On this Thanksgiving Day, I am beginning my series of Team Picture cards for The Sully Baseball Card of the Day. I am NOT starting with a Red Sox card, a Giants card or one representing the World Champions in an earlier incarnation.
Nope. I am showing the Reds, as they appeared in 1979. Why am I doing that?
I am doing that to praise and give thanks to a person who has been given a lot of grief, including by yours truly. And I am going to give credit to a baseball lifer who, if one tiny circumstance beyond his control was slightly different, would be a beloved figure in Boston and maybe even Cincinnati as well.
I am talking about John McNamara, shown on this card as the manager of the Reds.
Mention his name to Red Sox fans old enough and you will see a shudder. Sox fans remember him dozing off in the dugout, and managing the Red Sox out of the 1986 World Series. While Buckner took most of the heat, knowledgable Boston fans placed the blame on McNamara, who kept handing the ball to Calvin Schraldi, who lost Game 4 of the ALCS and Games 6 and 7 of the World Series.
Plus the Red Sox went on a wild winning streak in 1988 the minute he was fired and Walpole Joe Morgan became the new manager. This prompted fans to believe he was holding down the team that ultimately went on to win the Division.
But all managers make questionable decisions. Beloved Terry Francona made some head scratchers along the way. Nobody remembers them because the Red Sox won the 2004 and 2007 World Series under his watch.
If Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell, Ray Knight or Mookie Wilson made the final out in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, not a single soul on the planet would remember his overuse of Schraldi or relying on Mike Greenwell over Don Baylor or anything he did.
He would have been beloved “Johnny Mac”, a lifelong minor league player. A nice Irish Catholic man worked his way up through obscure minor leagues as a manager to become the manager of the World Champion Red Sox. He would be nominated for Sainthood.
A look at his career shows that John McNamara lived a terrific baseball life. As a manager in the A’s organization, he helped develop many of the players who would be part of the Oakland Dynasty. He even managed the A’s in 1969 and 1970. Later he was Dave Winfield’s manager in San Diego.
He was on the coaching staff for the 1971 NL West Champion Giants and worked in the Angels organization.
Then in 1979, he was given a near impossible job. John McNamara was given the chance to manage the Reds. It was the tail end of the Big Red Machine. Pete Rose and Tony Perez were gone. So was much of the vaunted bullpen. By comparison to Sparky Anderson, McNamara could only fail.
The Reds that year had to share a division with the two time defending NL Champion Dodgers and the rising Houston Astros. By early June, the Astros were in first with the Reds hanging around but hardly playing inspiring ball. Then a terrible stretch, including losing 2 of 3 in Houston, pushed the Reds 10 1/2 games behind Houston on the 4th of July.
McNamara was given the helm of a sinking ship and could easily be the symbol of the fall of the Big Red Machine.
Then they went on a 4 game winning streak, highlighted by George Foster’s walk off single against the Pirates on July 6th. The Astros lead was down to 6 by the All Star Break. Then a 5 game winning streak in late July brought them to within 2 1/2 games.
Suddenly the Reds were not an old bunch of has beens. Now they were battle tested veterans like Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey, Joe Morgan, George Foster, Dave Concepcion, Dan Driessen and Tom Seaver.
In a 13 game stretch in August, the Reds won 12 games under McNamara’s managing, finally leap frogging the Astros into first. In less than 2 months, they made up 10 1/2 games.
September became a dogfight between the Reds and Astors, flip flopping the top spot for the first half of the month.
On September 11, Dave Concepcion and George Foster hit back to back homers off of Houston’s Joe Sambito, leading to a critical Reds win. But it did not seal the Division.
With 8 games left and a 2 1/2 game lead, the Reds went into Houston for a showdown with their rivals. Houston won the first two games, pulling to within 1/2 a game. An Astros win on September 23 would put them in first place alone with 5 games left.
Frank Pastore threw a complete game victory for the Reds and Dave Collins hit a 2 run triple and later scored on an error to put the game away. The Reds won the Division and the Big Red Machine was alive.
They lost the NLCS to the Pirates but John McNamara helped end the 1970’s where it began in Cincinnati: As a playoff team.
In a cruel twist to McNamara’s legacy, the Reds won more games that any team in baseball in 1981. They probably would have been the favorites to win the World Series. But because of the strike, the playoffs were split into First Half Champs and Second Half Champs. The Reds finished second in the first and second halves, even though combining the two resulted in more wins than the Astros and the Dodgers.
The Reds sat at home that October while a statistically inferior Dodger team won the World Series.
Had McNamara kept the Big Red Machine alive to win a World Series without Sparky Anderson, Pete Rose or even Joe Morgan (who left for Houston in 1980), he would be beloved in Cincy.
Factors somewhat beyond his control kept McNamara from that massive waves of love from the fans. He did not lack that from his players. Reggie Jackson claimed that McNamara was his favorite manager. When former Reds pitcher Mike LaCoss was on my podcast, he referred to McNamara as a father figure. Tom Seaver, who played for him in Cincinnati and in Boston, swore by him.
So this Thanksgiving, let’s give Johnny Mac some long overdue love. He lived a great baseball life. And sometimes, that should be enough.