Mr. Morgan was widely considered one of the greatest second basemen to play the game, and labeled the very best by baseball historian and statistician Bill James. At 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, he was relatively small — two inches shorter than his idol Nellie Fox — but became known for his excellence in hitting, stealing and fielding. In a 1976 cover story, Sports Illustrated rated him “the most complete player in baseball.”
“I’m not the best power hitter in baseball, not the best hitter for average, not the best fielder, not the best base stealer,” he told the magazine. “But when you put all those things together, no player in baseball can do any two of them better than Joe Morgan.”
Mr. Morgan, who batted left-handed, was known for flapping his left arm like a bird as he prepared to swing. After getting on base he would terrorize opponents, notching more than 40 steals in a season nine times during his career. He practically taunted opposing pitchers while stepping far off first, and acquired a reputation for arrogance that he said he embraced.
“To be a star, to stay a star, I think you’ve got to have a certain air of arrogance about you, a cockiness, a swagger on the field that says, ‘I can do this, and you can’t stop me,’ ” he told Sports Illustrated.
Mr. Morgan, a Black star at a time when roughly three-quarters of Major League Baseball players were White, played his first nine seasons in Houston. He joined the Reds for the 1972 season and was named an all-star in each of his eight seasons with the team, capped by back-to-back National League MVP awards and World Series titles in 1975 and 1976.
The team had won the National League pennant in 1970, missed the playoffs a year later and returned to form in 1972, when Mr. Morgan led the big leagues in walks, on-base percentage and runs scored, helping propel Cincinnati back to the World Series. The Reds lost to the Oakland Athletics in seven games.
Mr. Morgan was credited with elevating a powerhouse roster that included Pete Rose, the future all-time hits leader, as well as shortstop Dave Concepción, infielder Tony Pérez and catcher Johnny Bench.
“Joe wasn’t just the best second baseman in baseball history, he was the best player I ever saw and one of the best people I’ve ever known,” Bench said in a statement Monday. Mr. Morgan’s friend Dusty Baker, the Houston Astros manager and former outfielder, called him “one of the first examples of speed and power for a guy that they said was too small to play,” describing him as a forerunner to Astros second baseman José Altuve.
Mr. Morgan arguably made his greatest impact during the 1975 World Series, considered one of baseball’s most dramatic Fall Classics. He drove in the winning run of Game 3 with a 10th-inning single, and seemed on the verge of winning Game 6 when Dwight Evans made a spectacular catch at the wall, robbing him of a potential homer. After Carlton Fisk hit a home run to force Game 7, Mr. Morgan hit a two-out, 9th-inning blooper to give the Reds a 4-3 win.
A year later, he helped lead Cincinnati to a four-game sweep over the New York Yankees, kicking things off with a home run in the first inning of Game 1.
“He was just a good major league player when it didn’t mean anything,” Sparky Anderson, his longtime manager with the Reds, later told the Associated Press. “But when it meant something, he was a Hall of Famer.”
The oldest of six children, Joe Leonard Morgan was born in Bonham, Tex., on Sept. 19, 1943. He grew up in Oakland, Calif., where his father worked for a tire and rubber company.
He ran track and played basketball at Castlemont High while starring on the baseball team, where he was nonetheless overshadowed by a teammate, left-handed pitching ace Rudy May, who signed with the Minnesota Twins.
Mr. Morgan received no college scholarship offers, let alone contracts from big league teams. Instead he enrolled at Oakland City College, where he played baseball before signing with an expansion team, the Houston Colt .45s, in 1962. Sent down to the minors, he briefly decided to quit after enduring racist taunts and encountering segregation as the sole Black player for the Durham Bulls.
“It would be nice to say that I changed my mind because of the example of earlier black players who had it tougher, like Jackie Robinson. . . . But my decision came from my own sense of shame and embarrassment,” he recalled in a self-titled 1993 autobiography co-written with David Falkner. “When I thought of facing my father and telling him that I had quit — I simply could not go ahead.”
Mr. Morgan made his major league debut in 1963. He became a regular second baseman for Houston, by then known as the Astros, in 1965, and came to Cincinnati as part of an eight-player trade that many baseball observers considered a steal for Houston, which received Reds favorites Lee May and Tommy Helms.
Mr. Morgan left the Reds following the 1979 season and later played for Houston, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Oakland. He retired in 1984 and joined the Reds as a broadcaster the next year, later working for ABC, NBC and ESPN, where he partnered with Jon Miller on “Sunday Night Baseball” for more than two decades.
Mr. Morgan earned two Sports Emmy Awards but acquired a reputation as a somewhat old-fashioned analyst, with little interest in modern statistical analysis of the sport. In 2010, ESPN announced that it would not renew his contract.
In addition to broadcasting, Mr. Morgan worked for many years as a businessman and philanthropist and wrote several books on baseball. He also returned to college, graduating from California State University at Hayward (now known as East Bay) in 1990.
Mr. Morgan made headlines after a 1988 incident at Los Angeles International Airport, when he said he was illegally detained and slammed to the ground by a plainclothes police officer who suspected he was a drug courier. He sued the Los Angeles Police Department, alleging that he was targeted because he was Black, and the city settled in 1993 for $796,000.
Mr. Morgan’s marriage to Gloria Stewart ended in divorce, and in 1990 he married Theresa Behymer. In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage; twin daughters from his second; two sisters and two brothers; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Morgan served in recent years as vice chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where he opposed enshrining “known steroid users” such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. He had been elected to the Hall in 1990, in his first year of eligibility, after a 22-season career in which he bat .271, hit 268 home runs, stole 689 bases (11th on MLB’s career list) and was walked 1,865 times (fifth on the career list).
“I think the thing I’m most proud of — I want to make this clear — all those numbers you see, the good ones, the in-between ones, were achieved with the team coming first and me coming second,” he told the AP before joining the Hall. “I never stole a base without the team needing it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported that Oakland City College became a university. It was a precursor to two separate colleges.
Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.
Read more Washington Post obituaries