In 1938, 21-year-old Robert McNamara sent word to his parents in Oakland of the splendid news in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the University of California graduate with slicked-back hair and an intense gaze was studying at the Harvard School of Business Administration. The elation was justified. He’d been named “first man” of the school’s freshman class.
That wasn’t the Robert McNamara who played for the Anniston Rams.
The Robert McNamara who migrated from Cal-Berkeley to Harvard would become one of the cornerstone figures of American government during the 1960s. First under President Kennedy, then under President Johnson, the former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps served as secretary of defense from 1961-68, his name synonymous with the United States’ deepest and most controversial involvements in the Vietnam War.
The Robert McNamara who played for the Rams in 1940 also arrived from Cal-Berkeley, where he was a multi-sport letterman whose future seemed inexorably linked not to leadership skills in government but instead to athleticism that earned him more initial headlines than his classmate. The unrelated men shared first and last names and alma maters, but not much else.
Born in Colorado and raised in Compton, California, the future Ram could have starred in baseball, football, basketball or track, as he did for the Cal Bears. When three Major League teams offered him contracts in the spring of 1939, his senior year — the Philadelphia Athletics, the St. Louis Browns and the Cincinnati Reds — baseball won out, the choice obvious. When legendary Philadelphia manager Connie Mack offered him a contract, the collegian made Mack wait until the other teams’ offers rolled in, particularly the Reds’. “After all, if they make a better offer, I’d be a sap not to take it,” he told the press. That he hadn’t finished classes yet in Berkeley was a matter that could be managed later.
Something about the former Cal Bear convinced Mack that the 22-year-old collegian, who played third base and shortstop, could immediately ascend to the Majors without seasoning in the minors. That the Athletics were the worst team in the American League, well on their way to a 100-loss season during a decades-long span of rot, certainly helped sway Mack’s opinion.
That McNamara signed with Philadelphia, or that he jumped straight from college baseball to the big leagues, doesn’t overlook this career oddity: Despite stardom at Cal, McNamara played only two summers of professional baseball. The Athletics gave him 10 at-bats in nine games. A year later, in the early summer of 1940, he appeared in only eight games with the Rams, who, like the Athletics, were abysmal. In the final days of World War II when he suited up for the Pacific Coast League’s San Diego Padres, he played only a month because he fancied a return to his day job. Absent the ascension Mack envisioned, McNamara’s career was characterized by short stints with multiple clubs, most of which farmed him down or back to the team that owned his contract the longest, the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association. The war’s arrival for the U.S. military in December 1941, though untimely for McNamara’s life plans, didn’t derail his career as much as it hastened the inevitable.
Initially, at least, McNamara displayed the talent that caught Mack’s attention. In his May 27, 1939, debut at Yankee Stadium, he singled in his second at-bat against New York’s Lefty Gomez and “fielded brilliantly,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. His second career hit, a bases-clearing double, came at Comiskey Park against the Chicago White Sox when “he finished at third and in hs only chance he defrauded (Ollie) Bejma of a hit by a one-handed stop.” When Mack decided in mid-June to ship him to Baltimore in the International League for training, McNamara had played all four infield positions without an error.
Philadelphia’s was the first of three uniforms McNamara would wear in 1939. Rogers Hornsby, the Orioles’ manager, gave McNamara “extra practice duty to bring him along,” according to the Baltimore Evening Sun, but the Hall of Famer had scant patience and sent him back to Mack, his stay in Baltimore lasting less than a week. Mack then optioned him to Williamsport, a Class A Eastern League team where he hit .238 in 39 games before the Athletics briefly recalled him in September, using him as a late-inning scrub in four meaningless games. Mack released McNamara a week early so he could return to Berkeley to finish his coursework and graduate from Cal.
The following season essentially followed the same script. Assigned to Memphis during spring training, McNamara started 1940’s opener because the Chicks’ second baseman, Louis “Mickey Mouse” Bush, was injured. The Commercial Appeal newspaper was nevertheless unimpressed. A few days before the first game, it offered a blunt assessment: “Bob McNamara hasn’t set the camp on fire.”
When Bush returned from a broken nose, McNamara became expendable; in early May, Memphis shipped him to Class C Greenville. Anniston was mired in last place in the Southeastern League in mid-June when it remade its roster and added five new players, including McNamara, who’d been unimpressive in Greenville. The two weeks he spent in Anniston were marked by rainouts and lackluster play. When the Rams returned McNamara to Memphis, he’d played eight games with the Chicks, going 7 for 24. The Chicks sent him to Clarksdale, another Class C team, where he remained until season’s end.
Two years of professional baseball had been anything but a natural continuation of his collegiate success. With war raging in Europe and then the Pacific, McNamara took a job in California with defense contractor Northrop, for whom he worked until retiring as its senior vice president for finance. A month spent in 1945 with the Padres, managed by Pepper Martin, was his only postwar trist with the pro game. (He told Memphis, which still held his contract, that he wanted to play in the West, so the Chicks traded him to the Padres.) “He had a wonderful life,” his son, Robert J. McNamara, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “He was a born diplomat, a tough taskmaster and a very gentle and kind man. He was fun to be around, but you better be doing what you were supposed to be doing.”
McNamara, a Ram for the briefest of times, died in 2011 at age 94. He’s buried in Nuevo Memory Gardens in Ramona, California. The “other” Robert McNamara from Cal-Berkeley died two years prior, in 2009, at age 93.