Most so-called brawls between Major League Baseball teams involve a lot of shouting and some shirt pulling and very little damage. But the August 1965 battle between the San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal and Los Angeles Dodger catcher John Roseboro was different. Marichal hit Roseboro in the head with a bat.
In his new book The Fight of Their Lives, John Rosengren explores the circumstances that preceded that event and the way both men put the fight behind them and found peace in its aftermath.
Highlights from Bill’s conversation with John Rosengren
BL: Please describe for us the fight at home plate.
JR: This was late August 1965, Dodgers-Giants in a tight pennant race. This is the fourth game of a four-game series, and there had been some bantering back and forth. So there had been some bad blood going back and forth. There had also been a threat that Roseboro had lodged against Marichal. Marichal had been yelling at him from the dugout and Roseboro sent the message back that if he keeps that up, I’ll take care of him.
Well, then in Game 4 on Sunday, Aug. 22, 1965, Marichal had put in the dirt Maury Wills and Ron Fairly of the Dodgers. The umpire had warned both pitchers. [Sandy] Koufax was on the mound for the Dodgers. No more inside pitches because Koufax had sent a message back over Willie Mays’ head.
So Roseboro said I’ll take matters into my own hands. He calls for an inside pitch when Marichal came to bat in the top of the third. Dropped the ball deliberately, picked it up, threw it back past Marichal’s face. Marichal claims the ball nicked him. So he turned to confront Roseboro and say what’s going on?
Roseboro rose up out of his crouch. Marichal sees Roseboro, who’s got a reputation as one of the toughest catchers blocking the plate. Marichal sees Roseboro advancing on him in his full catchers gear, and he takes a step back and brings his bat down in defense on Roseboro’s head. And from there the fight developed and the benches emptied and there was a 14-minute melee on the field. Roseboro left with a two-inch gash on his head and Marichal left the field with his reputation forever sullied.
BL: You write about events transpiring in the Dominican Republic before and during 1965. What were Juan Marichal’s concerns about his homeland at the time?
JR: Juan came from the Dominican Republic and civil war had broken out in 1965 in the spring. President Johnson had sent over 20,000 U.S. troops into the Dominican to prevent another Cuba, which was kind of a false pretense. Anyway, Juan was worried about his family and their safety back home, understandably.
And there wasn’t a phone on the family farm so he had to write a letter, wait a week for it to arrive and then another week for a response, and in the meantime was left to wonder are they still OK? He was watching these scenes on television of the violence, of the battle being fought on the streets of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican, so he was understandably very upset. It was to the point where he was physically ill with worry about his family’s well-being. And Willie Mays said, you know, Juan was so upset that summer he really shouldn’t have been pitching.
BL: Juan Marichal had every reason to be on edge at that time, but that could be said of John Roseboro as well, right?
JR: Absolutely. This event occurred on the baseball field a week after the Watts Riots, and those had really troubled Roseboro, a black man living in South Central L.A. From Dodgers Stadium, he and the other players could see the smoke of the buildings burning in Watts, and it troubled him that they were still playing baseball.
It seemed to him to pale in significance compared to the social tensions and racial upheaval in the country at the time. One night there was word that the protesters were going to march down the street in front of Rosboro’s house, and so he sat outside that night on the front stoop with a gun to protect his family. So Roseboro was also understandably emotionally rattled and troubled and stressed, and these tensions in society—in the Dominican, in Watts—played out on the field of the national pastime as often they do.
BL: In 1965, baseball was a somewhat larger presence on the sports landscape than it is now compared to some of the other sports. How much news did this make when it happened?
JR: This was huge. It was featured prominently in Sports Illustrated and a three-page spread in Life Magazine, and that was the weekly of the day. You remember in 1965, we didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have the television coverage that we do today and so many people got their news from these weekly magazines and what they saw were those images, and that helped shape their perceptions of the event, casting Marichal as the villain and Roseboro as the victim, but it also made a huge impact on the national scene for the way it was portrayed in these prominent magazines.Bill’s Thoughts on The Fight of Their Lives
Why would anybody want to read a book about a fight that occurred during a baseball game in 1965?
Because John Rosengren, the author of The Fight of Their Lives, recognizes what’s necessary to understand the afternoon upon which Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants whacked John Roseboro of the Los Angeles Dodgers on the head with a bat.
There is the violent unrest in the Dominican Republic, for example, where Marichal’s family was living. He watched televised images of the violence on the island, some of it directed against the thousands U.S. troops in residence there, and had no idea whether his family members were safe and no way to find out.
There is the violent unrest in Los Angeles, for example, where the Watts Riots frightened Roseboro enough so that he sat on his porch in South Central L.A. with a gun.
The confrontation between Marichal and Roseboro is a great deal more complicated than the famous Life Magazine photos of the event suggest, and that intrigues Rosengren. But his primary purpose in writing the book seems to be celebrating the forgiveness and mercy both men found in their hearts in the years that followed their violent encounter on the field. The sell-by date for stories involving forgiveness and mercy never comes.