Marichal, Roseboro and the inside story of baseball's nastiest brawl
The following is adapted from The Fight of their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption. Copyright John Rosengren, 2014. To purchase a copy, click here.
The headline on the cover story of Time magazine's May 7, 1965 issue read: "Dominican Republic: The Coup That Became A War." United States President Lyndon Johnson had sent U.S. Marines to intervene in the battle being fought on the streets of Santo Domingo, which Time described as "a city gone berserk in the bloodiest civil war in recent Latin American history."
The Marines did not readily succeed in restoring order. Ad hoc execution squads lined up victims against walls, snipers fired at U.S. helicopters and a mob paraded the head of a police officer on a pole like a trophy.
The scenes on television of his country disturbed San Francisco Giants ace Juan Marichal. He was literally worried sick -- with a sinus infection -- about the safety of his family back home. "There's no way you can concentrate while that is happening in your country," he said. Marichal had allowed just five earned runs in his first seven starts that season through May 9, but gave up three runs to the Cubs on May 12, five to the Astros on May 16 and, after a May 22 shutout of those same Astros, nine to the Braves in less than four innings on May 26, the worst start of his young career. By that time President Johnson had sent more than 20,000 U.S. troops to the Dominican.
Later that summer, unrest came to the U.S. While the Watts Riots raged during the week of Aug. 11, the players at Dodger Stadium could see the smoke 10 miles away where angry African-Americans chanted, "Burn, baby, burn." Team management announced that fans who feared coming to the ballpark could exchange tickets for a September game. The stadium scoreboard listed highway exits closed by the rioting. The day the city imposed martial law, Aug.14, Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax won his 21st game, but the violence had almost rendered baseball irrelevant to Johnny Roseboro, the team's catcher and a black man living in south central Los Angeles. When he picked up the newspaper, he skipped the sports section for the first time in his life and read the latest reports of the violence, which pained him. "It's bad for my race," he said. On the field, he had to remind himself that his job mattered. "I'd wake up in the morning and say to myself, 'Why are they playing games?'"
His drive home from the ballpark took him past the fires and the fighting and shook him. The rage and violence that had collected and exploded here was unlike anything he could have imagined in Ashland, Ohio, 30 years earlier. The riots laid bare to him the bitter truths of racism that he had missed in his youth. He was dismayed that the anger and frustration had erupted into such destruction to property and life.
One night that week, word spread of a protest march that would pass in front of the Roseboro house on its way to a nearby park. Worried about what might happen along the way, Roseboro gathered the guns he had collected over the years and sat guard by his front door, prepared to protect his family and his property. It turned out that he didn't have to fire a shot -- the march never happened -- but the conflict tormented him.
By the time the Dodgers headed north to San Francisco for a four-game series with the Giants that would start on Aug. 19, the riots had caused $40 million in property damage, claimed 34 lives and left another 1,032 people injured.
The war continued to rage in the Dominican, yet amazingly, despite his fragile emotional state, Marichal dominated on the mound. On the eve of the Giants' four-game series with the first-place Dodgers, he blanked the Mets 5-0 on three singles, marking his ninth shutout of the season. He improved to 19-9 with a league-leading 1.73 ERA. But the situation at home had skinned his nerves raw. In August, he barked at the official scorer at Candlestick Park over a decision that didn't go his way. The Saturday before that shutout of the Mets, he had lost to the Phillies by giving up three runs in the eighth inning. He turned his temper against home plate umpire Lee Weyer in an argument over the strike zone. Weyer did not eject Marichal but did write him up. Marichal's teammates had observed his condition and didn't like what they saw. "I really don't think Juan should have been playing at all," Willie Mays told the New York Times. "He was pretty strung out, full of fear and anger, and holding it inside."
The Giants had dropped two of the first three games of the set with their bitter rivals from Los Angeles and entered the Sunday finale on Aug. 22 in third place in the National League standings, 1½ games behind the front-running Dodgers. The drama began that afternoon with Marichal's first pitch, when L.A. leadoff hitter Maury Wills beat out a bunt down the third base line. Like most pitchers, Marichal hated giving up a base hit bunt more than a home run. The long ball was simply a power swing that the batter had gambled on correctly; the bunt taunted the pitcher, like spitting on his shoes. Marichal did not tolerate anyone showing him up, especially on his first pitch. Wills had laid down the gauntlet for the day.
Marichal retired the next two Dodgers, but cleanup hitter Ron Fairly stroked a double to score Wills. That steamed the Giants ace. He got the next batter, but walked back to the dugout already down 1-0.
After Koufax struck out the side in the bottom of the first, Marichal ran back to the mound to start the second inning. With one out he gave up a double to first baseman Wes Parker. That brought up Roseboro. He had already hit a double and a home run in the series and driven in four runs, and was pleased to be showing more confidence at the plate in light of a recent slump. The Dodgers catcher promptly singled to drive in Parker and increase his team's lead to 2-0. Marichal chafed. He had faced eight batters and already allowed more runs than he had averaged giving up over nine innings the entire season. He fanned Koufax to bring Wills back to the plate.
Marichal now planned to get even. He fired a fastball high and tight. Shoulder high.
From first base, Roseboro watched the ball hone in on Wills. Roseboro was relieved to see his teammate flop before the ball could hit him but peeved that Marichal had thrown at his friend. Wills didn't like it either. He rose slowly and dressed down Marichal with a long look.
Wills lined out to end the Dodgers' at-bat. When Los Angeles took the field, Roseboro wanted to set things straight with the Giants' first batter, Willie Mays, San Francisco's equivalent of Wills as both team captain and emotional leader.
Crouching behind home plate, Roseboro flicked his index finger, a sign for Koufax to put the batter in the dirt. Despite popular legend, Koufax believed in the practice of intimidating opposing hitters and protecting his teammates. He didn't throw at their heads because he feared hurting them, but he was willing to deliver his own messages. Three months earlier, in a game against the Cardinals, after Lou Brock had bunted his way on, then stole second and third before scoring on a sacrifice fly, an angry Koufax pointedly plunked Brock in the ribs with a fastball in his next at-bat.
This time, Koufax wound up and sailed a fastball well over Mays' head to the backstop. He later told reporters, "It was a lousy pitch. I meant it to come a lot closer." But he had fulfilled his duty, even if it was merely a token gesture.
Mays flied out, but two batters later Cap Peterson hit a home run to make the score 2-1.
Marichal took note of Koufax's missive over Mays' head. He resented the way the Los Angeles pitchers -- mostly Don Drysdale but now Koufax -- threw at his teammates. With two out in the top of the third and Fairly back at the plate, Marichal was also thinking of the rightfielder's first inning double that had scored Wills. He delivered an inside fastball that sent Fairly diving to the ground. The Dodgers fans in the crowd of 42,807 -- and there were plenty of them that afternoon -- hollered in protest. Giants fans cheered. Marichal thought Fairly had overreacted and that the pitch hadn't been that close.
But San Francisco rightfielder Matty Alou had observed about his friend, "Juan wanted to fight all day. He had the devil inside him that day."
Marichal's pitch roiled L.A.'s bench, where manager Walter Alston and the players were convinced Marichal had thrown at Fairly. He had put two of their teammates in the dirt. The Dodgers jumped on Marichal with shouts and taunts.
Home plate umpire Shag Crawford warned both teams. No more. Another one like that, and the pitcher's out of here.
That didn't stop Koufax from approaching Roseboro and asking, "Who do you want me to get?"
Not wanting Koufax to be ejected, Roseboro simply said, "I'll take care of it."
Marichal led off the Giants' half of the third. He knew that baseball's code called for Koufax to knock him down, but he wasn't sure the superstar lefty would do it, especially after Crawford's warning. Still, he was uneasy stepping into the box 60 feet from baseball's hardest thrower. If ever there was a time for a pitcher to deliver an inside fastball that screamed "You can't throw at our guys" this was it.
The fans anticipated the showdown. The tension on the field crackled through the stands.
Crawford felt it, too. He crouched behind Roseboro, his hand on the catcher's back, poised to eject Koufax if his pitch came too close.
Twenty-one-year-old Tito Fuentes, who had played his first major league game only four days earlier, watched from the on-deck circle, clutching his bat. The rest of the Giants peered intently from the bench and the outfield bullpen.
Koufax curved a pitch across the plate. Crawford called it a strike. Marichal exhaled. He prepared to swing at the next pitch. Roseboro called for a fastball, low and inside. Koufax delivered. Marichal held off.
Roseboro intentionally dropped the ball, moved behind Marichal to pick it up and whizzed his throw past Marichal's face. Marichal later said the ball clipped his ear. He turned to face Roseboro. "Why you do that, coño?!" he demanded, using a Spanish slang word for female genitalia.
Roseboro, one of the strongest men in baseball, had decided that if Marichal challenged him, he was going to "annihilate" him. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Roseboro dropped his mitt and stepped toward Marichal and yelled, "F--- you and your mother!"
Marichal saw the catcher in his mask and chest protector advancing on him. Fear took over.
Marichal raised his bat over his helmet and brought it down toward Roseboro's head like he was splitting firewood. The blow did not strike squarely but did open a two-inch gash above Roseboro's left eye.
Roseboro's rage erased his formal training in karate and boxing. He lunged at Marichal like an alley fighter.
Marichal retreated and stiff-armed Roseboro with his left hand. The two ended up between home plate and the mound. Roseboro flailed at Marichal with punches. Marichal chopped at him with his bat. He pried Roseboro's mask loose. Roseboro knocked off Marichal's helmet, which flew toward first base and bounced on the grass. Marichal nicked him again with the bat, and Roseboro landed a single right hand to Marichal's face.
Koufax rushed in from the mound and raised his hands behind Roseboro, the ball tucked in his glove, trying to calm Marichal's bat, which he twirled with his right hand.
Charlie Fox, the Giants' third base coach, ran in to separate the pair, but leaned back to get clear of Marichal's bat. Fuentes raced from the on-deck circle, forgetting to leave his bat behind. Fox, Fuentes and Koufax seemed intent upon separating the pair but hesitated coming between the two and being struck themselves. For one sickening instant, Feuntes gripped his bat with both hands, looking like he was going to use it as a weapon, just as Marichal had.
The benches and bullpens emptied. The players surged toward the sparring pair on the grass in front of the mound. The fans, initially stunned by the sight of Marichal clubbing the catcher, leaped to their feet and shouted.
Crawford, the umpire, attempted to subdue the two. He placed a hand on both of them, his mask still on. Initially, he'd been astonished -- did he just see that?! -- but then moved in, worried Marichal was going to swing his bat at the players and coaches closing in on him. Crawford, a World War II combat veteran, noted that no one else dared step between the two men.
When Marichal swung his bat and Roseboro stumbled to his left, Crawford saw his opening. He wrapped his arms around Marichal from behind and the two tumbled to the ground, Marichal on top of Crawford, still clutching his bat. "I didn't want them to take the bat away from me," Marichal said. "I know if they take the bat away then everybody will hit me."
Roseboro regained his footing. Giants first baseman Willie McCovey held out his forearm but Roseboro slipped past. Koufax had yielded to Crawford and tipped toward Fuentes, who let go of his bat and did not attack him. A gaggle of players and coaches surrounded Marichal. The majority seemed more interested in breaking things up than in taking sides and joining in the fracas. They were horrified by what they had just witnessed -- a player had never clubbed another on the field with a bat -- and by the sight of the blood that was streaming from the gash on Roseboro's head and covering the left side of his face. Many on the field thought Marichal had crushed Roseboro's eye. "There was nothing but blood where his left eye should have been," Alston said.
In the squirming melee, players grabbed at Marichal on the ground, trying to wrest away his bat or strike him. Dodgers outfielder Lou Johnson, a black man and Roseboro's friend, sprinted in from leftfield and threw punches at anyone in a Giants uniform. McCovey smothered him in a bear hug from behind but was not able to contain him indefinitely. L.A. relief pitcher Howie Reed, a white player, went after Marichal. He yanked at those on top of him so he could get a piece of him. Still on his back, Marichal fended off Reed with kicks, spiking him on the left thigh. Marichal also caught Johnson in the ankle with his spikes, opening a cut that would leave a scar. It took several men to constrain Reed.
Roseboro tried to push his way through to Marichal, still on his back, though he had rolled away from Crawford. Someone stepped on Crawford's hand and cut it.
The crowd watched the mayhem unfold on the field. Set in their loyalties, the violence stirred the fury of the intense rivalry. Mays worried that if Roseboro in all his rage reached Marichal, the fans would leap the low railing and set off a full-blown riot on the field. He scrambled toward Roseboro, losing his cap and getting kicked in the head on the way.
Mays wrapped his arms around Roseboro from behind and tugged. "Johnny, stop it," Mays pleaded. "Stop fighting. Your eye is out."
Mays pulled Roseboro away, and the wounded man stopped struggling. Mays grabbed a fistful of jersey under the bloodied chest protector and led him away from the swarm around Marichal. The blood streaked Roseboro's face and flecked Mays' jersey. Roseboro gingerly touched his hand to his head and looked at the blood on his fingers. They met Dodgers trainer Doc Buhler behind home plate. Mays tenderly pressed a towel to his friend's forehead. "This never should have happened," he said. "Nobody should hit anybody with a bat."
Tears slid down Mays' cheeks.
Buhler examined Roseboro's wound. The catcher did not feel the pain yet. He just felt angry that he had only landed one punch.
His teammates and coaches gathered around while Mays wiped the blood from his hands with the white towel. Koufax faced him with his hands on his hips and a look of bewildered concern.
Meanwhile, back on their feet, Crawford lectured Marichal, who gestured in his defense. His Giants teammates and coaches looked on.
Roseboro suddenly burst from the trainer, tore past Mays and rushed back for another shot at Marichal. This time, Preston Gomez, Los Angeles' third base coach, grabbed him and pulled him away, with Roseboro jawing at Marichal.
Marichal yelled back, "You want some more?"
That incited Dodgers coach Danny Ozark. In the initial scuffle, he had tried to separate the opponents, but when he heard Marichal mocking Roseboro, he wanted to tear him apart. "He's a g------ nut," Ozark later said. "A guy like that would hit a woman." Several Giants had to block Ozark from their pitcher. Somebody decked him with a punch.
San Francisco pitching coach Larry Jansen, one of the few men Marichal could trust at the moment, put his arm around Marichal's shoulder and led him off the field.
The Candlestick fans booed Roseboro on his way to the dugout. He flashed them the finger.
Once inside the clubhouse, Roseboro started to feel the pain. His head "throbbed like a toothache." Buhler wanted to stitch the wound, but Roseboro didn't want him sticking a needle in his scalp, so the trainer closed the cut as best he could with butterfly bandages. The gash would later require 14 stitches at the hospital.
Roseboro was ready to go after Marichal again in the clubhouse across the hall, but did not make a move to plow through the dozen policemen guarding each entrance.
Crawford ejected Marichal. A policeman escorted him to the clubhouse. A couple of teammates checked on him. His jersey was torn open and he had a few scratches on his chest but was not hurt. He settled at the desk in the clubhouse office and listened to the game on the radio.
Once the adrenaline subsided, regret crept in. Marichal was sorry he was out of the game, which San Francisco would win, 4-3. Sorry for what he had done. At the same time, he thought, Roseboro had been wrong to throw the ball so close to him. That could have killed him. He had lost his head wanting to defend himself. Still, he was sorry it had all happened.
Giants manager Herman Franks came in and told Marichal he should leave the ballpark and that some policemen should accompany him, just to be safe.
Roseboro also left early, escorted by two of San Francisco's finest who disguised the Dodgers' catcher in a Giants cap and led him out of the stadium to a taxi stand, where he caught a cab to the airport.
By the time the game ended and police allowed reporters into the clubhouse, both Marichal and Roseboro had left.
But neither would ever escape that afternoon.
John Rosengren is an award-winning author who has written eight books and whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and on SI.com, among many other places. To buy his book "The Fight Of Their Lives," go to www.fightoftheirlives.net.