Although his statistics don’t measure up with modern quarterbacks, Namath remains among the most important figures in professional football history. But long before he upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl 3, the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback needed to make a difficult choice regarding his future in sports.
The Chicago Cubs offered Joe Namath $50,000 to play baseball
The Major League Baseball Draft, believe it or not, is a fairly new event. Prior to 1965, teams competed with one another, much like modern free agency, to acquire the services of everyone from high school prospects to older college players.
That applied to Namath, who graduated high school in the spring of 1961. Although he intended to play quarterback at the University of Alabama, his prowess on the baseball field earned him at least four offers from Major League teams — and remember, the league only had 18 teams when he enrolled in college. The New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s, now the Astros, began playing in 1962.
In a 1969 interview with Playboy, Namath said the St. Louis Cardinals offered him $15,000 when he was a junior in high school. The Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Athletics also wanted to sign the outfielder. But during his senior year, the Chicago Cubs came through and offered him $50,000 to join one of the sport’s oldest franchises.
When he spoke with Playboy, Namath still wasn’t sure why teams were so interested in signing him.
“I could throw, and I could hit. I have no idea what my batting average was in high school, but I know it wasn’t below .450, and that’s pretty good hitting where I come from.”Joe Namath
Luckily for the Crimson Tide, Namath passed up on baseball and signed his letter of intent to play college football.
Namath’s decision became far more meaningful throughout 1969
With all of this background in mind, the 1969 sports calendar becomes even more fascinating in hindsight.
In January 1969, Namath — then quarterbacking the Jets — famously guaranteed he’d defeat the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl 3. Indeed, the Jets won 16-7 in what remains one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Later that year, Tom Seaver and the Mets defeated the Orioles in the World Series. But if not for the Cubs’ collapse down the stretch, the Mets would have missed the playoffs entirely. The Cubs held a seven-game lead on September 4 but lost 17 of their final 25 games. With the Cubs fading, the ‘Miracle Mets’ rallied and won the NL East.
The what-ifs in this situation are incredible. If Namath signed with the Cubs, the Jets almost certainly have a different starting quarterback during the 1968-69 season. Although the AFL and NFL always intended to merge in time for the 1970 season, Namath and the Jets’ victory finally gave the former league credibility.
Somehow, this is a story where the Mets and Jets, two long-suffering franchises, each benefited tremendously.
Namath finally made it to Wrigley Field in 2018
By the time 2018 rolled around, the Jets had gone several years without making the playoffs. Conversely, the Cubs were two seasons removed from winning their first World Series in over 100 years.
Namath, who had just turned 75, visited Wrigley Field in June 2018. He wore a No. 12 Cubs jersey and threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a 7-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Namath had a pre-existing relationship with then-Cubs manager Joe Maddon. The two met before a spring training game in Florida when Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays.
It took nearly 60 years for Namath to step foot on one of baseball’s most hallowed grounds. Cubs fans can only imagine a universe where Namath, wearing No. 12 and manning the outfield, won World Series MVP honors at some point in the late 1960s. We’ll happily take Broadway Joe over a billy goat.