Turning one of baseball's ugliest episodes into a story of redemption might seem, at first glance, like a reach. But in this case, the facts support the considerable distance traveled between violence and goodwill.
This is the theme of the new book "The Fight of Our Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption" by John Rosengren.
Rosengren, an established sports author, has already written an incisive and well-researched baseball book called "Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes," which dealt in part with the anti-Semitism that Greenberg had to overcome.
Here, Marichal, from the Dominican Republic, and Roseboro, an African-American, encountered racial prejudice throughout much of their baseball careers. One of the strengths of the book is that Rosengren puts each man in the context of place and time. Marichal is frequently troubled by social and political upheaval in the Dominican Republic. Roseboro continues to encounter prejudice in baseball, even as the civil rights movement makes long-awaited progress in American society.
So Aug. 22, 1965, the day of the Marichal-Roseboro incident, is presented to us only after the personal histories of the two men and the political and social histories of their times are in place.
Marichal, of course, was an outstanding pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. Roseboro was a catcher and one of the main reasons for the success of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The teams had a genuinely heated rivalry. The two men might not have been pals even in less tumultuous times. And these were definitely not less tumultuous times.
On the afternoon in question, Marichal knocked down Dodgers captain Maury Wills with a high and tight pitch. No one was spared in this contest. Sandy Koufax retaliated with a pitch thrown over the head of Willie Mays. Koufax later told reporters: "It was a lousy pitch. I meant it to come much closer."
Marichal came back with a pitch that knocked down Ron Fairly. Home-plate umpire Shag Crawford had seen enough, and he warned both teams that the next pitcher who threw at somebody would be ejected.
Koufax, though, asked Roseboro who he wanted him to "get." Roseboro didn't want his star pitcher tossed. "I'll take care of it," Roseboro said.
When Marichal led off the next half-inning, the second pitch was a fastball, low and inside. As Rosengren reports: "Johnny intentionally dropped the ball, moved behind Marichal to pick it up, and whizzed his throw past Juan's face. Marichal later said the ball clipped his ear."
Marichal asked Roseboro why he did that. Roseboro cursed at Marichal and advanced toward him. Marichal lifted his bat over his head and "brought it down toward Roseboro's head like he was splitting firewood."
The blow opened up a gash over Roseboro's left eye. In the melee that ensued, Mays eventually pulled Roseboro away and pressed a towel to his forehead. "This never should have happened," Mays said. "Nobody should hit anybody with a bat."
There was an understandable uproar following this episode. Marichal was suspended and fined, but there was long-term damage to his reputation.
In the years following his playing career, Roseboro had a painful divorce, suffered financial problems and, at one point, Rosengren reports, contemplated suicide. Roseboro rebounded after a second marriage, although he never received a chance to manage a big league club, an opportunity his intellect and his track record indicated he deserved.
Marichal, meanwhile, finished his brilliant career with Hall of Fame numbers. But in his first year of Hall eligibility, he received only 58.1 percent of the votes, with 75 percent necessary for election. Bob Gibson, who was elected that year, called Marichal, "The greatest pitcher I ever saw."
In his second year of eligibility, Marichal came closer, but he still was not elected. It became apparent to him that the bat incident was standing directly in the way of enshrinement at Cooperstown.
Marichal reached out to Roseboro. "Johnny, I need your help," he said. Marichal invited Roseboro and his family to visit the Dominican Republic, where Marichal hosted a charity golf tournament. The two men held a news conference together. Marichal apologized to Roseboro. Roseboro forgave Marichal.
Roseboro had earlier acknowledged that he had purposefully thrown the ball close to Marichal's face, saying, "I meant for him to feel it." This did not excuse Marichal's use of the bat as a weapon, but it did provide some balance to historical accounts of the incident.
The two men became close friends. When Marichal was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983 (receiving 83.7 percent of the vote), he thanked Roseboro for his forgiveness and support.
At Roseboro's funeral in 2002, Marichal was asked to deliver a eulogy. "Johnny's forgiving me was one of the best things that happened in my life," he said. "I wish I could have had John Roseboro as my catcher."
This is an important book, not only because it takes an informed and sensitive look at one of baseball's most infamous incidents. The story it tells offers the evidence of real human redemption, even in the most difficult circumstances. Out of ugliness, in this case, grows hope.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less