Joe Namath – the story of the family name

Everybody recognizes 74-year-old Joe Namath, the retired American sport superstar, ex-football quarterback and actor. He played college football for the University of Alabama and became a sport icon while he played for the New York Jets. Namath was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

Joe Namath

In his 13-year professional sport career he played 143 games in the AFL and NFL. Namath had numerous endorsement deals and owned a nightclub, as well as being a popular talk show host, spokesman, film and television actor and sports broadcaster. He also had his fair share of injuries and personal problems; the sport icon didn’t hide his failed marriage or struggle with alcoholism.

Namath with Barbra Streisand.

Joe Namath has Hungarian ancestry. Although I knew that his family name is Hungarian, I always wondered about the spelling. Where does the spelling Namath come from?

Stepping out with Raquel Welch (1971)

Joe Namath’s grandfather was already 39 years old when he arrived to New York Harbor in 1911 on the RMS Pannonia. On the ship manifest his name is entered as András Német, a married Catholic Hungarian man from the village Rahó (today Rakhiv, Ukraine). Rahó is in Zakarpattia (Kárpátalja in Hungarian), and the region at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

András worked hard and collected enough money to bring over the rest of his family. They arrived nine years later in 1920. By then Rahó was part of Czechoslovakia. One of his sons, 11-year-old János, who had grown up with an absentee father, got the family name “Németh” (with an added “h”) at Ellis Island. At least that is what the ship’s master entered at arrival. Német and Németh are the same surnames with different spelling. (Német means German in Hungarian)

The family settled in Beaver Falls, about thirty miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where András worked as a laborer for the Armstrong Cork Works. In those days many Hungarian immigrants changed the spelling of their names to match the phonetics of English. Juhász became Yuhas; Szabó was changed to Sabo. The sound of the “long a” in English is often spelled “a” so the “é” was replaced with “a”. The surname Németh (or Német) became Namath. To be honest, I wonder if the Namath spelling makes this name sound more “Hungarian.”

Joe Namath in 2003.

András Német became Andy Namath and his son, the little János, John Namath. In 1931 John married Rose, the daughter of another Pennsylvanian Hungarian-American family, at St. Ladislaus, the Hungarian Catholic Church. Joe Namath was their fourth and youngest son born in 1943 at Beaver Falls, PA.

And this is the story of the spelling of the Namath name.

György Lázár

5 Comments

  1. Nice to know these details Dr. Lázár. (Just think – you could have been known today as Dr. Laser, had your folks chosen to enter the US aboard a ship in the 1920’s. 🙂 )

    Joe Namath was a magician on and off the field, a great football player, and not at all a ho hum character. What more can one ask of a human being ? He was Broadway Joe, a great performer on the trampoline of life.

  2. Well, that is not much new. All Hungarians knew that automatically. And for the Anglos, that is how it came naturally to be “Nemet”.

    But remained silent about the guy himself, the football player. He was known, and perhaps still remembered as a football player. That’s how he became well known. He just got old. Football has outgrown him, I suppose. There are always new faces and new heroes. But he was always a “nice guy”. Not a bum and a dope like many of the younger players today.

  3. Tku for your info!

  4. The ship manifest is done at the port of departure, not at Ellis Island

  5. György Lázár says:

    Dear Pat,

    I think you are right, I should have phrased it differently. The ship manifest story comes from Mark Kriegel’s book entitled Namath… My guess is, that in case of children officials automatically copied the ship manifest names at Ellis Island.

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