Joe Morgan

June 4, 2007

I’ve got nothing today. I feel like I’m made out of wet cement and potato chip farts. Friggin’ Monday. I don’t work at my job on Monday, so it’s the day when I’m supposed to take the world by storm, you know, live my dream life, write shattering tales pulsing with the rhythms of undying prose, etc., etc. But I’ve just been stopping and starting all day today, trying and failing to fight through a painful ache that seizes me whenever I try to compose letters of inquiry to literary agents who don’t know me from a begger on the subway.

So just to keep from going nuts I’m going to take a short break from composing tedious, desperate explanations of how my festering unpublished novel is a sellable undiscovered gem. I’m going to look at my baseball cards. I’m going to look at my baseball encyclopedia. I’m going to enwomb my 39-year-old self for a little while in these activities that have soothed me and temporarily walled me from my troubles for most of my conscious life.

More specifically, I’m going to ask this question: Who’s better, Joe Morgan or Rogers Hornsby?

The discussion attached to the previous posting here on Cardboard Gods came to the collective decision that the man shown here burying his hands in his armpits is superior to his rival for the second-base spot on the all-time team. This decision is in line with Bill James’ thinking on the matter, as he related in his Historical Abstract

If you count his walks and steals, Morgan accounted for 6,516 career bases, leading to 1,650 runs scored. Hornsby accounted for 5,885 bases, leading to 1,579 runs scored. Hornsby played in a league where teams scored 4.43 runs per game; Morgan, an average of 4.11. Hornsby was an average fielder and a jackass; Morgan was a good glove and a team leader. (pp. 360-361)

The one factor left out of the above group of numbers is games played. Morgan played in 2649 games to Hornsby’s 2259, and so produced fewer bases and runs per game than Hornsby. Hornsby’s era saw more scoring in general, but unless I’m doing the math wrong (always a possibility), the ratio of his runs per game over Morgan’s runs per game is greater than the ratio of his era’s average runs per game over Morgan’s era’s runs per game. Because of longer seasonal schedules and a slightly longer career, Morgan was able to compile more bases and runs than Hornsby, but I disagree with the claim that he was as potent an offensive force as Rogers Hornsby.

The clincher to this argument, to me, comes from a look at how each player stacked up against other players of his era. Was Morgan the greatest offensive force of his day? For a couple years he probably was, and that’s pretty amazing for a Gold Glove middle infielder. He led the National League in on base percentage four times, in slugging percentage once, and in OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) twice. Not too shabby. But now hear this: Rogers Hornsby led his league in OPS eleven times. Eleven! I just took a look at the records of the top names on the career OPS leader board at baseball-reference.com, and it seems, according to my unscientific perusal, that in the history of the game only Babe Ruth led his league in that most telling offensive statistic more times than Rogers Hornsby.   

Now, I guess Rogers Hornsby was a pretty bad fielder and a dismal teammate. Also, he and all pre-Jackie Robinson major leaguers surely benefitted from competing in a segregated league. With those things in mind, I really can’t say with any certainty that Rogers Hornsby was better than Joe Morgan. But isn’t it tempting to imagine an all-time best lineup that includes a player at second base who is by a certain key measurement the closest anyone has ever come to being Babe Ruth?


  1. 1.  “Who’s better, Joe Morgan or Rogers Hornsby?”

    I’d argue that, due to their all-around games, Joe Morgan was the better player.

    But Rogers Hornsby is a much better broadcaster.

  2. 2.  They had remarkably similar careers. Both started in the Majors at 19, and Morgan played until 40, while Hornsby retired at 41. Hornsby was a far better hitter though and his WARP statistics show that, despite his defensive liabilities, he was only slightly less valuable overall. Career WARP-3 165.9 for RH and 166.8 for JM. Best year WARP-3s: 1920-14.6 RH, 1975-14.2 JM. Basically, the diffrences were insignificant and not enough to draw a conclusion.

    With that resolved, I looked at their post-season play. Both performed below average during the post-season, but Hornsby was .400 points below his lifetime OPS during 12 WS games. Joe Morgan, a lifetime .819 OPS, dropped, but only to .782 in 23 WS games.

    Why did Hornsby perform so poorly in the World Series? Did he lack moxie?

    All that said, if Jackie Robinson had joined the majors at 19 instead of 28, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Well, maybe we would.

  3. 3.  1: Agreed.

    2: Great point about Robinson. I do wonder if he would have put up numbers in those lost early years that would have been comparable to his actual record, however. I mean, even without segregation he would have lost a few of those years to WW II anyway, but even beyond that, I have gotten the impression in reading opinions about him from older Negro League guys that he was not exactly the most polished baseball player in his early years. Unfortunately, I don’t recall exactly where I saw that line of thinking, but I did find the below quote from Buck O’Neil on a PBS site (http://tinyurl.com/frldk):

    “Jackie was the ideal person for [breaking the color line] because I knew fellas at that time that were better than Jackie, but I don’t think they would have taken the insults and things like that.”

  4. 4.  The reason Robinson was not a more polished baseball player at age 26 or 27 is because he had no reason to be — focusing on baseball made no sense for him because professional baseball was not a realistic career goal, and baseball was a much smaller-time college sport than football.

    If you’re doing the “what if there was no segregation” thing, then I think there’s an excellent chance that a young Robinson would have concentrated on baseball as a youngster much more than he actually did. And he probably would have turned his raw baseball skills into playing ability much sooner than he ended up doing. Baseball was THE sport back then — it was the one everybody wanted to play, and the only team sport in which even white athletes could consistently make a comfortable living. Had segregation not existed, I think there’s every reason to believe Robinson would have gravitated more toward baseball than football or track & field, and thus have been a major league star in his early twenties.

  5. 5.  It should also be kept in mind that Robinson absolutely HATED the Negro Leagues, and viewed them not as a career opportunity but as a way to reluctantly support himself for a few months until he found something better.

    So Robinson had essentially no incentive whatsoever to concentrate on developing his baseball skills before August 28, 1945, the day Rickey signed him. The fact that he learned how to play baseball in his late 20s — which virtually nobody else in history has ever done — leads me to wonder whether he might not have reached even greater heights as a ballplayer if he’d started learning at age 15 or so.

  6. 6.  Don’t forget that Hornsby played in a 154 game era and Morgan in a 162 game era. If looking at career totals, you’ll want to adjust for that. Also worth noting: while Hornsby may have played until he was 41, he was essentially done at age 36, as he compiled a mere 258 ABs after his age 35 year.

    If Jay Jaffe were here, he’d apply his JAWS system as follows:

    (JAWS is the average between peak, the best seven WARP3 scores, and the career WARP3 score).

    Hornsby: 97.4 Peak, 165.9 Career = 131.7
    Morgan: 85.5 Peak, 166.8 Career = 126.2

    2 take another look at Hornsby’s 16.0 WARP3 in 1924, the year he hit 424/507/696. Hornsby’s two best were 16.0 and 14.6. Morgan’s two best were 14.2 and 14.2.

    I put Hornsby in my starting lineup and Morgan on my bench, but you can’t go wrong with either one. If we reanimate these players and play a 162 game season in a league of alien teams from one of those solar systems we’ve just discovered, it might make a difference, and take Hornsby’s 1924 performance over Morgan’s 1975.

    And, Hornsby, today, is a better broadcaster. 1 (Thank you!)

  7. 7.  4, 5: Excellent points, Eric.

  8. 8.  The league Morgan played in was harder, though, than the league Hornsby played in. That, and the non-jackass factor, tilts the field towards Morgan.

    But Hornsby doesn’t make me grind my teeth in anger on a weekly basis.

  9. 9.  It’s Joe Morgan, a sabermetrician’s dream of a ballplayer and that same sabermetrician’s nightmare as a broadcaster.

    Ever work with anyone who had great skills but in other ways was a major pain in the ass? That person leaves the office and you wonder why you ever thought he was so great. That’s Hornsby. He was a great player who played on teams that were relieved to be rid of him. Nobody ever wanted to get rid of Joe Morgan.

    The ballplayer, not the broadcaster.

  10. 10.  interesting read, yeah it would figure that Hornsby would be the better hitter & Morgan the better all around player.

  11. 11.  I like Joe Morgan the broadcaster.

    I get at least a little bit of a thrill just to think ‘Hey, that’s JOE MORGAN…maybe the best second baseman EVER’ when he calls a game. He could speak Klingon for all I care. I can see the bat wagging in my mind and I’m transported to a time when I was 7 years old, thought Dr. J and Julius Erving were two different people, and such a Yankee homer that I was bitter that Johnny Bench was in Krylon ads and not Thurman Munson. Even at age 7 I always put Joe Morgan on my imaginary all-stars. He was that good.

  12. 12.  11: “Dr. J and Julius Erving were two different people”

    Ha! That reminds me of a time when I thought there were two singers named Bob Dylan (pronounced Die-lan) and Bob “Dillon”.

  13. 13.  Second Base is such an odd position. It has to be the least represented spot in the HOF (unless one counts DH). It does not carry the defensive responsibilities of SS or C and offensively they rarely match 1B or 3B. Currently, there are two potential HOF 2Bs in the majors: Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio. Biggio’s spot is all but guaranteed, but Kent is probably still a question mark (I think Kent deserves a spot, but I am biased). Are there any others?

    Why does anyone play second base? They are not good enough with the glove to play short and are not good enough with the bat to justify standing at first. That is perhaps too harsh a judgement.

    Hornsby and Morgan are the only two worth discussing for g.o.a.t. second basemen. Is this because of the men themselves or because of the nature of their position?

    Am I asking a question worth discussing?

  14. 14.  http://www.baseball-statistics.com/Greats/secondbasemen.htm

    This is a nice little list of great second basemen. He chooses Hornsby for greatest. Will history be kind to Roberto Alomar?

  15. 15.  13 Yeah, good question(s). In my opinion second base is almost as important a position as shortstop. Granted, this opinion is based on the easily mockable grounds of my experiences playing Stratomatic, a game that illustrates that second-basemen are involved in almost as many plays as the shortstop.

    As for the g.o.a.t, I think a case has arisen previously in this discussion to at least consider Jackie Robinson in the conversation. Also, some other experts, especially in days of old, put forth Eddie Collins as their all-time guy.

    I think Kent’s numbers are going to carry him into the Hall.

    Joe Posnanski recently touched on second-basemen with a chance at Cooperstown amid extensive HOF predictions on his fantastic blog The Soul of Baseball.

    Posnanski’s AL predictions:

    And his NL predictions (which include below quote about surprising possibility Rey Durham):
    “Ray Durham. Well, I’m surprised … the guy has four Hall of Fame Comps on his list, including Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and Paul Molitor. He will be 35 at the end of the season and will probably have 2,000 hits. I don’t think he’s quite a Hall of Famer, but if he’s a good old player, it’s not impossible.”

  16. 16.  15. Yeah, I love that Soul of Baseball blog. That one and yours are the only non-Dodger baseball blogs I read. Ray Durham is pretty surprising. Jeff Kent’s comps list is almost all HOF catchers for what that is worth.

    The offensive explosion we have seen over the last 15 years will take its toll on a lot of guys. 500 homers will not be good enough for the Hall pretty soon, especially if one is a RF or 1B. If I am wrong, the Hall will be too watered down.

    The fact that Big Mac may not go is ridiculous beyond words but may be a sign of things to come.

  17. 17.  Tim Marchman wrote a column earlier this season exploring the what-could’ve-beens regarding Jackie Robinson. He thinks Robinson could’ve been one of the top 10 greatest players of all time had he had a full career. He also suggests that, under different conditions, he would’ve been a shortstop.


  18. 18.  17

    i always questioned his arm strength but then again they were just clips of him worming up, i never seen clips of him in game situations so i maybe wrong.

  19. Rogers Hornsby was weak going back for pop flies. I will take Joe Morgan over Rogers Hornsby at second base on an all-time major league All-Star team.

    My progession for greatest player in National League history goes from Honus Wagner to Rogers Hornsby to Stan Musial to Willie Mays.

    Weatherman in post 13 wrote second base “has to be the least represented spot in the HOF.” No it is not. Third base takes that cake.

    Joe Morgan is valuable in the broadcast booth when Jon Miller munches on a hot dog or sips some beer. We would not want Miller to talk with his mouth full! Kudos to Jon Miller going into the broadcasters wing of the HOF this summer (2010)!

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