Rosengren: Marichal, Roseboro and baseball’s nastiest brawl

From SABR member John Rosengren at on April 21, 2014:

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.

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Originally published: April 28, 2014. Last Updated: April 28, 2014.