When I was in Little League I was introduced to Pete Russom. He was the only kid I ever met that switch hit – successfully – at age 10. He was also the only kid I knew that had a real baseball diamond in his backyard, complete with painted wood placards of the Oakland A’s, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds as the outfield fence.
My father and Pete’s father worked together on the railroad. So, on weekends, I would always talk my dad into visiting the Russom’s so I could play home run derby.
Looking back, the game must have been entertaining for our father’s to watch, as they always did from the perch of the Russom family porch. Pete was a Reds fan and I loved the Mets. Once the game started, we became those teams, those players.
I remember throwing the first pitch of the game. I would wind up like Tom Seaver, glove in front of me as I checked the signs from Jerry Grote, then rotating my arms up and over my head, kicking my leg high to my chest and dragging my back leg on the mound, scrapping my knee along the dirt and throwing a first-pitch fastball to Pete … Pete Rose that is.
But the real treat was pitching to Pete when he was Joe Morgan. He would dig in from the left side of the plate, knees slightly bent and that trademark motion of cocking his left arm up and down against his rib cage, while he waited patiently for each pitch. I could hear our dads chuckling from the porch as I went into my wind-up.
To this day, when I think of Morgan, that’s the first thing I think of, that back arm flinching up-and-down like a chicken wing. As a 10-year old you don’t really think about why Morgan did that, you just saw it as funny, he was a “character” that could be imitated.
According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Joe Morgan’s habit of flapping his arm while at bat was a timing mechanism suggested to him by Hall of Fame second baseman Nellie Fox.
In Little League we would stand around and play copycat with whoever had a bat in their hands. If you said, “Do Willie Stargell?” The kid with the bat would start windmilling the bat from the left side. If you said, “Do Joe Morgan?” The kid would choke up slightly, knees slightly bent and begin flapping their back arm like a chicken.
The next generation of baseball fans will not remember Joe Morgan the same way. Try it. This summer, ask a little leaguer who Morgan is and I am sure the reply will be something along the lines of, “he’s a baseball announcer on ESPN.” Well, true, kind of.
If you are 35 or older, Morgan was the second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, the “Big Red Machine.” Morgan played in the greatest World Series game ever, Game 6 of the 1975 series. He stood on second base at Fenway Park and watched Carlton Fisk launch that dramatic, game-winning home run in the bottom of the 12th.
In Game Seven with two outs in the ninth inning, Morgan singled in the go-ahead run of the 1975 World Series. The Reds won the series and the rest is history.
Morgan was the leader of the “Big Red Machine” offense in the 1970s. He won back-to-back league MVP awards (1975 and 1976), leading the Reds to a pair of World Series wins.
Morgan is regarded as the best second baseman of his generation. Morgan was a nine-time All-Star, he started at second base eight straight years from 1972-1979 and won the All-Star MVP honor in 1972. On defense, Morgan is a five-time Gold Glove winner (1973-1977).
Did you know Morgan is the BEST percentage player in the history of baseball? That’s right. According to The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Morgan’s “Player Percentage Index (PPI)” was .667.
For those unfamiliar with the Jamesian formula, the PPI is made up of four categories:
1. Fielding percentage – compared to period norms for his era and position (30%)
2. Stolen base percentage (30%)
3. Strikeout to Walk ratio (30%)
4. Walk frequency in absolute terms (10%)
Here is what James found:
Morgan had a career fielding percentage of .981, as opposed to a norm for second baseman of his time of .977; I score that at .587 on the 30-percent scale.
Morgan stole 689 bases in his career, with only 162 times caught stealing, one of the best stolen base percentages in baseball history. I score this .801 on the 30-percent scale.
Morgan drew 1,865 walks in his career, with 1,015 strikeouts; I score that at .612 on the 30-percent scale.
Morgan’s rate of walks per plate appearance is 16th best in baseball history, 1,865 walks with 9,277 at bats. I score that at .768 on the 10-percent scale.
Combining these factors, Morgan’s overall rating as a percentage player is .677, the highest in baseball history for any player whom complete data is available.
NOTE: The National League did not record caught stealing statistics until 1951. Hence, a lot of players had to be excluded from this analysis.
In 1990 Morgan received baseball’s highest honor when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I remember listening to his speech at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown, New York. I thought about his quirky little arm motion and how we used to imitate him.
Morgan was humble as always and praised his teammates. The ’75 and ’76 Reds were an All-Star team alone: Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Pete Rose, George Foster, Ken Griffey Sr., Dave Concepcion and manager Sparky Anderson.
When you think about the era and the ballplayers Morgan played with and against, it truly makes his accomplishments even more special. To rise above a crowd of Hall of Famers, takes special ability and outstanding talent. Morgan had it – and did it.
I didn’t realize – or particularly care much – about players statistics and I surely didn’t give much thought to the idea behind “Win Shares.” But this is what baseball fans do when they “grow up.” We find new and interesting ways to be part of the game. You see, two 30-somethings playing home run derby looks awkward and most people, including our loved ones, start mumbling something about possible mid-life crisis issues.
Baseball at my age has become an indoor hobby. Watching, listening, reading and writing about the game as I see it today, yesterday and tomorrow. I’m still as passionate as ever about baseball, that’s the saving grace.
My birth certificate says I was born in 1964, which makes me 39 years old. But I love baseball, so I will always be a kid at heart. So now, whenever I see, hear or read about Joe Morgan, I still think of that left arm cocking up-and-down like a chicken’s wing … and then I write an article about it.