Obituary: John McNamara (1932-2020)

RIP to John McNamara, who managed six different teams as part of a nearly 20-year big-league career — most notably the 1986 Red Sox that came within an out of winning the World Series. He died on July 29 in Tennessee at the age of 88. McNamara had a 14-year career in the minor leagues as a player and manager before getting his first major-league coaching assignment. McNamara managed the Oakland Athletics (1969-70), San Diego Padres (1974-77), Cincinnati Reds (1979-82), California Angels (1983-84, 1996), Boston Red Sox (1985-1988) and Cleveland Indians (1990-91).

John Francis McNamara was born in Sacramento, Calif., on June 4, 1932. He grew up at a time when California was bursting with future major-league talent, and he was one of the best catchers around. He was a three-year letterman in baseball at Christian Brothers High School, where he also played basketball. In 1950 he was voted the outstanding player in the annual East vs. West prep game in San Francisco and won an all-expenses-paid trip to the World Series. He was also named the MVP of the Sacramento County League and the best catcher with no professional experience in Atwater’s state semipro tournament, according to the Sacramento Bee.

McNamara went to Sacramento Junior College and helped led the 1951 team to the state championship. By then, numerous teams were after him, but the St. Louis Cardinals signed him on July 1, 1951, and assigned him to the Fresno Cardinals. He struggled to hit around the .200 mark for the first couple of seasons before going off to the military in 1953. He still played baseball in the California bush leagues when he could, but he was out of professional baseball until 1955.

Upon his return to the states, McNamara was released by the Cardinals organization and signed with the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League. The team assigned him to the Lewiston (Idaho) Broncs of the Northwest League. He had gained 25 pounds in the Army, and while the extra weight didn’t add much to his power stroke, he may have contributed to his .239 batting average, which was 30 points higher than he’d hit previously in the minors.

McNamara made it up to the Solons in 1956, but he batted just .171 in 76 games. After bouncing around for a few seasons in the Western U.S., he ended up back with the Lewiston Broncs in 1958. He batted .267 that year with a career-high 2 home runs and 63 RBIs. The following year, the team’s management decided to make their 27-year-old starting catcher the manager, too. The Broncs were a part of the Kansas City Athletics’ organization. After three years as a player/manager, McNamara managed other A’s farm clubs through 1967. He was named the Manager of the Year in 1960, 1961 and 1962 in the Northwest League with the Broncs and in 1966 in the Southern League while skipper of the Mobile A’s.

John McNamara from his days as a California bush league player. Source: The Sacramento Bee, February 7, 1953.

Many future A’s stars, including Bert Campanaris, Joe Rudi and Blue Moon Odom spent time in the minors learning from McNamara. Reggie Jackson spent his last full season in the minor leagues with the 1967 Birmingham A’s, with McNamara. While the skipper had already been established as a great developer of talent, it was something else that Jackson never forgot. As McNamara’s obituary in the Boston Globe noted, Jackson thanked McNamara in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1993. (The whole speech is on Reggie’s HOF page, and he references McNamara at about 11 minutes in.)

“I learned to understand friendship and sensitivity from a very special friend by the name of John McNamara,‘’ Jackson said. “He was my manager, and he would not allow the team to eat in a restaurant where I was not allowed to eat. I always wondered why we ate sandwiches on the bus and made only essential pit stops. I understood care from that. I’ll always remember you, John, for your dignity and sensitivity and for stepping up at a time when very few did.‘’

After 17 years in the minor leagues as a player and a manager, McNamara was brought to the majors leagues to join the coaching staff of the Oakland A’s in 1968, under manager Bob Kennedy. He kept his position in 1969 under new manager Hank Bauer. Bauer had the A’s in the thick of the pennant race before he was fired by owner Charlie Finley with a little more than a dozen games to go. McNamara found out he was the A’s new manager about 10 minutes before the press conference announcing his new position.

“Hank and Mr. Finley came into the dressing room and told me about it together,” he said. “I was completely stunned. I had been reading the papers and knew that maybe a change was coming but I had no idea in the world it would be me.”

McNamara was welcomed to the majors by losing his first game on September 19, 1969, on a walkoff wild pitch after the A’s gave up 3 runs in the 9th inning to the Angels. He went 8-5 to wrap up the 1969 season and then won 89 games in 1970. The A’s finished in second place, 9 games behind the Twins. Finley fired him anyway, not because of any decisions he made on the field, but because he just wasn’t the hard-nosed disciplinarian who would keep the players on their toes and, most important to Finley, keep the players from criticizing the owner.

“There hasn’t been a manager I’ve enjoyed working with more than John McNamara, and as you know I’ve had several managers,” Finley said, stressing that McNamara didn’t lose his job. “His players took it away from him.”

The Giants added McNamara to staff as a third base coach, and he stayed there until getting his next managerial chance in 1974 with the San Diego Padres. As far as plum managing jobs go, this was at the bottom of the list. The Padres lost 102 games in 1973 under manager Don Zimmer and had the exact same number of losses under McNamara. No pitcher had a double-digit win total, and aside from Dave Winfield in his first full season and 36-year-old Willie McCovey in his first year away from the Giants, there wasn’t much offense.

However, the Padres did improve, marginally. They went from a 6th-place finish in 1974 to 4th place in ’75, thanks to the emergence of Randy Jones as a Cy Young candidate. McNamara used his shrewdness as best as he could, helping to get a Ted Simmons homer against the Padres nullified on July 21, 1975. After Simmons hit a solo shot off Brent Strom, McNamara pointed out to the umpires that Simmons’ bat had been grooved at the barrel end. That was enough to have Simmons called out. It just didn’t help the Padres, as they lost 4-0 in spite of the manager’s best efforts.

The Padres won 73 games in 1976, which was two more than the previous year. Still, the season was a disappointment, as the team had been as high as second place in June before going into a deep tailspin that knocked them into 5th place. When the ’77 Padres got off to a 20-28 start, McNamara was replaced with the fierier Alvin Dark.

The common complaint was that McNamara wasn’t a disciplinarian, but that’s not entirely true. He wasn’t a screamer unless he was pushed too far. However, McNamara did call out players when needed; he just did it in a way that made players accept personal responsibility. Phil Collier, a Padres beat writer, recalled a time when Bobby Tolan didn’t hustle in an exhibition game. McNamara took him aside and told him he had two choices. He could get chewed out in front of the team, or he could admit to his teammates he was dogging it. Tolan apologized to the team and fined himself a few cases of beer, which he delivered to the clubhouse for his teammates.

After a year as a third base coach for the California Angels, McNamara was tasked with replacing Sparky Anderson as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1979. Unlike the Padres, the Reds were already a first-team division that had fallen just short of the playoffs in 1978. It was a controversial move in several ways; Anderson was as closely associated to the Big Red Machine as any manager can be to a team. Furthermore, McNamara’s laid-back personality was pretty similar to Anderson’s, so the team wasn’t getting that big a shake-up.

Not that the Reds needed a shakeup. The ’79 edition won 90 games and made the playoffs, losing to the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Championship Series. The Reds finished in third place in 1980 and then in first place in 1981 — technically. That was the year of the players’ strike, and the season was broken into a first and second half. The Reds had a combined record of 66-42, best in the National League. However, they ended up in second place in each half, so it was the Dodgers and the Astros who went to the postseason in the West Division and not the Reds.

McNamara was slow to anger, but the split-season format put him over the edge. “We’re the only club that played .600 ball, and we’re not involved in what are supposed to be the games between the best teams in baseball. How can anyone justify that?” he demanded. “It’s just not fair. It’s not fair to me, to my organization, the my players, to my fans.

“What would be appropriate is for this thing [World Series] to wind up in Montreal on Halloween, with the powers that be buried up to their ass in snow!” he added.

The Reds tumbled all the way to last place in 1982, and McNamara was fired midway through the season. He next took over the reins of the California Angels in 1983. The Angels had been a playoff team in 1982 under manager Gene Mauch but lost 92 games in McNamara’s first year with them. He brought the team back up to a .500 record in 1984 before being replaced… by Mauch.

McNamara was hired by the Boston Red Sox as manager for the 1985 season, and his time with the Sox is how most people remember him. Specifically, the 1986 season. Even more specifically, Game Six of the 1986 World Series. But before that happened, the Red Sox won 95 games to lead the AL East. Roger Clemens, in his first full season, won 24 games. Jim Rice had his last great season. Calvin Schiraldi was the one bright spot in an otherwise forgettable bullpen. Dave Henderson hit one of the most memorable postseason home runs ever, helping Boston slip past the Angels in the ALCS in seven games. Mauch always called that Game Five the greatest game he’d ever seen.

So, Game Six — probably the most over-analyzed game in World Series history. Through seven innings, the Red Sox had a 3-2 lead, with starter Clemens rolling along. Then he was taken out of the game for Schiraldi. Why? McNamara swore until basically his dying day that Clemens asked to be taken out because of a blister and a cut on his middle finger. Clemens will likely deny that until his dying day. Why replace him with Schiraldi? Because he was the Sox best reliever. He had a 1.41 ERA and 9 saves in 25 games. Steve Crawford, with a 3.92, was the only other reliever with an ERA under 4 during the regular season. It may be a gross oversimplification, but McNamara had one reliever who had come through for him during the season, and he overused him in the postseason.

And the only time McNamara had used a defensive replacement for Bill Buckner at first base in the late innings of regular season games was after he had pinch-run for Bill Buckner. That scenario didn’t happen in the World Series, so Buckner was still at first base when Mookie Wilson’s grounder went through his legs.

McNamara was voted the AL Manager of the Year for 1986. He had navigated the Red Sox through the season with a lousy bullpen, a weak bench, and injuries to a couple of the starting pitchers. I said when Buckner died that it was unfair to remember him for one play. Likewise, it’s unfair to remember McNamara for one World Series. The same decisions that helped the Red Sox win 95 games in the regular season went wrong in the postseason.

The Red Sox fell to below .500 in 1987 and were 43-42 when McNamara was let go in 1988. He spent 1989 as a special assignment scout for the Seattle Mariners before being hired by the Cleveland Indians for the 1990 season — his sixth major-league managing role. It lasted a year and a half, as he couldn’t push Cleveland over the .500 mark.

McNamara spent five seasons as a roving instructor in the Angels organization until he was asked to, once again, step into a manager’s role in 1996. Marcel Lachemann, the Angels skipper, resigned in early August, and the Angels turned to the veteran manager to get the team through the rest of the season. It was a bittersweet moment for McNamara. “I managed Marcel in the minors in 1965, he pitched for me in 1970 in Oakland and I brought him here as pitching coach in ’84,” he said of replacing Lachemann.

The Angels had a little over 50 games left in the season. McNamara got through a few games but was bothered by a pain in his leg so severe that he actually managed a game from a couch in his office, giving out instructions through a walkie-talkie. He was eventually diagnosed with a blood clot, and he stepped aside as Joe Maddon took over as interim interim manager. McNamara came back to manage the final few games. He had a 10-17 record in his last season as a big-league manager.

McNamara worked for the Angels for a couple more seasons before retiring to Tennessee. He spent a total of 19 seasons as an MLB manager, compiling a record of 1,160-1,233, for a .485 winning percentage. He reached the postseason twice with a 7-10 record.

Looking at interviews of McNamara up to recent times, it’s no surprise that the 1986 World Series was brought up again and again… and again. He gamely answered every question about it, defending his decisions and maintaining that Clemens left Game Six voluntarily. It’s pretty clear that the Series tore him up — that he would be second-guessed for decades after the fact, that Buckner was unfairly hounded for his error, that Clemens maintained that he wanted to stay in Game Six. But it was no tragedy; his family had known tragedy, so the loss of a World Series was not going to ruin his life.

When McNamara was 12 years old, his father died, leaving his mother to care for five children. In 1996, the last year he managed, two of his grandchildren were murdered by their father, McNamara’s son-in-law, before he turned the gun on himself. Torrence was 6 years old, and Tyler was 4.

McNamara talked to Boston Globe writer Gordon Edes about those events, and how the words of his mother helped him maintain perspective. “She told us that God doesn’t give you a cross that he doesn’t think you can carry.”

For more information: Boston Globe

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