Cincinnati Reds: Remembering former manager John McNamara

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1981: Manager John McNamara #3 of the Cincinnati Reds (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1981: Manager John McNamara #3 of the Cincinnati Reds (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

The former Reds skipper John McNamara passed away earlier this week at age 88.

The Cincinnati Reds have experienced many famous and infamous days throughout their storied past, but the date of November 28, 1978, is truly one of the strangest days in the team’s history. It could be argued that the Tuesday following Thanksgiving of 1978 is when the Big Red Machine was officially dismantled.

To begin the day, Reds general manager Dick Wagner fired field manager Sparky Anderson following consecutive second-place finishes to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. But Wagner was just getting warmed up for the day. The search for Sparky’s replacement lasted literally just a few hours as John McNamara was named manager later that same day.

It’s hard to truly fathom how shocking the decision was by Wagner; handing McNamara the reigns of the decade’s most successful team. Entering the 1979 season, McNamara had six years of managerial experience with Oakland and San Diego, but only one winning season to his credit.

To complicate matters, John McNamara was inheriting a team that hardly resembled its recent glories. Tony Perez was entering his third season in Montreal, hometown legend Pete Rose did the unthinkable and signed with the Phillies as a free agent following the 1978 campaign, not to mention Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan were both past the prime as elite players.

However, give Dick Wagner credit. McNamara turned in a magical performance during his first year in the Cincinnati dugout, guiding a squad that, on paper, had no business being in the playoffs to the 1979 NL West crown. Despite falling to the eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1979 NLCS, John McNamara’s first season was a rousing success.

McNamara would go on to more success in the Queen City even though his club was eventually robbed of the opportunity to play for a championship. Despite winning 89 games in 1980, the Cincinnati Reds had to settle for third place in a stacked division preceding one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball’s history.

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On the night of Thursday, June 11, 1981, the Reds won their seventh game in a row after Tom Seaver downed his old club the New York Mets by a 5-2 count at Shea Stadium. As midnight struck, the Reds trailed the Dodgers by a half-game in the division. Due to a player’s strike the following day, the Reds season would not resume until August 10th.

Instead of picking up the season where it left off, then-MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made one of the strangest decisions in baseball history by deciding to divide the season into halves requiring everyone to start from zero in the won/loss column. What happened next still burns many in Reds Country to this day.

The Reds would finish a game and a half behind the Houston Astros in the second half and despite John McNamara’s masterful job in leading the club to the best record in baseball at 66-42, the team was shutout of competing in the postseason. It was also the end of McNamara’s success in Cincinnati, though it was no fault of his own.

GM Dick Wagner saddled McNamara with a roster in 1982 that had no chance of competing. Gone were veteran outfielders George Foster and Ken Griffey while an aging Johnny Bench was moved from behind the plate to third base.

Featuring an Opening Day lineup with the likes of Alex Trevino, Paul Householder and, when he was one of the good guys, Clint Hurdle, it’s easy to see how the Reds went from having the best record in baseball to dropping a franchise-worst 101 games.

Thankfully for John McNamara, Dick Wagner did him a favor by firing him after a 34-58 record to begin the nightmarish 1982 season. In retrospect, McNamara may be one of the most under-appreciated figures in Cincinnati Reds history.

In three full seasons, he led the Reds to a division title in his debut campaign and the best record in the game in his final full season as the skipper. In between, the squad produced an excellent 89-73 record.

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John McNamara finished his time in Cincinnati with 279-244 record and .533 winning percentage. Even though he’ll never receive the accolades of a Sparky Anderson or the love of a Lou Piniella, McNamara served the Cincinnati Reds well during a time of monumental change for the franchise.