Looking back from Cooperstown, Joe Morgan saw himself with Nellie Fox in the Houston dugout -- the Houston Colt 45s. The fingers on Morgan's first big league glove, a Luis Aparicio model, were too long for his small hand. Fox, the old Chicago White Sox second baseman, offered one of his own. Its fingers were all right, but the padding was too thick.
"So, what do you think?" Fox said finally. "Do you think maybe you better design your own glove, and your own career, to your own specifications?" Morgan laughed. "You know, the ball can get lost in a glove that isn't just the right size for you," Fox said. Joe loved Nellie.
Harry "The Hat" Walker, the manager of the Astros eight years later, did not love Morgan. Walker felt no abiding affection for Jimmy Wynn either. But on the theory that one independent black was more than enough, Walker flipped a coin and traded Morgan to Cincinnati.
For all its thunder, the Big Red Machine never would have gotten started without a 5-foot-7, 150-pound ignition switch. Morgan had everything except a strong throwing arm at second base, and made up for that with what looked like a Little Leaguer's mitt and a dazzling release. He walked, stole bases, hit home runs; and, at the top of his game, prepared to retire.
"Wherever I played, I kept my home in Oakland," he said, "and I brought only the shiny things into the house. I'm not talking just about trophies, though I have a lot of trophies. I mean, I brought only the good things home. The MVP awards but not the boos, the Gold Gloves but not the bad prejudices. My children would come in and smile at the collection and say something nice about baseball and be happy. I never came home with a knot in my stomach and put it in theirs."
Morgan got the base hit that won the 1975 World Series. It was a ninth-inning flare off the nub of his bat against Boston's Jim Burton. In Morgan's version, of course, he heroically fought off a Herculean slider. To make it at his size, a man has to be full of himself and along the way pay a price for vanity.
"I'm the best 5-8 baseball player in history," Morgan announced to the clubhouse.
"You're not 5-8," Tony Perez replied.
In 1972, when Morgan lost his first World Series to Oakland, he was hitless through four games, of which Cincinnati managed to win only one. By the middle of the fifth game, trailing the A's again, he was reduced to praying for a base on balls.
"I think it was the only important time in my career," he said, "that I actually worked, strained, sweated to draw a walk." After succeeding, he stole second and scored the tying run. Two innings later, he walked again and came home this time on a hit-and-run single. Cincinnati won that game and the next.
The Reds were behind in the seventh game, 3-1, when Pete Rose led off the eighth inning with a single. Morgan followed by doubling into a corner. It might have been a triple, but with nobody out, Rose was stopped at third. He scored on a fly ball but Morgan was stranded on base -- forever. The A's won, 3-2. He was left with doubts not only about himself but also about his teammates.
A season later, Cincinnati won 102 games to the New York Mets' 82, but New York took a five-game playoff. Never having been able to touch either Jerry Koosman or Jon Matlack, left-handers both, Morgan despaired of the series before it began. When it was over, and he was completely hitless, Morgan wept like a child, rocking back and forth in the arms of coach Scott Breeden. More than his personal failing, what pained him was the shame of quitting on his fellows. He never did it again.
In fact, with two world championships and a pair of NL MVP awards in his pack, Morgan set out from Cincinnati to spread his new faith. He went back to Houston, then to San Francisco, to Philadelphia, to Oakland. Everywhere he went, winning followed him. Young players cleaved to him. "They reminded me of me sitting beside Nellie Fox," he said.
Frank Robinson used him as a liaison to the other Giants in San Francisco. In certain ways, he showed Robinson how to manage himself. Several teams offered Morgan his own command, but managing sounded too much like lingering. "Life is bigger than sports," he said. "I'm not dependent on baseball to have a good life. After the hand-clapping, you move on. At the same time, I'm always going to love the game. I'll never stop attending ballparks or caring about strategy."
In his final World Series, 1983 in Philadelphia, Morgan started out crashing home runs but ended up stumbling and falling flat at third base in the anxiety to tag up after a flyout. He dusted himself off, looked at the third-base coach and shook his head. At the end in Oakland, he was essentially an ally to Billy Williams and a uniformed tutor to Rickey Henderson.
Five years ago, Morgan retired after 23 major league seasons. On the day he was signed out of junior college, his mother was promised a graduate. A couple of months ago, he made good. Business and broadcasting occupy him these days, but not this weekend. The best 5-7 ballplayer in history, the No. 2 home run hitting second baseman behind Rogers Hornsby, Morgan is going into the Hall of Fame on the fly. At today's ceremonies, he ought to collect something shiny for his home, and dedicate a small glove to Nellie Fox.