In Memoriam: The Mostly Unknown Story of John McNamara

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Hi friends. As this most unusual season gets off to an uneven start, like a car which can’t quite get itself out of neutral, a name from the game’s past is in the news because of his death. You mostly know the name of John McNamara as the manager of the 1986 Red Sox, the manager who didn’t take Bill Buckner out of game 6 of the ’86 World Series, thus leaving a window open which the Mets charged through. There’s a lot more to McNamara, who passed on at age 88 a couple of days ago. McNamara was a catcher in his playing days. In 1956, playing for Sacramento (his home town) in the Pacific League, he only hit .171 in a league known for inflated hitting numbers.

He began managing as early as 1959, at age 27. His first team was the Lewis-Clark Broncs in Lewiston, Idaho, an entry in the Northwest League at that time. He won two pennants with the AA Birmingham A’s in 1966 and ’67. In more than a decade as a minor league coach with the A’s, he worked with Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, Blue Moon Odom and Joe Rudi of the A’s teams which won the World Series from 1972–74. Jackson in particular gave kudos to McNamara for helping him deal with the racial tension in Birmingham while he played there. Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa was an infielder when McNamara was manager.

The long time minor leaguer began coaching in the bigs in 1968. In the last 2 weeks of the 1969 season, the A’s owner Charles O. Finley fired Hank Bauer and put McNamara in as manager at age 37. Instead of just 2 weeks, he kept the job through the next season, after which he was replaced by Dick Williams.

After a few years coaching with the Giants, he managed the Padres from 1974 until the end of May, 1977. He got his first taste of postseason managing in 1979 with the Reds, who were swept in 3 games by the Pirates. He managed the 1980 Reds, and the 1981 team which had the best overall record but didn’t make the playoffs because of a split season format dictated by a strike. He was fired by the Reds in late July, 1982. He got the Angels’ managing job when Gene Mauch retired at the end of 1982, then joined the Red Sox after Ralph Houk called it a career. After a .500 season in 1985, everybody knows the next chapter.

To me, the saddest part of the 1986 Red Sox story, sadder than Bill Buckner, calvin Schiraldi or Bob Stanley, is the story of the widow Yawkey. The Red Sox owner, Jean Yawkey was escorted into the team’s clubhouse at Shea Stadium in the last of the 10th, with her team ahead by two runs and apparently no way the Mets could come back. NBC had their TV cameras at the ready, and the Red Sox ownership, (Mrs. Yawkey, Haywood Sullivan and Buddy Leroux) had cases of champagne ready for the celebration … a celebration that never came. Now, Mrs. Yawkey was quite an elderly lady at that time. The reversal in the game was a rapid one indeed. I don’t envy whatever intern had to try to discreetly (difficult) and quickly (impossible) move her out of the Red Sox clubhouse. Though Sunday was a wash, the Red Sox couldn’t gain momentum and win game 7 on Monday. McNamara never managed another postseason game again, though the Red Sox made the ’88 ALCS over the Yankees. He had been replaced midseason.

After a year scouting for the Mariners, he managed the Indians through 1990 and part of 1991. In August, 1996, he took his last swing as a manager, with the Angels when Marcell Lachemann resigned. After just 14 games, he was hospitalized with a blood clot in his leg. After treatment, he managed another 14 games, closing out the 1996 season. When all was said and done, he managed to a 1167–1242 record.

Details of his last quarter century, and of his death itself are sketchy or not available at all. I have no doubt, in spite of the way 1986 ended up, Red Sox remember that year, the team and the manager fondly.

R I P John McNamara.

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