- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

If you care to waste $499.10 online, you can be the unlucky owner of a 16-by-20 picture pointlessly perpetuating one of baseball’s ugliest moments.

Of course, you would have to be, well, batty.

The photo shows San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal preparing to slam a bat down on the unprotected head of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro as Los Angeles pitcher Sandy Koufax tries to stop the mayhem.

It’s autographed by Marichal and the now-deceased Roseboro, who later became friends, but that doesn’t justify the price — even in today’s mercenary memorabilia market. In fact, I wouldn’t pay a cent for it. Why spend money to be reminded how much damage human beings can inflict on one another?

The incident took place Aug.22, 1965, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park during yet another pulsating pennant race between baseball’s fiercest foes, the Giants and Dodgers. OK, so the clubs traditionally hated each other going back to their previous incarnations in New York and Brooklyn — fine. But the participants should have possessed enough maturity and self-control to understand that, after all, it’s only a game.

Marichal and Roseboro were two of baseball’s better players in the mid-1960s. The Dominican right-hander with the high leg kick won 20 or more games six times in seven seasons and finished his 16-year career in 1975 (as a Dodger yet!) with a winning percentage of .631 and an ERA of 2.89. Roseboro wasn’t much of a hitter (.249, 104 home runs over 14 seasons), but his defensive skills were ample enough for statistician/author Bill James to rank him the 27th best catcher of all time.

Yet when Roseboro died two years ago at 69, most obituaries mentioned his confrontation with Marichal in the lead paragraph. There have been countless brawl games throughout major league baseball’s 129 seasons, but nowhere else in memory is there an image of one player attempting to crush another’s skull with a lethal weapon.

Marichal normally was a peaceful man who confined himself to firing fastballs or bending breaking stuff past helpless hitters. That season Marichal went 22-13 with 24 complete games in 37 starts, 240 strikeouts in 2951/3 innings and a dazzling ERA of 2.13. But on one hot afternoon at the ‘Stick, he lost his cool completely.

“Juan is a fine man, a lovely person, a great guy,” Giants first baseman Orlando Cepeda recalled in “Baby Bull,” his 1998 autobiography. “[But] Juan was a tough kid. Most Latins fight back when abused.”

Working against Koufax in a matchup of baseball’s two best pitchers, Marichal found himself trailing 3-1 early. The teams had exchanged numerous knockdown pitches earlier in the series, and Marichal continued the trend by dumping Maury Wills and Ron Fairly on their behinds this day. Koufax, a gentler soul, responded by brushing back Willie Mays, and tempers were on edge as Marichal came to bat in the third inning.

Koufax brushed back Marichal, which was part of the game, but that didn’t satisfy catcher Roseboro. Returning the ball to the mound, he whizzed the ball close to Marichal’s nose — sort of a beanball from behind.

When Roseboro’s next return barely missed Marichal’s ear, the batter turned around and screamed, “Why did you do that? Why did you do that?” In response, the catcher charged Marichal, ripping off his catcher’s mask as though he intended to swing it at the pitcher.

“I expected Marichal to attack me in some way,” Roseboro explained years later. “If he did anything, I had studied karate and was ready to annihilate him.”

He never got the chance. As Roseboro moved toward him, Marichal smacked him on the head with his bat two or three times, depending on whose version you believe. Roseboro went down, and the dugouts emptied for a melee that lasted 14 minutes. Giants captain Mays plowed through the throng of players, grabbed Roseboro and dragged him toward the Dodgers dugout to receive medical attention. The 2-inch gash in the catcher’s skull required 14 stitches to close.

Understandably shaken, bystander Koufax reverted to his erratic, late-1950s pitching form and eventually yielded a three-run homer to Mays, giving the Giants a 4-3 victory. But that wasn’t what fans of both teams would remember in the days, years and decades ahead.

Ultimately, Marichal was fined $1,750 and suspended for nine days, losing two vital starts in a pennant race the Giants lost to the Dodgers by two games. National League president Warren Giles also barred him from pitching in Los Angeles on the last weekend of the season.

Roseboro filed a $100,000 lawsuit against Marichal, but the case was settled nine years later for a reported $2,000. And, happily, the two men forgot the incident in subsequent years and became friends.

At the time, Marichal refused to discuss his uncharacteristic bust of temper. But in later years, he would say, “I feel sorry I used that bat. … That’s the only thing I regret in my career, and I hope the fans forget. Sometimes we don’t have enough time to reflect on things before we react.”

Marichal, who should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, was stiffed by voters during his first two years of eligibility — because, many thought, of the bat-swinging episode. Then, in an O. Henry twist, Roseboro became his biggest booster in the early 1980s.

“There were no hard feelings on my part, and I thought if I made that public, people would believe this was really over,” Roseboro said. “I saw Juan at a Dodgers old-timers game, and we posed for pictures together. I visited him in the Dominican Republic, and the next year [1983] he was elected.

“Hey, over the years you learn to forget things.”

During his induction speech at Cooperstown, Marichal thanked Roseboro profusely. Nineteen years later, as Roseboro battled an assortment of ailments during the final weeks of his life, Koufax, Wills and other former teammates made the sad trek to his home in Los Angeles. So did Juan Marichal, by then Minister of Sports for the Dominican government, to offer one last apology. Later, at a memorial service for Roseboro, Marichal said his old adversary forgiving him “was one of the great things in my life.”

For those who believe in redemption, it was a fitting final note.

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