John McNamara passed away yesterday at age 88. Remembered primarily as the skipper who led the 1986 Red Sox to their epic World Series collapse against the Mets, my own interaction with his story primarily has to do with his tenure with the A’s. McNamara’s first major league managerial job was in Oakland, working for Charlie Finley in 1970 (plus the final few games of 1969).
As a minor league manager, it was McNamara who shifted Gene Tenace from outfield to catcher. (As a former catcher himself, McNamara was well suited as a tutor.) While managing at Double-A Birmingham, McNamara earned respect for his refusal to patronize the segregated restaurants his team frequently encountered on the road. It was McNamara who brought his old Army pal, Charlie Lau, to be the hitting coach in Oakland. (Lau transformed the swings of Joe Rudi and Dave Duncan, among others.)
Despite leading the A’s to 89 wins in 1970—their most since 1932—Finley fired McNamara after the season to make way for Dick Williams. The manager wasn’t much hurt by the decision—he ended up managing in the big leagues for six teams over 19 seasons—but there was no mistaking the genuine weirdness with how the dismissal went down. I wrote about it for Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, very little of which made the final edit. Today, the affair seems worth revisiting. From the cutting-room floor:
Despite the successful season, everybody braced for McNamara to become Finley’s annual managerial sacrifice. The manager himself wasn’t exactly averse to the idea. After being forced to participate in the protracted embarrassment of Reggie Jackson—going so far as to convey Finley’s threat to demote the young star to the minor leagues, not as a developmental tool but as a means of embarrassment—not to mention the daily phone calls and lineup demands, McNamara was prepared to quit even if Finley unexpectedly decided to retain him. His mistake was making this known.
Two Bay Area newspapers had reported on McNamara’s dissatisfaction during the season’s final week, and when Oakland Tribune columnist George Ross dedicated his season-ending feature to players’ opinions of the situation, some of them took the opportunity to sound off. One opinion in particular struck a chord with the Owner.
“It doesn’t matter who manages this ballclub,” Dave Duncan told Ross with surprising candor. “There’s only one man who manages this club: Charlie Finley. And we will never win as long as he manages. We had the team to win it. But because of the atmosphere he creates, there’s no spirit, no feeling of harmony. We should be close like a family, but it’s not here.” Duncan had been especially angry since the team’s annual mid-season cookout at Finley’s ranch in La Porte, where the Owner introduced him as “the best third-string catcher in the league,” and then saw his playing time cut to next to nothing. But Duncan wasn’t finished.
“Everybody’s always worried about Charlie Finley,” he continued. “You can’t say that, you can’t say this, or he’ll be mad. Nobody will speak out. But how can they with their jobs to protect?”
With that, Duncan presented the Owner with one of his favorite oratorical weapons: a scapegoat. Until Ross’ column, McNamara’s firing had been based on the manager’s inability to meet Finley’s needs. But now? Now the Owner had something else. Instead of his original plan, he instead called a press conference the day after the season ended, and got right to it. “As of two days ago at 2 o’clock, Johnny McNamara had just as much of a chance of managing this ballclub as anyone else,” said Finley to a room that didn’t believe a word he was saying, as reported in Ron Bergman’s book Mustache Gang. “But when the Dave Duncan story broke, that was the end of his chances.”
Then the Owner opened up on his catcher. The story was no longer about McNamara—had a just-fired manager ever become old news more quickly?—and was all about Finley’s spat with Duncan. Over the course of 30 minutes Finley criticized the player’s maturity, lack of perseverance and gutlessness. It was a brutal assessment by any measure, let alone a team owner talking about one of his employees. Things got truly weird when Finley said that the catcher was sleeping with Charlie Lau.
His exact words: “One day I found out that Duncan was sleeping with coach Charlie Lau.” Pause. “By that, I mean they were rooming together, sharing expenses. When I found out about this, I called it to their attention, asked them to break it up immediately, because as we all know, in the Army, troops don’t fraternize with officers.
It was a valid criticism. Duncan himself said as much later. Duncan and Lau were both going through marriage separations and decided to save money by sharing a roof. But Finley’s word selection—he was a master salesman, after all, trained to choose his verbiage carefully—left a different impression. “It was another cheap shot, typical Finley,” said Duncan, looking back. “He was a cruel guy. He had no respect for anybody. Pretty soon you got to the point with him where nothing surprised you.” The Owner went on to say that Duncan and Lau ignored his orders to de-couple, and that Lau—despite his success working with Duncan and Rudi (or maybe because of it)—would be joining McNamara on the unemployment line.
First, Finley hurt his team by cutting Reggie Jackson off at the knees. Then he fired the most successful manager his team had employed in 40 years. Now he was canning a soon-to-be-legendary hitting coach, just to prove a point. The Owner continued to injure himself atop his high horse, but, as would be the case for years to come, he didn’t care.
Finley finally brought the press conference back around to McNamara by saying that the manager could have salvaged his employment had he only denied the front office interference that so clearly existed, and paid Finley the occasional public complement when it came to the helpful things he did do. Said the Owner, “no manager can allow one of his players to criticize unfairly, knowing the facts himself, without getting pinched. John McNamara didn’t lose this job. His players took it from him.”
The final word was left to Duncan, who summed it up neatly. “It’s ridiculous to believe that the reason McNamara was fired was because of me,” he said afterward, as reported in Mustache Gang. “It was obvious to everyone a long time ago that Finley was going to fire him. In order to get off the hook, he found someone to pin it on, and that’s me.”