I caught a glimpse of the Galesburg Register-Mail the other day. Like a lot of other newspapers, it’s in trouble. Their corporate leadership has cut them to the bone, they have young writers (especially sportswriters) that don’t have a clue and it’s a dying newspaper.
Their subscriber base has shrunk, advertising is down and it’s a care-taker newspaper. But on the day I saw it, the headline screamed at me that Northgate Lanes was closing after 61 years. Northgate is our main bowling alley in Galesburg, Illinois. I bowled there a few times and downed some cold ones in the process over the years.
You’re probably wondering what does Northgate closing have to do with the Cincinnati Reds?
A valid question, friends. Be patient.
In 1979, the Big Red Machine was fading. The Reds won the National League West Division that season, outlasting Houston. The Reds had a new skipper in John McNamara and Pete Rose was gone.
And, as far as I’m concerned, no Rose and no Sparky Anderson meant the Big Red Machines era was basically over. To their credit, the Reds won the Division that year with the remnants of the Machine and other players like Dave Collins, Frank Pastore and Ray Knight.
Shortly after the Pittsburgh Pirates swept the Reds in the NL playoffs, I got out of the US Air Force and came home to Galesburg to attend college. I went out to Northgate Lanes, met a buddy of mine, we bowled a couple of games and then I went to the bar. It wasn’t very busy. Maybe seven, eight people in there. I can’t remember what was on the TV. But as I looked around, I saw a guy sitting on the other side of the bar that looked familiar.
He was drinking a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper. Then, I saw the nose. A “hawk” nose like the one McNamara had. And the guy looked like just like John McNamara.
How could that be? What would the Reds manager be doing here in Galesburg?
After about ten minutes, I walked over to him. He turned around and looked at me. “Are you John McNamara?” I asked, clumsily.
“Why, yes,” said the Reds skipper. “It’s nice to meet you”
We talked briefly, maybe five minutes. He was enroute to Rock Island to stay with family, about a 40-minute drive up Interstate 74, and ultimately going to California. We shook hands after a few minutes and I went back to where I was sitting.
About five minutes later, the bartender came over to me. “Mr. McNamara invited you over to talk with him, if you’d want to.”
No problem there. We talked Reds baseball for over an hour. I had never met a Reds Manager in my life. We talked about Foster, Concepcion, Tom Seaver, Pastore, Tom Hume, Heity Cruz and yes, Dick Wagner. McNamara really liked Pastore. He said Seaver was the best pitcher he ever managed. Mac was also excited about a young pitcher named Mario Soto. He told a few stories, we laughed and had a great time together.
“How did you become a Reds fan being from here?” asked John. I explained why and we talked about the Pirates, who had just won the World Series, storming back from a 3-1 deficit against Baltimore.
It was a great night, all by chance, all by fate.
Unfortunately, the moves made by Wagner (the Reds GM) ultimately led to McNamara getting fired by the Reds during the 1982 season. He would go on to be hired by the Red Sox and Mac took them to the World Series in 1986, only to lose a heart breaker to the Mets, losing in seven games, when they were just one strike away from winning in six games.
McNamara’s Band— the 1979 Reds– had modest success and took the pain away from a disastrous off season. The Reds won their pennant race but fell short against the ‘We are Family’ Pirates led by Willie Stargell and Dave Parker.
A good year; not a great year. But meeting McNamara was a pleasant surprise.
Photo of Riverfront Stadium by Rick Dikeman. The license for the photo can be found here.