NFL Legend Joe Namath’s Brush with Pro Baseball
Growing up just outside of Pittsburgh, Joe Namath was a typical child of the time, who really loved sports. In particular, he adored Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente, who inspired him to pursue his own professional baseball career. He was good, too, but he also excelled at football. Despite receiving a number of offers from major league teams, he ultimately chose the gridiron, where he went on to have a storied and Hall-of-Fame career.
Following an excellent run at the University of Alabama, Namath was taken as the first overall selection in the 1965 NFL draft by the New York Jets. His flashy personality and gunslinger mentality on the field quickly made him popular. However, his guarantee that his Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969 made him an absolute legend and earned him the nickname of Broadway Joe when he backed up his cocky assertion.
He ended up spending all but the final season of his 13-year NFL career (1965–1977) with the Jets. He passed for 27,663 yards and 173 touchdowns, leading the league in passing yards on three separate occasions. He was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 1985. Not a bad resume at all, but could he have done better had he chosen professional baseball?
Back to his high school days in Beaver Falls, just outside of Pittsburgh, he starred in baseball, football and basketball. Baseball was his first love. According to Retro Simba, he told Playboy in 1969 that football was a distant third among his personal preferences. He explained:
“Until my senior year, baseball and basketball were my best sports and, even when I was a senior, I still wanted to play baseball professionally. I was just a really outstanding power-hitting outfielder. I could throw and I could hit.”
He was scouted in baseball and even attended tryouts. The St. Louis Cardinals were the first team to extend him a contract, with one scout remembering a $5,000 offer while Namath recalled a higher amount, telling Playboy:
“The St. Louis Cardinals wanted to sign me for $15,000 when I was a junior in high school. When my dad (a steelworker) asked me what I planned to do with the money, I told him I’d seen this great-looking convertible. He didn’t exactly think it would be such a great idea if that’s all I wanted.”
He also received offers from the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Athletics and Chicago Cubs, who reportedly offered him the high amount of $50,000.
A 1961 New York Mets scouting report summarized what they saw in the youngster:
“He showed very good power at the plate, especially hitting the fastball well. He did have considerable trouble with the breaking stuff, particularly when hitting against right-handed pitching. A problem with most young players, Joe has a little better than average speed and uses it to good advantage in the outfield. A pretty good outfielder, going back well after balls hit over the head. He also gets a better-than-average jump on the ball.
“His arm is adequate from right and center field, but a bit better from left. He is a good athlete with good baseball sense. Has an outside chance to the majors, dependent on his ultimate ability to hit the breaking pitches effectively. I spoke to him in reference to signing a contract with an average Class C salary, plus an approximately $5,000 bonus. But his college scholarships no doubt were better and he is matriculating at Alabama. Perhaps if he were offered quite a bit more, he might accept a baseball contract. But his lack of consistent hitting ability does not warrant a much larger bonus offer.”
His mother Rose was insistent that her son go to college, which helped rule out baseball. “It was a good move, but it wasn’t my choice,” Namath later recalled. “My mother made the decision. It was a time where you still listened to your parents and your big brothers, and we had a family meeting. My mom says, ‘Oh, I want you to go to college.’ My brother Bob hit the table with his fist and said, ‘You’re going to college.’”
Believing that in doing so his best chance at succeeding in a professional athletic career lay in football, Namath initially planned to play collegiately at Notre Dame. However, he quickly changed his mind after discovering a severe lack of co-eds, telling Playboy, “There were no girls at Notre Dame. Man, they told me they had a women’s college right across the lake. What was I supposed to do? Swim over to make a date?”
His father John helped seal the deal by telling him, “There’s lots of pretty Southern babes down there.”
Alabama, who was led by legendary coach Bear Bryant, ended up being a good backup school.
Namath was immediately rewarded after coming out of Alabama. The Jets signed him to a three-year, $427,000 contract, which was the largest in the history of the game at that point and dwarfed what he was offered by baseball teams.
Leaving high school, Namath had professional aspirations in multiple sports. Although baseball was his first love, choosing football appeased his family and also gave him more confidence that he would end up with a long-term career. It’s impossible to argue with the results of his decision but it’s still fun to speculate what might have happened if he rolled the dice and chose the diamond and the road of development he would have needed to go down in order to make it to the big leagues.