BASEBALL, BAD BLOOD…and REDEMPTION

Baseball, Bad Blood and Redemption

One of the most brutal on-field sports incidents in American history took place at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1965, when future Hall of Fame Giants pitcher Juan Marichal clubbed Dodgers all-star catcher John(ny) Roseboro  over the head with his bat. Just writing that line produces a shiver or two.

I had just turned six years old at the time, and was close to starting my first 200 years or so (if not longer) as a rabid baseball fan. I didn’t see the incident live, but recall reading about it. The purported assault was mostly a curiosity to me, although it had profound effects on millions of baseball fans—to say nothing of the two players/combatants in question.

(As an incident, the only [non-hockey] one to rival it, in my mind, came 12 years later when Lakers forward Kermit Washington blindsided Rockets counterpart Rudy Tomjanovich with a roundhouse right.)

Author John Rosengren explores the Marichal-Roseboro altercation in detail with his latest book, The Fight of Their Lives (2014, Lyons Press). Rosengren, an obvious baseball and sports lover, has the ability to not only scour the box scores for meaningful, historical data (among other things, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research), but to search for the human interest story and lessons that transcend sports.  I greatly enjoyed his 2013 biography on Hank Greenberg and had the opportunity to interview him on that book tour. As such, I had a feeling that I would enjoy his next book. My suspicion was justified.

Yes, it is especially for the baseball and all-around sports lover, and it left me wanting just a little more. It is a terrific read, and one that may also appeal to those who aren’t baseball lifers. 

Please enjoy my interview with John Rosengren below.

Goldberg:  The Fight of Their Lives centers around a quite notorious on-field incident involving the two protagonists of your book, Juan Marichal and John Roseboro. In brief, what happened on August 22, 1965 at Candlestick Park?

Rosengren:  The Dodgers and Giants were engaged in a tight pennant race, late in the season. They were playing the fourth game of a four-game series at Candlestick when a spate of brushback pitches culminated in the Dodger catcher, John Roseboro, buzzing  Giants pitcher Juan Marichal at the plate when Marichal batted in the bottom of the third inning. Marichal turned in surprise, fear and danger; saw Roseboro coming at him in his full catcher gear; took a couple of steps back and brought the bat down on Roseboro’s head.  That opened a two-inch gash in Roseboro’s scalp and touched off a 14-minute brawl.

Goldberg:  As a side note of sorts, two all-time greats named Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were also on the field that day. What were their roles in the altercation?

Rosengren: Koufax was on the mound for the Dodgers that day in a marquee matchup:  Marichal, the best righthander in baseball, versus Koufax, the Left Arm of God.  He came off the mound to try to break up Marichal and Roseboro, but shied away from the swinging bat.  Marichal’s teammate Willie Mays rushed off the bench and played peacemaker, grabbing his friend Roseboro and pulling him from the fray so the trainer could tend to his wound.

Goldberg:  You set the stage very well for that fight by giving us the personal (and playing) background of both Marichal and Roseboro. Can you tell us just a little about both players, and both men? And if you pardon the “Part B”, although both Marichal and Roseboro were staunch competitors, how uncharacteristic was this incident for them—especially Marichal, who did the unthinkable in those “ten seconds?”

 

Fight of Their Lives -  cover reduced

 

 

Rosengren: Marichal was hardly the type to go around hitting people on the head with a bat.  He was a fun-loving guy with a cheerful disposition nicknamed “Laughing Boy” for his easy smile. He was also a devout Catholic who recited his favorite psalm each morning, prayed to the Blessed Virgin and attended Sunday Mass regularly, even when his team was on the road.  Roseboro was a quiet guy with a sharp wit, could be very rough in plays at the plate but his ex-wife and daughter told me he was not as tough as he wanted to be—one of those guys with a tender inside.

Goldberg:  You also set the stage by illustrating what was happening both in this country (especially in LA/Watts) and in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 1965, and how that affected both men…not to mention the already white-hot rivalry of the Dodgers and Giants. Can you speak to those factors?

Rosengren: Marichal was a Dominican watching scenes on television of his country at war, seeing the bloody battles fought on the streets of Santo Domingo and literally worried sick about his family’s safety back home. He had a terrible sinus condition throughout the season.  Willie Mays said Marichal was so distraught he shouldn’t have been playing baseball at the time, and Marichal admitted to me that it was impossible to shut out his worry when he took the mound.  At the same time, Roseboro had just watched the Watts riots go down the week before his altercation with Marichal. From Dodger Stadium, he could see the smoke of the burning buildings and wondered why they were still playing baseball when racial tensions had reached such a violent point. One night, when the demonstrators were going to march down the street in front of Roseboro’s house, he sat up all night on his front stoop with a loaded gun ready to protect his family.  Both men were on edge by the way social tensions had affected them personally. It didn’t take much for those tensions to erupt into violence on the field of the national pastime.

Goldberg: Not to give Roseboro  (who was a stalwart defensive player, and also had great speed for a catcher)  short-shrift, but Juan Marichal was a very significant player, especially for his native country, the Dominican Republic. How important a figure has he been to Dominicans (and Latinos), and as a pitcher, has there been anyone over the years that can be compared to him?

Rosengren: Marichal set the standard in the Dominican and paved the way. He is widely revered in his country.  Pedro Martinez eclipsed Marichal’s career strikeout record but did not manage to win as many games as Marichal’s 243.  Roseboro does deserve more credit than he got. Though a .249 career hitter, he was a defensive standout who worked very well with pitchers. He was Koufax’s catcher of choice, and another Cy Young Award winner, Jim Perry, told me he was a better pitcher when Roseboro was behind the plate.

Goldberg:  How did this fight shadow the careers and personal lives of both Marichal and Roseboro?

Rosengren: The fight haunted both men. Marichal instantly regretted striking Roseboro with his bat. He knew he had done wrong and felt tremendous guilt. He apologized publicly but didn’t feel liberated from his guilt until Roseboro personally forgave him many years later. Roseboro carried his own guilt for letting Marichal take the blame for provoking the incident.  The league fined and suspended Marichal,  but the more significant consequence was how it tarnished his reputation and initially kept him out of the Hall of Fame.

Goldberg: At the heart of this book is the eventual story of redemption. It would appear that Marichal had more to gain of the two (including election into the Baseball Hall of Fame) by reaching out to Roseboro, but why was it also so important for Roseboro to make amends?

Rosengren: Roseboro carried his own guilt for letting Marichal take the blame.  The famous photograph of the incident cast Marichal as the villain and Roseboro as the victim. Roseboro embraced that, blaming Marichal and suing him days afterward for provoking the incident even though Roseboro knew he had provoked matters by buzzing Marichal with his throw past Marichal’s ear.  In reconciling with Marichal, Roseboro was able to come clean.  Marichal said a tremendous weight was lifted from him when Roseboro forgave him.

Goldberg:  The themes of forgiveness, including self-forgiveness, have always resonated strongly with me. What can we, who are not likely to be All-Star professional athletes…although you may have a year or two of eligibility left…learn by their examples?

Rosengren: These two men provide a model for overcoming an event in our past, forgiving someone who has done us genuine harm and finding redemption in that.  What a wonderful lesson for everyone.

Goldberg:  John, you’ve done it again, by crafting a strong book that will appeal not only to sports fans, but to a greater audience as well. What compelled you to research an incident from 49 years ago, and who did you, primarily, write this book for?

 

Rosengren

Rosengren:  Around the 40th anniversary of the 1965 incident, I had heard that Marichal and Roseboro had reconciled.  I wrote a magazine article about that at the time but in doing my research for that, realized there was so much more to their story—enough to write a book.  So I did. I wrote this book for everyone who has seen that famous photograph of the incident and wondered what really happened—and for anyone who cares about redemption.

Goldberg:  Thank you for your time and insights. Where can readers get a copy of The Fight of Their Lives?

Rosengren: You’re welcome.  Thanks for your interest.  The book is available at bookstores and libraries everywhere (if not, ask for it).  They can see video of the fight, read reviews and listen to interviews at www.fightoftheirlives.net  To order a personalized copy of the book, people can go to www.johnrosengren.net and click on Order Books.

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