Morgan returns to Astros as free agent

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

By the end of the 1979 season, Joe Morgan had fashioned a 17-year big league career that featured two National League Most Valuable Player Awards, five Gold Glove Awards at second base, two World Series rings with the Cincinnati Reds – and a likely date in Cooperstown.

But Morgan was not satisfied. So on Jan. 31, 1980, he returned to his big league roots by signing a free agent contract with the Houston Astros.

“I wanted to play for a contender and that’s a big reason why I’m here,” Morgan told the Sporting News that winter. “I like what’s been happening in Houston.”

The 36-year-old Morgan agreed to a one-year deal with the Astros, who had already signed Nolan Ryan to the game’s first million-dollar-a-year contract earlier that offseason. Morgan stepped right back in at second base, picking up where he left off in 1971 when the Astros traded him to the Reds.

“I don’t know of any player,” said Astros general manager Tal Smith, “who is more intelligent, more competitive and more dedicated than Joe Morgan.”

Signed as an amateur free agent by the then-Houston Colt .45s in the fall of 1962, Morgan made his big league debut a year later and earned the job as the newly-minted Astros’ starting second baseman in 1965. He quickly demonstrated a combination of speed and power that made him an All-Star in 1966 – as well as plate discipline that would eventually result in a career on-base percentage of .392.

But seeking more power for their lineup following the 1971 season, the Astros traded Morgan to the Reds in a seven-player deal that brought slugging first baseman Lee May to Houston.

Morgan proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle for the Reds, who won five National League titles, three NL pennants and two World Series crowns in Morgan’s eight seasons in Cincinnati. The two championships coincided with Morgan’s two MVP Awards in 1975 and 1976.

Joe Morgan played for the Houston Astros for 10 seasons of his 22-year career. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“What this means,” said Houston’s Enos Cabell of Morgan’s signing with the Astros, “is that for the first time in my career, I’m playing on a team that should be picked to win its division.”

Cabell proved to be correct. In Houston in 1980, Morgan posted a .367 on-base percentage, largely on the strength of his NL-best 93 walks. He led Houston to its first National League West title, which it clinched in Game 163 in a 7-1 win over the Dodgers in a one-game playoff. The Astros then fell to the Phillies 3-games-to-2 in a thrilling National League Championship Series.

Morgan left the Astros following the 1980 season, signing with the Giants – where he spent two seasons before heading for Philadelphia in 1983, where he helped the Phillies win the NL pennant. Following his age-40 season with the Athletics in 1984, Morgan retired.
In seven of the 19 big league seasons where he appeared in more than 10 games, Morgan led his teams to the postseason.

“One important lesson I learned in Cincinnati was that the team is more important than the individual,” Morgan said. “(Reds manager) Sparky Anderson taught us that and it’s the reason we won two world championships.”

A 10-time All-Star, Morgan retired after 22 seasons with 1,865 walks, 689 stolen bases and 268 home runs. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990.


Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series