Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in April 2018 and is reprinted here by permission.
On November 29, 1971 the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds made an eight-person trade that, most famously, moved Joe Morgan to the Reds and helped upgrade a very good team into a great one. This story is usually told from the point of the view of the Reds and their general manager Bob Howsam, whose fleecing of the Astros was the crowning achievement of a remarkable career.
But what of the Astros? What in the world were they thinking? In this essay, rather than treating the latter question rhetorically, we will try to answer it head on. What were the Astros thinking? What were they trying to accomplish with the deal?
In 1971 the Reds and Astros had actually finished tied for 4th in the NL West, 11 games behind the San Francisco Giants. The Reds standing was considered a fluke – they had won 100 games in 1970 but suffered through a series of devastating injuries and off-years. They still had Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Tony Perez, all in their primes. The Astros’ 79 win season was not surprising at all – this was a repeat of their 1970 record, and they had never finished above .500 in their 10-year existence.
The Astros had a fairly lopsided team at the time. They had a fine and deep set of starting pitchers – Don Wilson, Larry Dierker, Ken Forsch and Jack Billingham – all still in their 20s, and a strong bullpen. In addition, their two best prospects – Scipio Spinks and (especially) James Rodney Richard – were starting pitchers. But they had a very weak offense, even after accounting for the challenges of the Astrodome. In 1971 they hit below the league average in road games, and at home they hit just 18 home runs in 81 games.
Some of this was by design. The team’s manager, Harry Walker, was fancied a sort of hitting guru at the time, largely based on his success with Matty Alou a few years earlier. Walker was managing the Pirates in 1966 when they acquired Alou, and Walker spent the spring teaching the small free-swinging speedster to bunt or to chop the ball to the opposite (left) field and use his speed to leg out singles. He told the press that Alou would gain 50 points in batting average by following this advice. In fact, Alou gained 111 points (.231 to .342) and won the league batting title, and remained a .330 hitter for four years. Understandably, this brought Walker a fair bit of praise.
Unfortunately, it appears that Walker tried to foist this style onto players that didn’t need it. When he took over the Astros in mid-1968, their second baseman Joe Morgan had already enjoyed a few excellent seasons as a well-rounded offensive player. He led the league in walks as a rookie, had excellent power for a middle infielder, and was an efficient base stealer.
Walker took one look at his 5-foot-7, 160 pound frame and saw another Matty Alou. He asked Joe to choke up, hit the ball to left field, and use his speed to get to first base. What he could not see was that Morgan was a much better hitter than Alou would ever be. One of my favorite baseball cards is the 1970 card of Morgan, where he is standing in a bunter’s pose and looking miserable. Morgan was self-confident enough to disagree with Walker, and the two never got along.
And it wasn’t just Morgan.
Bob Watson was a fine young right-handed power hitter, but Walker fought with him to hit the ball to the opposite field, once telling him he would fine him every time he pulled a fly ball to the left fielder. Watson was a natural first baseman who Walker first tried to make a catcher, and later an outfielder, neither of which he could play. Instead Walker’s most used 1971 first baseman was Denis Menke, who hit 1 home run all year.
John Mayberry was another power-hitting first baseman, hitting from the left side. Just 22, he had several excellent minor league seasons but had not hit in two extended trials with the Astros. Predictably, Walker also hated the way Mayberry swung the bat. Mayberry wanted to hit like Willie McCovey, another big left-handed hitting first baseman with a long swing, while Walker wanted him hit line drives to all fields. Mayberry’s attempts to hit like Matty Alou were a failure but he was still a kid.
Right fielder Jim Wynn had plenty of power, but Walker could not deal with the fact that he struck out so much (he led the league in 1967). “He kept telling me I’d hit .300 if I just choked up on the bat, went to the opposite field and concentrated on average. No way. My swing was already grooved. I didn’t get all those home runs being a Punch-and-Judy hitter. I guess when you’re short, managers have a tendency to mess with you more.”
In 1969 Wynn struck out 142 times but also led the league with an NL-record 148 walks. Coupled with his 33 home runs, this made Wynn one of the game’s best offensive players. Walks were largely unappreciated at the time, and all Harry Walker saw was the strikeout total.
Walker and Wynn battled on, and in 1971 Wynn suffered through a dreadful 1971 season — .203 with just seven homers – while battling injuries and off-field problems. His problems with Walker included benchings for not hustling. Still just 29, there was every reason to hope he would be able to come back.
In Morgan’s post-career memoir he claimed that Walker was a racist, citing several incidents related to himself, Jim Wynn and Marty Martinez. Morgan believed Walker treated black players like children, incapable of thinking for themselves. Although Morgan remained a good player under Walker, his hitting regressed: his three pre-Walker seasons averaged an outstanding 131 OPS+, while he dropped to 113 in his three Walker years in what should have been his hitting prime (ages 25-27). In 1971 Morgan led the club in home runs, but also in sacrifice bunts.
The speculation throughout the 1971 season was that either Walker would be fired, or that general manager Spec Richardson would have to trade some of the malcontents. As The Sporting News wryly admitted in October, “The pruning of ‘troublemakers’ is a yearly project with the Astros, particularly so since Walker has been manager.” In the event, Richardson kept Walker and tried to deal Wynn and Morgan.
Other teams were well aware of the problems in Houston, and offers for both players came quickly. The Phillies offered first baseman Deron Johnson and second baseman Denny Doyle for Morgan, but were turned down. This speaks well of Richardson – Johnson hit 34 home runs in 1971, so this was no throwaway offer. The Dodgers reportedly offered Wes Parker, which was also turned down. The Astros were looking for best deal.
When Bob Howsam called Richardson to let him know the Reds wanted to trade power-hitting first baseman Lee May for Morgan, Richardson was intrigued. May was a perennial 35-home run guy, the only power hitter unaffected by the Reds team-wide slump in 1971, and a quiet (important to Walker) leader. The Reds had spent the latter part of the season asking around about Morgan’s off-the-field personality, and concluded that he would fit right into their outspoken confident group of stars.
During the negotations, the trade kept getting worse for the Astros. Richardson asked for Tommie Helms (the Reds’ second baseman who would be supplanted by Morgan) and offered Denis Menke to balance the infielders. Howsam countered that Helms was a tough loss, so he would then want pitcher Jack Billingham and outfielder Cesar Geronimo. Houston did not feel a need for either player (Cesar Cedeno was a star in center field and the Astros had a lot of starting pitchers) but they could have been shopped elsewhere rather than tossed into another deal. Richardson feebly asked for utilityman Jimmy Stewart, and Howsam got another prospect to finish the deal. It was announced on the first day of the winter meetings in Phoenix.
The media reaction was mainly pro-Houston. Clark Nealon, in the Houston Post, oddly reasoned: “An edge to Morgan on offense, and an edge to Helms on defense. So a standoff there…” On the other hand, Bob Hertzel in the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote: “For Lee May, you’d expect a Willie Mays, not just a guy named Joe.” The degree to which people undervalued Joe Morgan’s skills is striking looking back today.
In fact, it took a few years for everyone to agree that the Reds won the deal. The Astros, with strong contributions from May, stardom from Cedeno, and a solid comeback from Wynn (not traded), won a franchise record 84 games and (thanks in part to bringing in the fences) led the league in runs. Bob Watson became a solid middle-of-the order hitter, though the Astros gave up on Mayberry (who became a star for the Royals). The Astros stayed at this level for a few years, a young exciting team that nonetheless could not keep up with the top clubs.
As for the Reds, they probably won the deal even without considering Morgan. Billingham was a dependable starter who won 19 games in back to back seasons. Geronimo was a fair hitter but a four-time Gold Glove winner in center field for the Reds, the backbone of their tremendous up-the-middle defense. Those two would have been a fine return for May, and the other players didn’t really matter much.
Morgan became, quite simply, the best player in baseball, reaching a five-year peak unmatched since the prime of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Over those five years, he averaged 22 home runs, 60 steals, and 118 walks, while batting .303/.431/.499 (an OPS+ of 163) and winning four Gold Gloves and two MVP awards. The Reds averaged 100 wins per season, winning the World Series in 1975 and 1976.
Much credit must go to Reds manager Sparky Anderson for Morgan’s transformation from underrated star to superstar. While Harry Walker spent three years trying to turn Joe Morgan into Matty Alou, Sparky Anderson was more than happy with the actual Joe Morgan. He asked four things of his new player: (1) get on base, (2) crush the ball, (3) run at will, and (4) be a star.
Morgan complied, and topped off one of history’s legendary teams.