Baseball keeps losing legends in 2020, and Joe Morgan might have been the smallest and mightiest of them all

Reds legend Joe Morgan dies at 77 (0:53)

Mike Greenberg reflects on the life of Reds second baseman and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who has died at age 77. (0:53)

It has been a terrible year for so many people, for all of us, including baseball fans of a certain age.

Al Kaline.

Tom Seaver.

Lou Brock.

Bob Gibson.

Whitey Ford.

They were among our baseball heroes. They showed us how to play the game. I'm 63 years old and they were my childhood. And they all died in 2020.

And now, the littlest and mightiest, Joe Morgan, has died.

"There was no one better than Joe," said Johnny Bench, a former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer. "And I'm not just talking about second basemen. I'm talking about any position."

Morgan is regarded as one of the three greatest second basemen of all time. He is the only second baseman to win back-to-back MVP awards, which he did in 1975 and 1976 for the Cincinnati Reds' famous Big Red Machine. He made 10 All-Star teams, won five Gold Gloves and was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1990.

He had the fifth-most walks of all time, trailing only Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Morgan had 850 more walks than strikeouts. He had the 11th-most stolen bases ever. He hit 268 home runs; Henderson is the only player in history to match Morgan's totals in home runs and stolen bases.

"We played against the Reds in the '70 World Series," said Jim Palmer, a former Baltimore Orioles pitcher and a Hall of Famer. "But they weren't the Big Red Machine until they got Joe Morgan."

Sparky Anderson, manager of the Big Red Machine, once told me that Morgan "was a great player until the games counted most. Then he became one of the greatest players of all time."

Morgan's 1975 and 1976 seasons were historically great. He led the National League in OPS in both seasons, including a 1.020 in 1976. In those seasons combined, he stole 127 bases and was caught only 19 times. He grounded into five double plays. He walked 246 times and struck out 93 times. He scored 220 runs and drove in 205. He won a Gold Glove both seasons. Those teams were among the greatest of all time, maybe the best in the history of the NL, and their best player those two years was Joe Morgan.

"He did everything," said Bench, the Reds' catcher. "If you needed a walk, he walked. A hit, he got a hit. A double, he hit a double. A homer, he hit a homer. A stolen base, he stole a base. He was great defensively; the telepathy that he and I had going was amazing. It's because he was so smart, he understood every situation. He affected the outcome of every game. To those who knew him, no words were necessary. To those who didn't know him, no words are adequate."

Palmer was inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year as Morgan.

"I will never forget the call I got from Jack Lang [of the Baseball Writers' Association of America] that I had been inducted," Palmer said. "And then he told me that I would be going in with Joe. I thought, 'Oh my, I am going in with Joe Morgan!' He was that good of a player."

And to accomplish all of this at his size -- 5-foot-7, 160 pounds -- was the most remarkable part of Little Joe. He is, with Yogi Berra, perhaps one of the two best players of all time under 5-foot-8.

"Pound for pound,'' Palmer said, "Joe might be the best player of all time.''

Eduardo Perez is the son of Tony Perez, a former teammate of Morgan's in Cincinnati. "My dad always told me that Joe might have been a little guy, but he had the biggest heart of anyone on the field," Eduardo said. "And it wasn't just in baseball, it was in business, it was anything else he did. He was so competitive. He always had to be the best."

Morgan's favorite player of all time was another second baseman -- Hall of Famer Nellie Fox of the White Sox. Fox -- a left-handed hitter, as was Morgan -- finished with 2,663 hits and a .288 batting average, never struck out as many as 20 times in a season, made 15 All-Star teams and won the American League MVP in 1959. He was listed at 5-foot-10, but was closer to 5-foot-8.

"Why wouldn't Nellie be his favorite player?'' Bench said. "Nellie was a short second baseman that played with a lot of heart. And no one played with more heart than Joe Morgan.''

Morgan always used the smallest glove, the smallest I have ever seen used by a major leaguer. He wore such a small glove because, especially on the double play, he never had to search for the ball in his glove. As he once told me, with a smile, "you better have good hands to wear a glove that small."

I got to know Joe Morgan in the 21 years that he worked for ESPN in the booth on Sunday Night Baseball with Jon Miller. When Joe talked, I listened, because I have met very few people who knew the game better.

"He was the smartest baseball man I ever met," Hall of Famer Frank Robinson said. "No one understood the game better than Joe."

The only time I ever had an issue with Morgan was when I wrote many years ago that Dave Winfield was the oldest player ever to hit a home run in the postseason.

"You missed someone on that list," Morgan said.

I triple-checked. I told Morgan that, at the time, he was the second-oldest player to hit a homer in the postseason.

"OK, you're right," he said. "This time."

That was Morgan. A little guy, always fighting, always having to finish first. It is what he shares with the others who have died in 2020: Kaline, Seaver, Gibson, Brock, Ford. It was a different era, a different game, a different kind of player. And the passing of each has brought another loss.

"How much more gut-wrenching can we get?" Bench said. "Today, I lost my buddy, my teammate, my comrade, my dear friend for 40 years."

And then, with a crack in his voice, Johnny Bench did what he often does. He sang.

"To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you."