons, back to back MVPs, and back to back titles. But I was alive to learn about him early, to have him prompt becoming a Cincinnati Reds fan whether he knew it or not, to continually have it hurl me back into the history of baseball for context to what I have, in fact, been able to witness firsthand.
Davis bashed 20 dingers in a season where he stole 60 bags? Holy hell, so did Joe!
Barry won an MVP! Wait, Joe won two...in a row?!
Joey Votto led the league in OBP...but Joe did it while also stealing 67 bases that year?!
The back of Joe Morgan’s baseball card would have made him a legend in his own right even if his teams never won. His team success would’ve landed him in Reds lore even if he never put up otherworldly numbers. That he did both made him the kind of unique superstar the baseball gods only bestow upon us here and there throughout the generations, the kind whose success transcends era, city, sport.
We lost Joe over the weekend, but we won’t ever lose his legacy. Any Reds fan born after 1975 has had that instilled in their guts since the first time Marty & Nuxy came through the radio speaker and into our ears. We remember ED’s Game 1 homer, Tom Browning’s perfect game, Paul O’Neill’s kick, all of it because Joe gave the Cincinnati Reds permanence.
Cincinnati can lay claim to having hosted professional baseball longer than any city around, but the only real prominence to that claim rests on the ability for it to maintain relevance. Joe Morgan, baseball player, gave that claim near permanence, his exploits serving to bridge generations of baseball fans, of Reds fans, as we roll through the years with this pastime intertwined within our arteries.
When someone says something, someone is the best they’ve ever seen, you pay attention. Joe Morgan, to many, was the best they ever saw, and that will continue to resonate, as it has for the decades since he last donned a uniform.
Thank you for it all, Joe, for being the one that drew so many to love this fascinating game. I wouldn’t be writing this if you hadn’t.