Photo by Clay Lomneth/The American Legion

MLB Hall of Famer Joe Morgan named Legion’s Good Guy

For the third consecutive year, The American Legion Past Department Commander’s Club chose a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer to honor at the organization's annual National Convention luncheon.

All-time great Joe Morgan was named the 2017 James V. Day “Good Guy” Award recipient, following former Cincinnati Reds teammate Johnny Bench in 2016 and former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre in 2015.

“Contrary to recent trends, the Good Guy is not a baseball award. It just so happens that a lot of baseball players are good guys,” American Legion Past National Commander Charles E. Schmidt said at the Aug. 21 luncheon in Reno, Nev. “Many have charitable foundations and contribute enormous time and financial resources to various communities. So it certainly is no coincidence that so many of our Good Guy award winners over the years have been baseball players. But as great as players as these men have been, and we’ve had some all-time greats, they are even better people.”

A two-time National League Most Valuable Player, Morgan has supported numerous charitable causes in his San Francisco Bay Area hometown and the Cincinnati area where he made a huge impact as one of the greatest second baseman to ever play the game. He founded the Joe Morgan Youth Foundation, which provides college scholarships and financial support to programs that are instrumental in the development of youth. After retiring as a player, he began a successful broadcasting career and is the owner of the Joe Morgan Honda dealership in Monroe, Ohio.

Known for his outstanding defense at second base, he was a pivotal cog in the team nicknamed the “Big Red Machine,” which won back-to-back world championships in 1975 and 1976. His habit of flapping his left arm while awaiting a pitch seemed harmless to opponents but certainly did not hurt his effectiveness as he hit for average, power and amassed 1,865 walks over his big league career. Bench told The American Legion in 2016 that Morgan was the best player that he had ever seen.

Morgan spoke with John Raughter, the Legion’s deputy director of media relations prior to the luncheon.

Q: What are your memories of American Legion Baseball and how did it help you develop as a player?

A: Every league that I played in helped me develop as a baseball player. I played Babe Ruth League, I played semi-pro and I played American Legion Baseball (Post 471, Oakland, Calif.). And every league helped me develop as a player. We had some good teams. I think The American Legion helped me advance because it was better than Babe Ruth League and every step I went to a higher league and I was playing against better players. And it helped me progress.

Q: You played on some very special teams, most notably the “Big Red Machine.” What made that team so special?

A: Well everyone wants to look at the talent we had on the team, the players. But the thing that in my mind made us the best was that it was the smartest team I ever played for. We would go weeks at a time without making a mental mistake. We might make a physical mistake – didn’t make many of those either – but, we just didn’t make mental mistakes. We didn’t throw to the wrong base. We didn’t get doubled off on a line drive, we didn’t get thrown out trying to stretch a single to a double or whatever. And I credit (manager) Sparky Anderson for that because he will never get the credit he deserves for being a great manager because a lot of people said if you put down (Johnny) Bench, (Pete) Rose, Morgan, (Tony) Perez, you know all these guys every day, you’re supposed to win. Well, that’s not true, it doesn’t work that way.

But Sparky was able to get all of us and our egos pointing in the same direction. And we learned to really enjoy playing with each other and, again, we all left our egos at the door when we came in. But you have to have an ego to be a good player. I don’t ever say I didn’t have an ego because I did. Bench had one. Perez. Rose. Everybody. I always felt like every day I stepped on the field, I went out there to prove I was the best player on the field. I’m sure Bench felt that way. Rose, Perez. Everybody felt that “Hey, I’m the best player. I have to do this for the team, we’ll get it done.” But again, the thing that made us great is that they were intelligent enough just to know the ins and outs of the game, know what it took to win and were always willing to do it. That’s what made us a great team and that’s why I always said we were the best team that’s ever played. And I don’t care, people can argue with me about that and that’s fine. But I will take those guys and I will play anybody for seven games and I guarantee we are going to win four. But, when I look at that team, also we were such a great defensive team. We knew how to handle the best pitchers. The Tom Seavers of the world, the Steve Carltons. All those great pitchers of our era. We knew how to deal with them. They beat us sometimes, but never easy. We made them work and we knew how to work them, so it worked out great for us.

Q: What would you change about today’s game, if anything?

A: Well, I wouldn’t change anything except the baseball. The ball is juiced up. And now everybody wants to hit home runs. And along with those home runs go a lot of strikeouts. And the ball is not in play a lot. You don’t hit and run, you don’t bunt. You don’t go (from) first to third very often, you don’t do all of the things that made the game great. But it’s hard to tell a guy not to hit the ball out of the ball park when he’s going to get paid a lot of money if he hits 25, 30 home runs. But along with that goes guys striking out 200 times, guys striking out 170 times. And the new analytics say that a strikeout is not any worse than an out, which I have a real argument with. A guy can’t score from third on a strikeout but he can score from third with less than two outs on a fly ball or a ground out. A strikeout is not just another out. It’s a strikeout. Nothing happens. Nobody moves. So I don’t like that part of the game. But I will say this—fans love the long ball. And, they seem to enjoy it.

Q: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, A-Rod (Alex Rodriquez). Do they belong in the Hall?

A: Well, I won’t answer that because I’m vice chairman of the board at the Hall of Fame. Someone could take me as speaking for the board and I can’t and I won’t. But I will say this, people that cheated the game or did things wrong, I think should be penalized. Now what that is, that is not for me to decide – that’s for the commissioner and other people. But I do think people should be penalized.

Q: Tell me about the Joe Morgan Youth Foundation. How did it start and what does it do?

A: It started about 1970 or somewhere around there. It started because California passed Proposition 13. They took a lot of money from the schools, the athletic programs and after school activities at the playgrounds and kids didn’t have a way to play. I thought it would be a great idea to give young kids the same opportunity that I had. So I started with a golf tournament and made some donations myself along with other people into the youth foundation, so we started providing athletic equipment for the schools. I think the proudest moment was when the girls basketball team called me and said that they didn’t have uniforms and it wasn’t just the guys at that point. And my youth foundation was able to provide uniforms for the girls. We provided uniforms for the guys. Bats, balls for the schools. And I saw how much affect it had on these kids and so I felt very happy to continue to do it. And I continued and then I expanded it to scholarships.

I have a scholarship at Cal State Hayward – that we have maybe $300,000 in the bank that the interest is used for kids going to Cal State Hayward; not for P.E., baseball or basketball but for the education part of it. Kids who want to be physical education majors, we help them get through that. But the education thing is every important to me now. I don’t know how many I’ve given over the years but I give two specific scholarships to Castlemont High School, now, that’s where I went to high school. But we have two people there that I give scholarships to every year. I’m there to help them but if they need more than scholarships, we find a way to get it for them.

To give you an example, I just decided that some of the kids I’m going to give more money. Because I felt like some of these kids are going to be going off to college and they might not have the clothes to wear that they need to blend in. So I just decided I would give them each a thousand dollars apiece extra to buy clothes or whatever they wanted with it other than the scholarships for books and tuition. That’s kind of how the foundation has changed and grown over the years. Not just in Oakland but in San Francisco, throughout the Bay Area.

Q: How do you feel about being the 2017 American Legion Good Guy?

A: You know, I said this when they put my sculpture in Cincinnati, that you get in the Hall of Fame because you have numbers and you do things that warrant you being a Hall of Famer. But when they put a statue of you in front of a stadium it means that you were more than just a player. And anytime someone recognizes that I wasn’t just a baseball player, it’s important to me. So it’s important from that perspective. And it’s important from some of the people that you already honored. You’ve honored some of the greatest athletes and some of the greatest people in this country. So I feel honored to be one of them.