Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan spent parts of nine seasons with the Houston Colt .45s and Houston Astros, but did you know he appeared in only one Memorial Day game for them?
It’s the truth, and Morgan’s one Memorial Day appearance in Astros’ road grays seemed to foretell the trade that would change his career.
Here’s how it happened …
Although Americans began collectively honoring our fallen soldiers in the years after the Civil War through the observance of Decoration Day, it wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day became an official holiday.
As it happened, the Cincinnati Reds hosted the Houston Astros on that inaugural holiday, which fell on May 31, 1971.
In a game that lasted a scant two hours and 19 minutes, the Astros downed the Reds by a final score of 4-1.
Larry Dierker went the distance for the Astros, giving up seven hits and two walks, and improving his record to a sterling 9-1.
Not far behind was Little Joe Morgan, Houston’s sparkplug of a second baseman, who recorded two hits in four at-bats, stole a base, and scored a run.
By the end of that last day of May, the Reds found themselves nine games under .500, a far cry from the pennant-winning pace that saw them win 102 games in 1970.
By contrast, the Astros entered June with a 25-24 record, but both clubs languished behind the red-hot San Francisco Giants, who would eventually win the National League West division.
Reds brass must have been paying attention to both their own sputtering offense and Morgan’s motor because big changes were in the works.
The Big Red Machine Gets Its Ignition Switch
The Astros and the Reds both finished as also-rans in 1971, but Cincy General Manager Bob Howsam was not about to let his big stars languish through another tough season in 1972.
This deal essentially put the final pieces in place for the Reds to become The Reds — The Big Red Machine that steamrolled the National League and all of baseball during the middle 1970s.
Of course, since baseball cards always depicted what happened the previous year, the 1972 Topps Joe Morgan card (#132) showed him as a member of the Houston Astros.
But Topps upped the bar in 1972, releasing series after series and pushing their offering to a mind-stretching 787 cards. That last series was issued late enough in the year for them to capture certain players in their new uniforms.
Thanks to Topps’ ambition and Morgan’s growing status with the Reds, Little Joe made his Cincinnati debut on card #752, which also featured the “TRADED” facsimile stamp across the front.
For the rest of the decade, Morgan made the Reds “go” and captured two NL MVP awards as Cincinnati pulled off consecutive World Series victories in 1975 and 1976 in one of the most dominant two-year runs of all time.
What About the Return?
Astute readers have no doubt remembered by this point that Morgan returned to the Astros for the 1980 season. Didn’t he make a Memorial Day appearance that season?
Even though Morgan played in 141 games for Houston in 1980, he did not take the field on Memorial Day (May 26). In his place?
The immortal Rafael Landestoy, who would himself land with the Reds the next season.
The beautiful symmetry of baseball never ceases to amaze.