The Runner Sports

Astros’ Tony Kemp And His Hall Of Fame Comp: The Young Joe Morgan

Tony Kemp and Joe Morgan were born 600 miles apart, separated also by 48 years. Baseball, though, has a way of bringing eras, as well as people, together in ways that can easily be overlooked.

Both are second basemen, both bat left-handed (and throw right), and both are nearly identical in stature, with Morgan showing out at one inch taller at 5’7″ while giving up five pounds to the “heftier” Kemp, who tilts the scales at 165. Both men’s numbers are, of course, right in the ballpark of current Astro second baseman, Jose Altuve, who, at 5’5″ and about 160 lbs (his self-quoted measurements) is the roadblock preventing Kemp from ascending to the majors.

Morgan, of course, known as “Little Joe” since his early 60s days with Houston’s pre-Astros incarnation, the Colt .45s, saw years of success with Houston, before becoming the spark plug in Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s. That team, with the 10-time All-Star joining forces with (among others) Pete Rose, George Foster, and two other Hall-of-Famers, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez, won World Series rings in both 1975 and ’76. In fact, both those years were National League MVP campaigns for Morgan, as well.

Kemp has been mastering Triple-A for more than two years, now, as the second baseman/outfielder with the Pacific Coast League’s Fresno Grizzlies, stuck in limbo as Jose Altuve holds down the second base bag in Houston, who also has a stacked outfield. Not only did Morgan play in the PCL (more on that below), he, too, had his share of outfield playing time with Houston, logging 32 games in center and left between 1967 and 1969.

The Rise of Little Joe

Morgan was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame a little over a year before Kemp’s Halloween 1991 birth.

Morgan’s birthplace of Bonham, TX, had a population of just over 6,000 folks in 1943, and while it currently boasts a community of 10,000, it’s one of the oldest cities in Texas, having been founded in 1837. It rests just ten miles south of the Red River, about 70 miles northeast of Dallas.

During WWII, there was a training camp and an aviation school for the US Army Air Forces just north of Bonham, as well as a prisoner-of-war camp for captured German soldiers, parts of which can still be visited today. The oldest of six children, the tight-knit family moved in with relatives in Oakland, California, when Joe was five.

Joe, his sister, and their father (who had once played semi-pro ball) regularly attended Oakland Oaks baseball games in the early 50s. The Oaks, a Pacific Coast League affiliate, played in Oaks Park, just a few blocks from Morgan’s home, in Emeryville, a suburb just north of Oakland. Oaks Park, long in disrepair, was demolished in 1957, replaced by a Pepsi bottling plant, and is now the site of Pixar Animation Studios, home to such film animation franchises as Toy Story and Cars, among many others.

Joe participated in many sports, but did not play organized baseball until he was 13. In 1956, he made the 13-to-15-year-olds Babe Ruth League team, before moving on to high school ball, where he excelled despite his lack of size, thanks to a large, but endearing dose of self-confidence.

In a quote from his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball, which might have resonance with Kemp, and even Altuve in their youth, Morgan wrote, “Whenever someone had something kind to say, there was nearly always a double edge to it: I was known as a good, little player—with emphasis on the second of the two adjectives.”

Following high school, no offers came in from pro baseball. In a 1990 New York Times article, Morgan revealed: “I was very lucky to be able to play baseball. I grew up in Oakland. A lot of great players grew up there—Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Willie Stargell. But they had one thing in common: They were all over six feet. The scouts didn’t want to look at a guy who was 5 foot 7 and 140 pounds.”

After his senior year at Castlemont High School (formerly East Oakland High), Morgan attended Oakland’s Merritt Junior College and Hayward’s Cal State East Bay, thinking about a possible career in business. After an outstanding year with his college team, a scout from the Colt .45s saw something special in Morgan. In 1962, he was offered a contract to play minor league ball at $500 a month (with a $3,000 signing bonus).

Morgan began his minor league stint with Houston’s Class A Carolina League affiliate, the Durham Bulls in 1963. As the only African-American player on the team, he was forced to endure his first taste of segregation. Fielding verbal taunts from fans, and being prohibited from staying in the whites-only motels on the road, Morgan was shocked, as it had been at least 15 years since Jackie Robinson made his historic breakthrough with the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus ending racial segregation in baseball.

Related: Jackie Robinson: A Salute to 42

Wanting no part of a team or league that would tolerate prejudice, he thought many times about quitting. But, his coach and teammates supported the 19-year-old, reassuring him that they, too, disagreed with the segregationist politics of the day. Morgan dug deep and sought refuge in teamwork, newly-dedicated to working harder at baseball.

Two days after his 20th birthday, Morgan made his MLB debut on September 21, 1963, for Houston at Colt Stadium, with one at-bat against the Phillies. His first taste of National League ball lasted just 30 plate appearances, but took him to the end of the ’63 season. He acquitted himself nicely, hitting .240 with a triple among his 6 hits, 5 runs scored, 3 batted in, and 5 walks and 5 strikeouts.

The next season he was sent to the short-lived Double-A San Antonio Bullets, and had an impressive season, batting .323, with 90 RBIs, 12 home runs, and 47 stolen bases (in 59 attempts). He was named 1964 Texas League MVP at age 20, earning him another late-season assignment to Houston. This time, he hit .189 in 37 ABs, accumulating 7 hits, with 6 walks and 7 strikeouts, and was caught stealing in his only attempt. Things must have looked grim for Morgan.

Nonetheless, skipping Triple-A ball completely, Morgan was in the 1965 Opening Day lineup for the Astros’ first game in the Astrodome, eventually logging more games at second base, that year, than soon-to-retire Nellie Fox, and veteran Bob Lillis.

The 21-year-old rookie ended up setting club records for at-bats (601), runs (100), hits (163) and triples (12). Morgan came in second in the league’s voting for Rookie of the Year, won by another second baseman, the Dodgers’ Jim Lefebvre, even though Morgan had a higher WAR (5.7 to 4.6). The Astro also outdistanced Lefebvre in batting average( .271 to .250), home runs (14-12), and OPS (.791 to .706). In fact, the only stat Lefebvre topped Morgan in was RBIs (69-40).

Not sure what the baseball writers were looking at that year, but Morgan again addressed a possible dynamic in his autobiography: “You could not help being aware that no matter how fairly others tried to treat you—never a guarantee—it was always a struggle to go from town to town, hotel to hotel, restaurant to restaurant. Even in those places where black people were allowed, there was still an underlying sense of being out of place. It was as though, without anyone ever saying it, a black player could just feel the silent judgments and objections to his presence. When you stayed in the same hotel with your teammates, when you went to a bar or a restaurant, there was always that unvoiced question, ‘Why is he here?'”

Tony Kemp: Master of Patience

Born in Franklin, TN in 1991, Kemp attended Franklin’s Centennial High School, and was a three-sport star in baseball, football, and basketball.

Houston drafted the left-handed hitter in the 5th round, out of Nashville’s Vanderbilt University (22 miles from home) in 2013, and made the lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan a sudden fan of the team that gave Joe Morgan his start.

At Vandy, Kemp focused on baseball, and coach Tim Corbin once had this to say about his 2B star: “Tony is a special talent. It takes a rare athlete to make a move from the outfield to second base in the middle of the season and play it proficiently. His physical tools are uncommon, and his positive personality is infectious. He is one the most exciting players we have had in our program in quite some time.”

Kemp made his MLB debut May 17, 2016, at age 24 (Morgan had just turned 20 for his debut), and with his 3 ABs for Houston in 2017, has put together a pro line that reads .211/.290/.317.

Video: Meet Tony’s Mom, interviewed in the stands after Tony’s MLB debut

Kemp’s AAA career has spanned parts of the last three campaigns, with his Fresno output including 976 ABs (through August 17) and 296 hits for a .303 BA.

This season, alone, he’s hitting .320, 11th in the PCL. His 144 hits rank second, while his 83 runs scored rank third. His 210 total bases rank 10th in the league, topping Fresno slugger A.J. Reed, who’s near the top of the PCL in homers with 26. Kemp is third in the league in steals, with 22 (79% success rate). He’s slugged 20 doubles, 8 triples, and 10 homers this season.

No Hits, No Runs, 2 Eras

While many traits (and sometimes even a stat or two) between Morgan and Kemp may seem similar, there is nothing even remotely similar about the teams one was on, and the other is yearning to join.

Morgan was young and gifted, and was joining an infant team, moving on from two aging second basemen (Lillis and Fox, an eventual Hall-of-Famer), and moving into a brand new stadium on a newly-invented ersatz turf.

Kemp is young and gifted, treading Triple-A water, excelling at every turn, and biding his time while the parent club has a perennial hit king at his position (Altuve), who might even be AL MVP this year. Oh, and they’re fighting for baseball supremacy. Fortunately for him, Joe Morgan didn’t need what is being asked of Tony Kemp to possess:

Patience…..and, more of it.

Related: Tony Kemp: Astros’ Young Gun With Big Pop

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Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

At TRS, you'll get full Astros coverage, minor league peeks, player profiles, interviews, MLB historical perspective, and maybe a little rock'n'roll!
Brad Kyle
  • andrew farelli

    Any thoughts on where he could be traded to get playing time so the astros could get a win now asset?

    • Brad Kyle

      Well, no. But, thanks for having more faith in my crystal ball than I do! But, your query makes me wonder about front offices (including the ‘Stros’) and their empathetic/altruistic motives in that direction. Do they feel (as we do) for a “trapped” player like Kemp, and put in any time to thinking about “freeing” him so that he can get the MLB playing time it’s obvious he deserves and is ready for? Something makes me doubt it.

      As for value to get one of those pitchers before the Aug. 31st revocable waiver deadline (like Verlander), Kemp is not one of those “sexy” prospects (read K. Tucker, Forrest Whitley, Derek Fisher) likely mentioned by every opposing GM wanting to deal w/Houston. Kemp could certainly be a throw-in with one of the above, though. My biggest compliment is that if I were drafting for an expansion team, Kemp would be my #1. You think Springer is a sparkplug (and of course he is)? Kemp is a sparkplug just waiting to happen!

      Thanks for the note, Andrew! Glad you dropped in, and hope you become a regular! BTW, just between you and me, I have it on good authority that Tony has seen this article, and I know a link has been sent to Morgan!

      • andrew farelli

        Thanks for the kind and insightful comment. I don’t know as much about the Astros as I do other teams like the Red Sox (as i am a red Sox fan above all other teams). I write articles on fangraphs community research page under the username pedeysRsox. One article is on Andrew Albers, the other is about the decline of Chihiro Kaneko.

        • Brad Kyle

          Very cool, Andrew! Great to chat with a fellow scribe! Perhaps your team and my team will meet in the playoffs, duking it out for the right to go to the WS! I’ll look for your pieces, too, and again, thanks!

          • andrew farelli

            The two articles were both published last month so, it will take some time to find them