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Ashway: Baseball buds Nellie and Joe together again
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

The 1964 Houston Colt .45s were, by all accounts, a moribund bunch.

They finished in ninth place, 30 games below .500, at 66-96. They came in 27 games behind the pennant-winning Cardinals, and 10 games behind the eighth-place Cubs. The only team saving them from last place was the Mets, a historically awful team.

The Colts played in a tiny minor-league ballpark infested with man-eating mosquitos. The heat and humidity were so oppressive that the Colts were allowed to play home games on Sunday nights, the first major league team to do so.

In 1965, the Colts were reborn as the Astros, and moved into the Astrodome, hailed at the time as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

But bad as they were, the ’64 Colts retain a unique distinction to this day. They remain the only major league team to have two future Hall of Fame members play second base during the same season.

Aside to trivia sticklers: Yes, both Billy Herman and Tony Lazzeri played for the ’38 Cubs, but Herman played second and Lazzeri, in the twilight of his career, played a bit at shortstop.

The primary second baseman for the ’64 Colts was Nellie Fox, in the last full season of his stellar career. Fox, who starred at second throughout the 50s for the White Sox, was traded to Houston after the ’63 season. The White Sox wanted to make room for Don Buford at second.

The Houston general manager, Paul Richards, had managed Fox in Chicago in the early 50s. He wanted to bring Fox to Houston to mentor an exciting young second base prospect coming up through the Houston farm system.

His name was Joe Morgan.

Fox and Morgan developed a lasting relationship. Fox played briefly in ’65 before becoming a full-time coach as Morgan became the full-time second baseman for the Astros.

The pair didn’t appear to have too much in common besides their size. Fox was 5-foot-9 and Morgan 5-foot-7; both weighed 160 pounds. But they both liked proving that a little guy could make it in the big leagues, and that connection proved endurable.

Anyone who ever saw Morgan play, and any kid who ever imitated his swing, instantly recalls Morgan in the batter’s box, flapping his left arm while awaiting the next pitch. The “chicken wing” came courtesy of Fox.

Early in his career, Morgan had a tendency to undercut pitches and pop the ball up. Fox suggested that if Morgan held his left elbow higher while in the batter’s box, he’d hit more line drives. To help Morgan remember to keep that elbow high, Fox suggested that Morgan flap his elbow before the pitch, in the same way a chicken flaps its wing. Morgan would employ that motion throughout his career.

Fox also taught Morgan about focus. “Fox drove home one point very hard,” Morgan told the New York Post in 1976. “He said when you lay down the bat and pick up the glove, forget about hitting. When you pick up the bat, forget about everything bad that happened in the field.”

Fox had another dramatic influence on Morgan’s career. After his playing days ended, Morgan enjoyed a second career as a television commentator. From 1990 to 2010, he appeared on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” with play-by-play man Jon Miller.

One night the discussion turned to the exorbitant size of the gloves then in vogue. Miller noted that during his career, Morgan used a very small glove.

Morgan immediately gave credit for that to Fox. The smaller glove made making the pivot much easier when turning the double play. You didn’t need to spend time feeling around the glove for the ball or, worse, having to look into the glove with a runner bearing down on you. With a small glove, you always knew exactly where the ball was.

Fox remained an Astros coach and mentor to Morgan through the ’67 season, after which he joined the Senators staff in Washington. After the ’72 season, Morgan was traded to Cincinnati, where he became the catalyst for the Big Red Machine. His career culminated with MVP seasons in ’75 and ’76. Fox lived long enough to see the first one; he died of skin cancer on Dec. 1, 1975.

But that didn’t end their friendship. In 1997, Hall of Famer Joe Morgan found himself on the Veterans Committee. In his last year of eligibility for the Hall in 1985, Fox missed election by one vote.

But Morgan was able to right that wrong. On Aug. 3, 1997, Fox was inducted into the Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech, Fox’s widow, Joanne, thanked Joe for all he had done for Nellie. Cameras picked up a tear as it slid down Morgan’s cheek.

And now, after Morgan’s death on Oct. 11, the two old friends can finally sit down together and talk baseball once again.

I’d love to hear their conversation.