Baseball Books Reviewed: The Fight of Their Lives

The Fight of Their Lives, by John Rosengren, Lyons Press (February 18, 2014) $25.95

“I wish he could have been my catcher.” That’s how Juan Marichal ended his eulogy at John Roseboro’s funeral, and John Rosengren ended the book. In 1965, TV cameras broadcasting a Giants-Dodgers game recorded perhaps the most violent moment in modern baseball history when Giants’ pitcher Juan Marichal clubbed Dodgers’ catcher Johnny Roseboro in the head with a baseball bat, igniting a huge brawl.

Classic photographs appeared in virtually every newspaper and magazine: one showing Marichal holding his bat in one hand over Roseboro’s head with Sandy Koufax in the background; another captured Willie Mays dragging Roseboro, blood streaming from his forehead over his eye, away from the melee by his uniform top. No words were needed to identify the villain.

Despite rather weak explanations from Marichal accusing Roseboro of provoking the battle, Roseboro’s denials, and especially the photos, damned Marichal in the public’s eye forever. This conclusion was conclusively strengthened when a lawsuit was filed by Roseboro against Marichal, which eventually was settled

As far as 99% of baseball fans were concerned, the case was closed. Another Latin player with a fiery temper went out of control.

But conflicts are rarely that simple.

The first real clues appeared in Roseboro’s book “Glory Days with the Dodgers”. There, he described a bean-ball war between the Giants and the Dodgers in which Marichal was a willing participant. With Sandy Koufax pitching (he with a reputation of not throwing at batters) Roseboro decided to take matters into his own hands. He waited until Marichal batted, then deliberately dropped a pitch, stood up, and threw the ball back to Koufax very close to Marichal’s face, which Marichal claimed hit his ear. When Marichal protested, Roseboro moved toward him aggressively, with the pre-planned intention of fighting. Marichal reacting in fear, made a poor decision to swing his bat to defend himself.

Amazingly, Roseboro’s admission never seemed to make it into the public consciousness.

Marichal, while a fierce competitor on the field, was a devote Catholic – attending mass several times a week. He loved his family and his homeland, the Dominican Republic, and was suffering greatly at the time due to severe political unrest in the country. He was forever remorseful for his action.

Roseboro, while from a small town in Ohio that knew little racial bias, had begun to react to the civil rights movement sweeping the nation in the 1960’s, and especially recent riots in Los Angeles, becoming more aggressive. He experienced a growing discomfort while he watched the never-ending attacks on Marichal far after their playing days, as his conscience knew the real story

Eventually, Roseboro and his second wife started a very successful PR firm in Los Angeles, with many famous clients. Marichal spent most of his time in the Dominican Republic. They crossed paths periodically at old timer’s games and functions and past animosity gradually died.

With a baseball career that clearly merited entry into the baseball Hall of Fame, Marichal watched bitterly as he fell short of election. Consensus was that the Roseboro Incident was preventing some writers from voting for him. Eventually Marichal approached Roseboro for help in promoting his Hall of Fame candidacy – not only for himself, but for his people, as the first living Latino to be elected. The families visited with each other and connected on many levels. The former combatants became friends, as did their wives and children.

Roseboro’s campaign strategy resulted in Marichal’s election to the Hall of Fame. Their close friendship was ultimately demonstrated when Marichal was asked to speak at Roseboro’s funeral.

Author John Rosengren did baseball, Marichal and Roseboro a great service by re-opening this horrific episode and shedding light on the entire story. He presents us almost a fairy tale – two good people brought together in a significant conflict which got resolved over the years and everyone lived happily ever after.

This is a beautiful story of forgiveness, told factually, yet sympathetically, with a very emotional ending.