John McNamara, who managed the Boston Red Sox to within one out of a World Series championship against the Mets in 1986 — and whose strategy in the critical sixth game has been questioned ever since — died on Tuesday at his home in Brentwood, Tenn., a Nashville suburb. He was 88.
His wife, Ellen McNamara, who confirmed the death, said the cause had not been determined.
McNamara was hired by the Red Sox in 1985 — it was his fifth Major League managerial job — and the next season guided them to a 95-66 record and the American League pennant. Then, with the Red Sox leading the Mets three games to two in the World Series, McNamara’s moves became, at the time, the latest woeful chapter in the saga of a team that had not won a championship since 1918.
With the Red Sox leading Game 6, 3-2, McNamara removed his ace pitcher, Roger Clemens, after seven strong innings and replaced him with Calvin Schiraldi, who let the Mets tie the game in the eighth. McNamara then kept Schiraldi in the game until the 10th, when he gave up three hits.
McNamara might have replaced his hobbling first baseman, Bill Buckner, late in the game with Dave Stapleton, a better fielder, as he had done in Boston’s three victories in the series. But he did not.
The Red Sox went ahead, 5-3, in the 10th. But the Mets famously won in the bottom of the inning with three runs on a single off Schiraldi; a wild pitch by Bob Stanley, who had relieved Schiraldi; and a ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson that skittered between Buckner’s legs, scoring Ray Knight.
McNamara insisted that Clemens had asked to be taken out of the game after the seventh inning. In “1986: A Postseason Remembered,” an MLB Network documentary from 2011, he recalled waiting on the dugout steps as Clemens walked off the field.
“And he came down the steps and he said, ‘That’s all I can pitch.’ Quote unquote,” McNamara said. He was incredulous, he said, but then Clemens showed him a paper cut on his middle finger.
Clemens acknowledged in the documentary that he had had blood on his finger but denied that he had asked to be taken out.
McNamara countered, “That is not the truth, and I don’t lie.”
McNamara never second-guessed himself for keeping Buckner in the game, saying that Buckner, not Stapleton, was his best first baseman.
“Stapleton’s nickname was Shakey,” he said in the documentary. “And you know what that implies.”
The Red Sox jumped to a 3-0 lead in Game 7, but the Mets rebounded to win, 8-5, and take the Series. The Red Sox would not win a World Series until 2004.
McNamara found some relief from his heartbreak a few days later, when he was voted the 1986 American League manager of the year.
John Francis McNamara was born on June 4, 1932, in Sacramento. His father, John, was a railroad worker from Ireland. His mother, Josephine (Lane) McNamara, worked for the state of California after her husband died in 1944. Young John played baseball and basketball in high school and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1951 for a $12,000 bonus (the equivalent of about $120,000 today).
A catcher, he played 14 seasons in the minor leagues but never made it to the majors. “I could catch and throw with anybody, but I knew I wasn’t going to make the big leagues,” he told The Hartford Courant in 1985.
His managerial career began in 1959 in Lewiston, Idaho, whose minor league club became a low-level farm team of the Kansas City Athletics the next season. McNamara eventually managed at higher tiers in the A’s organization, nurturing future major leaguers like Reggie Jackson.
When Jackson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993, he recalled the decency that McNamara had shown him in 1967 as the manager of the Birmingham A’s in Alabama, where Jackson, as a Black man, continued to face discrimination.
McNamara joined the A’s as a coach in 1968, the team’s first year in Oakland, Calif., and replaced Hank Bauer as manager late in the following season. McNamara himself was fired after the 1970 season.
Through the ’70s and early ’80s he managed the San Diego Padres, the Cincinnati Reds (leading them to the National League Championship Series, which they lost to Pittsburgh) and the California Angels. He left the Angels after the 1984 season to take over the Red Sox from Ralph Houk, who had retired.
The 1986 season was the high point of McNamara’s time in Boston. The Red Sox slumped to fifth place in the American League East in 1987, and he was fired the next season during the All-Star break. He then managed the Cleveland Indians in 1990 and through part of the 1991 season before being dismissed by them as well.
He next worked in the Angels organization for five years before briefly taking over as interim manager in 1996 — his last assignment as a skipper. He retired with a career record of 1,160 wins and 1,233 losses.
Soon after the 1996 season, two of McNamara’s grandsons, ages 6 and 4, were killed by their father, McNamara’s son-in-law, who then killed himself.
McNamara married Ellen Goode in 1984. His previous marriage had ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Peggy McNamara and Susan Salsbery, and a son, Michael — all from his first marriage — as well as eight grandchildren and a great-grandson.
After the Mets celebrated their crushing victory over the Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 series, a disappointed McNamara was asked by reporters about his team’s long history of not having won a title in 68 years.
“I don’t know anything about history,” he replied, his voice toneless and his expression described as a clenched fist, “and don’t tell me anything about that choke crap.”