August 22, 1965—Cumulative tensions—from a duel of ace pitchers, from a white-knuckle pennant race, from a historic rivalry that hadn’t let up in intensity just because the two teams had relocated clear across the country from their New York beginnings—exploded in a 15-minute brawl between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The nearly 43,000 Candlestick Park spectators and thousands more L.A. area TV viewers couldn’t believe what started it. First, there was an exchange of words between Giant pitcher Juan Marichal
, taking his turn at bat, and Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro
; then Roseboro was on his feet with his mask off; then Marichal was hitting him on the head, twice, with his bat. (See the accompanying image.)
Across the nation, old baseball hands were trying to recall if they had ever witnessed another bat attack at the major league-level. They couldn’t.
A pitcher known for pinpoint control on the mound had completely lost it. What could have led him to do that?
Nothing raises ballplayers’ temperatures as much as the brushback pitch. Contemporary position players continue to take exception to it. It means a direct threat to their health (and—though not every player would admit to it—their continuing ability to amass millions in the free-agent market).
The brushback pitch was an even bigger part of the game in Marichal’s time. Pitchers such as Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were unafraid to remind hitters that the strike zone belonged to them—all
of it. Hitters crowding the plate received constant reminders that they did so at their own peril.
The Giant-Dodger rivalry had also featured this on prior occasions. Giant pitcher Sal Maglie
became known as “The Barber” for his constant willingness to resort to “chin music.”
Pitchers’ ability to control the game became a central concern as Marichal faced off against the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax that day 45 years ago today. Suspicions of tit-for-tat retaliation had been growing since the first of the four-game series two evenings before.
When Maury Wills’ bat had touched the glove of Giant catcher Tom Haller on the backswing, the Giants thought the Dodger speedster had leaned deliberately so that Haller would be called for catcher interference. Matty Alou‘s similar maneuver the next day did not earn him first base, as Wills had received, but it did raise the ire of Roseboro, who was behind the plate at that at-bat and yelled angrily at the Giant bench.
Tensions continued to mount on Sunday, as the Dodgers scored two quick runs in the first and second innings. Marichal, not only annoyed at Wills for his Friday maneuver but now for an attempt to bunt against himself, proceeded to flatten him his next turn up. Ron Fairly also got one high and inside.
As I write this, it occurs to me that the escalation of tensions between the Dodgers and Giants were a kind of small-scale version of those between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in that decade of the Cold War. Early on in this game, one player did his best to keep matters in check: Sandy Koufax.
Roseboro signaled for a “message pitch” in retaliation for Marichal making Wills hit the dirt. As Roseboro admitted later, he should have known better than to expect that from the great lefty. Koufax delivered the message a mile over the head of Marichal, who was never in from the great fireballer. (A good thing, too, since Koufax’s speed was such that serious damage could have occurred.)
"Koufax was constitutionally incapable of throwing at anyone's head," Roseboro wrote in his 1978 autobiography, "so I decided to take matters into my own hands."
On his throw back to Koufax, Roseboro whipped the ball within a millimeter of Marichal’s ear. The pitcher thought he’d been nicked. When he asked Roseboro why he’d done that, the catcher rose and moved toward him.
Marichal, believing that Roseboro was about to attack. launched a preemptive strike—make that two
—with his bat. Then Roseboro had charged him, and the benches emptied.
Matters would have been far worse but for Giant superstar and captain Willie Mays
. Wanting to end the fight before it got worse—and genuinely fearing for the safety of Roseboro, one of his best friends—he crossed team lines and pulled the catcher away from the melee, the blood from the wound staining his own uniform. Dodger outfielder Lou Johnson spoke for many when he said, “They can thank Mays that there wasn’t a real riot out there.”
To everyone’s relief, the attack, which opened up a two-inch gash at the top of Roseboro’s head, did not lead to a concussion for the veteran catcher. It did, however, affect the pennant race between the two teams, as well as perceptions of Marichal.
Marichal ended up being ejected, fined $1,750 and suspended eight games, meaning that he missed two starts. That year, the Giants ended up two games behind the Dodgers for the pennant. Naturally, many people have argued that Marichal could have been the equalizer in that race.
“Old School” blogger Robert Rubino of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat has taken a contrarian position
, noting that two Marichal losses down the stretch probably had more to do with the Giants’ disastrous slide that year than the righthander’s suspension.
Rubino is right, in the sense that wins in both games would have produced a tie (and, amazingly, a repeat of the “Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff Game” 14 years before ended by Bobby Thomson’s legendary home run). But, as provocative and well-argued as his position is, I don’t think it ends the matter.
Pitching rotations can be precarious, and a dependable starting pitcher’s absence can cause trouble (see, for instance, the heart palpitations produced in Rex Sox and Yankee fans by sidelined pitchers Josh Beckett and Andy Pettitte). It might have been worse in Marichal’s era, when four starters were the norm, than now, when five is the preferred number. Marichal’s absence forced manager Herman Franks to juggle the lineup, so that, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Giants went 4-12—a run that turned out to be unexpectedly costly in the end.
The incident also threatened, for awhile, to stain forever the reputation of Marichal. Previously known as the “Dominican Dandy” for his stylish, calm manner off the field, he now found himself tarred as a symbol of violence.
In his first two years of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Marichal fell short of the required 75% of the vote. Based on statistics alone—a 16-year career that included a 243-142 record, a 2.89 ERA, 52 shutouts, 244 complete games and six 20-win seasons—and a reputation as the most dominant National League pitcher in the 1960s after Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson—he should have been voted in on his first attempt.
The implication was inescapable: Cooperstown voters were still penalizing him for the fight. He had not been involved in similar controversial incidents after that, so it was beyond his own power at this point to sway voters in his favor.
The person who did so was Johnny Roseboro.
This was hardly an expected outcome for the first few years after the incident, when Roseboro pursued a $110,000 lawsuit against the pitcher, coming away with only a reported $7,000 in February 1970. Several years later, however, when Marichal was dealt to the Dodgers at the tail-end of his career, an assurance by Roseboro—by now retired—that he bore the pitcher no ill-will did much to assure acceptance by the Dodger “family.”
Several years later, meeting at an old-timers game, the two discussed the incident at length, then shook hands. The relationship grew steadily warmer as they met again at other old-timers games and charitable events.
After Marichal’s second failure to enter Cooperstown, Roseboro made clear, through public gestures—including posing with him and visiting him in the Dominican Republic—that he’d let bygones be bygones. The next election, Marichal finally made it to the Hall of Fame.
When Roseboro died in 2002, his widow asked Marichal to be a pallbearer at the funeral. In his eulogy, the Hall of Famer told fellow mourners that Roseboro's forgiveness was “one of the best things that happened in my life."
Today, in terms of the politics of the Hall of Fame, the closest thing to the Marichal-Roseboro controversy is the case of Roberto Alomar. Like Marichal, Alomar’s statistics placed him among the top five or so players at his position during his time. And, like Marichal, an ugly incident—spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck after a third-strike call, followed immediately after the game by an even uglier, personal reference to how Hirschbeck had become “real bitter” after his son’s death—left a terrible impression in the mind of the public and many potential Cooperstown voters.
Like Marichal, Alomar has made amends with his former adversary, including a donation to fight the disease that claimed Hirschbeck’s son.
I believe that, like Marichal, Alomar will eventually enter Cooperstown. Other factors, however, run the risk of delaying this a while longer. For one thing, he does not have Marichal’s basically warm disposition. For another, he did not win the approval of his teammates—nor leave the game with the grace--that Marichal summoned.
Giant teammates marveled at the way the righthander with the high kick looked out for them. And, in 1975, after two starts that left him believing he had come to the end of his career, the pitcher told Dodger president Peter O’Malley, “I can't take your money anymore if I can't pitch the way I want to."
In contrast, when he left the Mets following subpar seasons when his former skills had mysteriously disappeared, Alomar had acquired a reputation as an overpaid, sullen, toxic presence in the clubhouse. Moreover, a nasty recent lawsuit, in which an ex-girlfriend claimed the former athlete had unprotected sex with her despite being HIV-positive, has left a continuing cloud over his character.