It was the hot summer of 1965, the dog days of another tense pennant race between the Los Angeles Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and the San Francisco Giants of Willie Mays. A week since the Watts riots had engulfed Dodgers catcher John Roseboro's home turf in South Los Angeles. Giants pitcher Juan Marichal was sick with worry about his family in the Dominican Republic, locked in civil war. On the field in Candlestick Park, there were hard words exchanged. Bean balls thrown. Roseboro all but nicked Marichal, the batter, with a throw back to Koufax. Marichal exploded, bashing the Dodger's head bloody with his bat.
It's probably the most notorious on-field incident in baseball lore, and the low point in the hoary rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants. Many Angelenos of a certain age know that Roseboro later vouched for Marichal's election to baseball's Hall of Fame — and that Marichal spoke at Roseboro's funeral — but the details and the context of that day are not well understood. In a pretty remarkable piece at Deadspin, Los Angeles author David Davis annotates the famous photo by SI's Neil Leifer and fills out the backstory. Sample:
"Game delayed, argument," read the Western Union ticker.
Marichal clubbed Roseboro with his Louisville Slugger, catching him above his left eye and opening up a two-inch gash. They staggered toward the pitcher's mound in a scrum, as players and coaches from both teams raced toward them. Crawford took down Marichal, who lay on his back, kicking. Willie Mays grabbed a bleeding Roseboro and helped restore peace, leading to another classic Leifer photo….
"I really don't think Juan should have been playing at all," Willie Mays would later tell The New York Times. "He was pretty strung out, full of fear and anger, and holding it inside."
It would be years before Roseboro admitted his own role in touching off the brawl. "It was intentional all right," he said in his autobiography, Glory Days with the Dodgers, and Other Days with Others (written with Bill Libby) in 1978, referring to his ear-grazing throw. "I meant for him to feel it." He'd been steeling himself for a fight, too. "I was so mad I'd made up my mind that if he protested, I was going after him. He protested, so I started out of my crouch. … I went to hit him with a punch, and he hit me with his bat."
Which brings us back to Leifer's photograph, a perfect shot that in a way was too perfect, too articulate, too neatly resonant with the major themes of the day. It showed, or seemed to show, the martyrdom of Johnny Roseboro at a time when Civil Rights advocates were being pummeled by firehoses, German shepherds, and, yes, baseball bats. It showed, or seemed to show, the embodiment of the prevailing stereotype of the "hot-tempered" Latino ballplayer, even though Marichal was anything but hot-tempered.
Great photos tell their own stories, occasionally at the expense of the events being depicted.
Here's a snippet of movie film of the brawl, and a later interview of Marichal — quite simply one of the best pitchers in the history of the game — by Bob Costas.
Previously at LA Observed:
Play based on Marichal & Roseboro opens here