A Picture And A Story: Talking To John Rosengren About Juan Marichal, John Roseboro and "The Fight Of Their Lives"

In 1965, Juan Marichal attacked John Roseboro with a baseball bat at Candlestick Park. The photo is iconic, and still horrifying. The story behind it is less well-known.
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Nearly half a century after Juan Marichal pummeled John Roseboro over the head with a baseball bat at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the photograph of the incident still resonates. It could hardly be otherwise: this is, after all, a Hall of Famer perpetrating a felony assault on an opponent, at home plate. It remains one of the most disturbing images in the history of the national pastime, if not in all of modern sports.

Author John Rosengren's new book, The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption(Lyons Press), tells the story behind the Marichal-Roseboro contretemps in August of 1965. He explains why this was not a random act of violence on Marichal's part and also why this was not some "Giants-Dodgers rivalry thing." Most surprisingly, given the brutality of the original photograph, Rosengren shows how both ballplayers were able to find peace.

Rosengren is the author of Blades of Glory: The True Story of a Young Team Bred to Win; Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid: The Year that Changed Baseball Forever, and, most recently, Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes. I caught up with John for an email exchange about his latest work.

What was it about this topic that made you decide to write this book?

I'm always attracted to stories with a cultural dimension. This one had it in both characters, with Marichal being a dark-skinned Latino and Roseboro an African-American playing during a racially charged time. The kicker for me, though—what made me believe I had to write this book—was how these two men turned a violent moment that would forever define them into an occasion of redemption.

Most people think of the Roseboro-Marichal brawl as a baseball thing—the Dodgers-Giants rivalry writ large. You make clear that Marichal was worried about the civil war happening in his homeland of the Dominican Republic while Roseboro was witness to the Watts Riots in L.A. that very summer. How did those events affect what happened at Candlestick Park?

During that "summer of fury," social tensions impacted both men personally. Marichal was literally worried sick over his family's safety back home while he watched on television the bloody war being fought in the streets of Santo Domingo. He also had a terrible sinus infection, and his teammate Willie Mays said Marichal was so distraught he shouldn't be pitching. Roseboro, a black man living in South Central LA, had just experienced the Watts Riots the week before. He and his teammates watched the buildings burn from Dodgers Stadium—they could see the smoke—and Roseboro wondered how they could still be playing baseball when this was happening. One night, the demonstrators planned to march down the street that ran in front of his house so Roseboro stayed up on the stoop with a loaded gun to protect his home and family. Both men were on edge and, as often happens, those social tensions spilled out onto the field.

Marichal was suspended for eight games and fined $1,750 for his actions. Was the punishment fair? If something like this happened today, what do you think the penalty would be?

Though it doesn't seem like much to us now, that was the largest fine ever levied by the National League or American League at the time. It seemed like a lot to Marichal, who was making $60,000 that year. The suspension may very well have cost the Giants the pennant.  In retrospect, that seems harsh. On the other hand, it seemed like nothing to those who thought Marichal should be banned from baseball. I actually think Warren Giles, the N.L. president who levied the punishment, was fair with the consequence he imposed. If this happened today, I think Marichal would be crucified on social media, the commissioner would get involved, and the penalty would be delayed by litigation. The aftermath would be much uglier.

Do you think the fight overshadowed Marichal's career and prevented him from making the Hall of Fame earlier than he did?

Absolutely. He had the numbers to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. He won more games during the Sixties than Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. Yet in Marichal's first year of eligibility, he received only 233 votes to 337 for Gibson (also in his first year of eligibility), the only player elected that year. No way Gibson was a better pitcher by 104 votes. He said so himself. The only explanation is that the BBWAA [Baseball Writers' Association of America] members held the Roseboro incident against Marichal. It happened again the next year, with Marichal again falling short of induction.

Roseboro died in 2002. If you had had the chance to interview him, what questions would you have asked him?

I would have loved to have talked to Roseboro. I would have asked him about how his role in the fight—and keeping quiet about it for so long—weighed upon him. I also would like to have asked him about his aspirations to manage and how that dream got thwarted because he was a black man. And since I grew up in Minnesota, I would ask him about his years (1968-69) with the Twins.

How long did it take for Marichal and Roseboro find some peace and/or closure about this?

Seventeen years from the time of their fight to the time that Marichal called up Roseboro and asked his help in letting the BBWAA members know that they shouldn't let the incident eclipse his career and keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Roseboro went to the Dominican to play in Marichal's celebrity golf tournament. During that week, the two men realized they enjoyed one another, and it became the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

How would you characterize Willie Mays' role in this incident? Did you interview him for the book?

Mays initially helped pull Roseboro from the fray during the brawl. He has been widely recognized as a peacemaker in the event, and rightly so. I did not interview him. I had spoken to him several years ago and found then that his memory was failing. I didn't want to disturb him. I felt like I was able to get the information I needed elsewhere.

What most surprised you as you researched and wrote about this and what is the biggest misconception people have about this incident over the years?

I think I was most impressed by the dignity of these two ballplayers and how they were able to overcome a moment of passion in their past. Probably the largest misconception people who have seen the iconic photo of Marichal with his bat raised over Roseboro's head is that Marichal was the villain and Roseboro the victim. Both men played an equal part in the incident. Roseboro himself admitted he provoked it.

How did the photo shape the public's perception of the incident?

The photo cast Juan as the villain, John as the victim. It did not tell the whole story. But for many, that was their only image of the incident, and it stuck.

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