A Discussion with John Rosengren about Juan Marichal and John Roseboro

One of baseball's ugliest fights still echoes nearly 50 years later (Image used with permission from John Rosengren).

One of baseball’s ugliest fights still echoes nearly 50 years later (Image used with permission from John Rosengren).

On August 22, 1965, veteran Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro threw a ball back to his pitcher Sandy Koufax, the ball grazing past the face of Juan Marichal, who was batting for the San Francisco Giants. Marichal then cursed at Roseboro, before Roseboro did the same to Marichal. Moments later, the angry exchange of words evolved into violence. Marichal raised his bat above his head and then struck Roseboro, hitting him just above the left eye. That action set off a full-scale brawl, clearing the benches and bullpens for both teams.

National League President Warren Giles responded to the incident by suspending Marichal for “eight playing dates,” which included a pair of doubleheaders. Giles later tacked on two more days, because he didn’t want Marichal pitching in either of a pair of games at Dodger Stadium. In the end, Marichal missed 12 games (and potentially three starts), hurting the Giants badly in their unsuccessful quest for a National League pennant.

Veteran author John Rosengren has studied and researched this incident like no one else. Rosengren has followed up his terrific 2013 book about Hank Greenberg with an insightful look at one of the greatest controversies of the 1960s, the fight between Marichal and Roseboro. The book, The Fight of their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption, examines in detail what led to the incident and how the relationship between those two rivals changed dramatically over time.

(Image used with permission from John Rosengren)

(Image used with permission from John Rosengren)

Markusen: John, this is a topic that has been the subject of many feature articles and even short documentaries. What motivated you to want to do a full-length book on the topic of Marichal-Roseboro?

Rosengren: I have read and watched those, but I did not think any of them told the full story.  I wanted to be able to set the fight in its context—the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, tight pennant race that summer, charged banter during the four-game series that culminated in that critical fourth game, and the way current events had impacted each man personally—and then tell the rest of the story, the way these two men turned the fight into an occasion of reconciliation.

Markusen: You indicate in the book that you interviewed Marichal. Was he hesitant or reluctant to talk about the fight?

Rosengren: Yes. Quite understandably, Marichal would rather be remembered for his 243 career victories, being the first living Latino player elected into the Hall of Fame and pioneering the way for other Dominican stars.  Yet once he realized what I was after, that I wanted to let people know how he and Roseboro had risen above the incident, he agreed to talk to me and was very patient and gracious during several long conversations.

Markusen: The racial and cultural atmosphere at the time of the incident was tense. Marichal had concerns about his family’s safety in the Dominican, while there had also been race riots in the streets of LA. In retrospect, can we lay a lot of the blame for the fight on this swirl of off-the-field activity?

Rosengren: Both men were on edge, which primed them for the clash they had.  The civil war in the Dominican broke out just after the 1965 season started. President Johnson committed more than 20,000 U.S. troops (second in number only to Vietnam) ostensibly to prevent the DR from becoming another Cuba. It was a bloody war fought on the streets of Santo Domingo.  Marichal watched these scenes on television and worried about the safety of his family and his wife’s family. The war dragged on through the summer, and Marichal was literally worried sick; he had a nagging sinus infection. Willie Mays, his teammate, said Marichal was so distraught he should not have been playing baseball at the time.

Meanwhile, the week before the fight, Roseboro had watched the Watts Riots go down. From Dodger Stadium, he and his teammates could see the smoke from the buildings burning to the south. He had to drive past the riot zone to get to his house after games. A black man living in South Central LA, he wondered why they were still playing baseball when racial tensions had so torn up society. One night, when the demonstrators planned to march down the street in front of his house, he sat up all night on his front step with a loaded gun, prepared to protect his family and home. He, too, was rattled by what he saw happening around him.

Given their frayed emotional state, it didn’t take much to set off these two guys on August 22, 1965.

Markusen: At the time of the incident, Marichal was definitely portrayed as the villain, while Roseboro was cast more as the victim. The perception has changed since then. Why do you think that is?

Rosengren: The famous photos of the fight—Marichal with his bat raised above the toppling Roseboro—cast Marichal as the villain and Roseboro as the victim. Roseboro embraced that role.  He said Marichal’s punishment should be “ten minutes in a room alone with me.” Days after the incident, he sued Marichal for provoking it. Yet Roseboro had actually provoked the fight by throwing the ball back past Marichal’s face (Marichal claimed it actually nicked his ear).  In his autobiography published 13 years later, Roseboro admitted provoking the incident. This admission along with the two men speaking more openly about it later cast the incident in a truer light:  both men had their part in the conflict. One of my motives for writing the book was to let people know that each man contributed to the fight, so each had a stake in the reconciliation, which cleared their guilt.

Markusen: With regard to Roseboro, prior to reading your book, I had no idea of how physically tough he was. He played hurt, did it often, and rarely seemed to complain. Were you surprised to learn this about him?

Rosengren: Well, catchers are by nature—and necessity—tough, but Roseboro seems to have been among the toughest. To hear his manager and trainer describe the way he shook off injuries, to hear Buzzie Bavasi call him “The Rock of Gibralter” for the way he blocked the plate, yes, that did impress me. I think what surprised me, after hearing all that, was to hear Roseboro’s first wife and daughters tell me how he wanted to be tougher than he actually was, that he was really a softie in his personal life.

Markusen: You also detail Roseboro’s desire to become a major league manager. The opportunity never came. What kind of manager would he have been? Would he have succeeded?

Rosengren: From all accounts–-all the way from his daughter to former Dodger general manager Fred Claire and to Marichal–Roseboro would have been a very good manager in major league baseball.  He understood the game very well (as many catchers do), and he proved himself a good manager in the Arizona fall instructional league and in the Dominican Republic when his team won the Caribbean Series. Unfortunately, the climate in major league baseball at the time worked against him:  the prevailing conventional wisdom was that blacks lacked the intellectual ability to manage in the majors, an unspoken prejudice until Dodger general manager Al Campanis articulated it on “Nightline” in 1987.

Markusen: If Roseboro had not given Marichal his endorsement, do you believe that Marichal’s wait for Hall of Fame election would have been delayed even more?

Rosengren: I don’t think Marichal got into the Hall of Fame because he finally got Roseboro’s endorsement. Marichal’s career was too good for him not to get in.  His second year of eligibility, he almost got there with 73.5 percent of the vote.  He probably would have made it the next year, but Roseboro’s endorsement certainly did not hurt.  The way the fight with Roseboro tarnished Marichal’s reputation did keep him out the first two years, I believe.

Markusen: At the end, Roseboro and Marichal became friends; there’s no question about that. Would it be fair to say that they were exceptionally close friends, or even best friends, or is that an exaggeration?

Rosengren: It would be an exaggeration to say they were best friends. Roseboro was not a guy who got real close to others.  But it is fair to say that the two were friends, that they liked one another, that they enjoyed one another’s company, that they respected one another.  When you think of how it started—with that fight—and how far they came, that’s pretty extraordinary. I think it says a lot about the two men and their characters that they were able to overcome the fight they had and forgive one another to the point that they became friends. It’s a great story of redemption.

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  1. said...

    Remember it as a teen living in the L.A. area.

    Koufax was an idol of mine as I was growing up. Have lots of great memories from that era of baseball. My 1st Dodgers game at the L.A. Coliseum.

    This is the first time I heard of any Marichal-Roseboro reconciliation and glad to hear it.

    During that era, with little understanding of the game, I wondered how the Dodgers maintained with average hitters like Roseboro, and Neal at 2nd.

    Never stopped to consider the player admired most (Koufax) was because of defense…..sort of. Koufax couldn’t hit at all or, field too well.

    In retrospect Roseboro was an excellent Catcher.

  2. Hank G. said...

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t understand the continued reference to this incident as a “fight”. Marichal hit Roseboro in the head with a baseball bat. Roseboro never landed a blow on Marichal. This seems more akin to a mugging than a fight.

  3. BobDD said...

    Well it was a bench-clearing brawl – doesn’t that qualify for a “fight”?

    I too remember it as a teenager then living in SoCal, and had read of their reconciliation, but this is the first I’ve heard that Roseboro had actually done that intentionally. Nice read.

  4. Jim G. said...

    Something that isn’t clear to me, did something lead up to Roseboro throwing near Marichal’s head, or was it just a careless accident?

    • gc said...

      Without reading anything recently I had long ago read that Koufax didn’t brush back hitters (unlike Drysdale), possibly because he didn’t need to or he didn’t trust that he wouldn’t injure someone. So someone on the Dodger side thought Marichal was brushing back Dodger hitters and said if Koufax wouldn’t put Marichal in the dirt that someone should. Could just be fabricated.

      • bucdaddy said...

        Still one of the most amazing baseball facts I’ve ever seen:

        In his last season (1966), Koufax threw 323 innings and didn’t hit a single batter. He hit 18 in his career. Drysdale hit 154.

  5. james wilson said...

    Too bad that wasn’t Gaylord Perry playing pepper with Roseboro’s head. Then it would simply be a racist incident, case closed.

  6. Andy said...

    Marichal may have cost his team the pennant that year–and as it was, it took a thirteen game winning streak by the Dodgers at the end of September to catch the Giants–but the incident probably did win that game for the Giants. Koufax, holding a 2-1 lead at the time, was almost certainly disrupted out of his rhythm, and when play resumed after the brawl, Mays hit a three run HR that decided the game.

  7. Butch said...

    I Went To A Book Discussion On This Book, By John Rosengren, And He Was A Real Gentleman, Very Friendly, And He Really Knew His “Stuff” !! It Was VERY Informative!! GREAT Job, Bruce, On This Interview With John!! Replies Are Welcome!!

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