Joe Morgan made a career out of beating the Los Angeles Dodgers. The damage varied from beating L.A. in the regular season to knocking them out of the playoffs. Over a nine year span, Morgan’s teams ended the Dodgers season five times, including two defeats on final day of the season. But one thing many don’t know is that Joe Morgan nearly became a Dodger. Twice.
During his eight seasons as a member of the Cincinnati Reds Morgan was one of the top players in the game. From 1972 through 1976 he was dominant. During that time he hit 108 homers, drove in more than 400 and drew nearly 600 walks while stealing 310 bases. After Morgan won his second consecutive MVP award in 1976, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray called him, “pound for pound the best player ever to play baseball.”
“What other guy 5 feet 6 inches, 150 pounds in any sport dominates the way Joe Morgan does?” Murray wrote in an October 1976 column. “It’s like a 4-9 guard in basketball throwing in 50 points a game.”
But by 1979 it was obvious his time in Cincinnati was over. Injuries and age limited him to just a .236 batting average in 1978. In 1979 his home run total slipped from a high of 27 to just nine. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.
“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”
Morgan entered the 1980 Free Agent Draft and was selected by the Rangers, Giants, Padres and the Dodgers. Morgan wanted to go to a winner and the Dodgers were at the top of his list. L.A. was set at 2nd base with Davey Lopes, who hit .265 with 28 homers the year before, but they weren’t set in center field. Derrel Thomas was the incumbent but the Dodgers weren’t sold on him offensively.
Signing Morgan would allow Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to move Lopes to the outfield and plug a future Hall of Famer into one of the best infields in the major leagues. There was just one small snag.
Morgan’s signing was predicated on Lopes agreeing to move to center field. But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club.
“I don’t want to be used as a scapegoat,” Lopes told the L.A. Times. “But I don’t want to throw all that work out the window.”
It was clear the Dodgers longed to add Morgan to their lineup but not at the risk of upsetting Lopes and Morgan knew it. His agent, Tom Reich, did his best not to upset anyone by saying there were “no villains in this matter, certainly not Davey Lopes. He’s the best second baseman in the league. Joe knows that.”
Morgan signed with the Houston Astros and beat the Dodgers in the N.L. West in a one game playoff. In 1982, as a San Francisco Giant, Joe Morgan’s homer off Terry Forster on the final day of the season knocked L.A. out of the playoff hunt.
The following year, Morgan moved to Philadelphia. Reunited with Pete Rose and Tony Perez Morgan did what he did best: beat the Dodgers. The “Wheeze Kids” beat L.A. in the NLCS before losing to Baltimore in the World Series.
At the conclusion of the ’83 season, Lasorda decided he was due a raise. He was fresh off leading the Dodgers to their first World Series win since 1965 along with back-to-back playoff appearances and he wanted to get paid.
In his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, Fred Claire described what happened next.
“Tommy and I met for breakfast at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I made my best pitch… Still Tommy knew Peter (O’Malley) was going to have the final say when it came to the manager of the Dodgers.”
The two returned to Dodger Stadium where Lasorda met with O’Malley. According to Claire the meeting didn’t last long and when it was over he went to O’Malley’s office while Lasorda headed to his office to make some phone calls.
When Claire arrived he was informed it was time to search for a new manager. In the room was Claire, O’Malley, G.M. Al Campanis and Scouting director Ben Wade. Claire suggested Morgan and there was soon consensus.
Morgan was still technically a member of the Phillies, so Claire called Phillies owner Bill Giles to request permission to speak to Morgan.
No sooner did O’Malley hang up with Giles did the phone ring again. It was Lasorda calling from his office asking if O’Malley’s previous offer was still on the table. Informed it was, Lasorda took it.
Joe Morgan spent 1984 with the Oakland A’s and then retired. According to Claire, he never realized how close he came to becoming Lasorda’s replacement.