(This is Day 7 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
One look at some baseball cards will tell you all you need to know about the player depicted.
For instance, the 1977 Topps Dave Kingman tells you that Kong is a smasher.
The 1973 Topps Brooks Robinson reminds you that you’re not getting anything past him at third base.
And the 1984 Fleer Glenn Hubbard solidifies your resolve to keep him away from your daughter.
But other cards don’t tell you the whole story, no matter how great they look.
Take the 1966 Topps Joe Morgan, for example.
If you were a young collector in 1966, chances are you didn’t know much about Morgan unless you lived in the Houston area.
Sure, Morgan turned in an excellent rookie season in 1965, smacking 14 home runs in 601 at-bats to go along with a .271 batting average, 100 runs, and 20 stolen bases. That effort earned him second place in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting, well behind Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Jim Lefebvre.
But just look at that gorgeous card that Topps used to celebrate Morgan’s rookie year.
Born to Be 2B
There he is on the front of his 1966 Topps card, crouched down and ready to scoop up the ground ball that is surely screaming his way. The battered glove on his left hand looks older than Joe himself, who was only about 21 in the picture.
Morgan gazes intently in the direction of the phantom batted ball, neither anxious nor excited for the play about to unfold. He’s going to handle whatever comes his way and toss the horsehide on a rope to first base to get the out.
No question about it.
His Houston Astros jersey from 1965, the first year after they renamed themselves from the Colt .45s, is understated compared to the explosion of orange, blue, and yellow that would come a decade later. The only hint of gawd here is the Astros patch on Morgan’s left sleeve, already threatening to become garish.
Behind Morgan, blue sky invites you to the ballpark to watch this young team and its Topps 1965 All-Star Rookie second baseman. Besides the golden trophy denoting that same distinction, the card design is unassuming and keeps your focus on the the promise in Morgan’s eyes.
The back of card #195 reinforces your impressions from the card front and fills in some missing pieces.
Morgan stands just 5’7″ tall and weighs a scant 150 pounds. He throws from the right side but bats lefty.
And, according to Topps,
Joe has all the credentials to become one of the best second-sackers in the majors.
He’s also apparently “an excellent billiard player.”
That pretty much sums up the situation, doesn’t it?
Here we have a tiny, pool-sharp second baseman who looks perfect in the standard 2B crouch.
This man was built for defense, and that’s where he’ll make his mark. Maybe he’ll be able to maintain his run-scoring output from 1965, and the stolen bases are sure to bump up as he hits his prime.
But those 14 dingers, modest as they were,couldn’t be much more than a one-year aberration. Beginner’s luck.
If Morgan develops into anything like a top second baseman, as Topps predicts, it will be in the classic mold: good fielder with any offensive contribution a decided bonus.
The Little General is Born
Unless you just landed here from 1966 in your time machine, of course, you already know that Joe Morgan had other plans.
His home run output did dip into the single digits for most of his remaining six years in Houston, and his stolen base totals climbed as high as 49 by 1969. He made two All-Star teams and was generally one of the best second basemen in the Major Leagues.
Then, in late November of 1971, Morgan was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in a blockbuster trade that also netted Cincy Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, and Denis Menke in exchange for Tommy Helms, Lee May, and Jimmy Stewart.
As it turned out, this was the deal that put the finishing touches on The Big Red Machine.
Billingham claimed a slot in the rotation and Geronimo soon established himself as the Reds’ starting center fielder. Armbrister developed into a valuable role player whom manager Sparky Anderson played in all three outfield spots.
But Morgan was the prize of the trade who paid off more handsomely than anyone could have imagined.
Hitting second in the Reds lineup, Morgan got down to business the way he always did — getting on base, stealing bases, scoring runs. And, at age 28, he recorded a career-high 16 home runs in 1972 and landed fourth in the race for NL MVP.
The next year, he upped that homer total to 26 while remaining excellent everywhere else. He also won the first of five straight Gold Glove awards.
The power stuck with him and by the time the Machine was revving at full throttle to start the 1975 season, Morgan was batting third.
That 1975 team was one of the greatest to ever take the field, and the lineup was loaded like few others in Major League history. Despite sharing the dugout and diamond with unbelievable talents like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, George Foster, Dave Concepcion, and Ken Griffey, “Little Joe” Morgan was the best of the lot.
He won the National League MVP award and led the Reds to a World Series title in 1975 at age 31, then did it all again in 1976.
When Morgan finally hung up his spikes at age 41 in 1984, he had amassed 268 home runs among his more than 2500 hits. He scored more than 1600 runs and drove in more than 1100. His 689 stolen bases put him in eighth place when he retired.
As Topps predicted way back in 1966, Morgan had indeed become one of the best second baseman in baseball, and for all time.
Not bad for a guy who looked like for all the world like a light-hitting middle infielder waiting to happen on his 1966 Topps card.