An Excerpt From 'The Fight Of Their Lives'

This excerpt appears in the book The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliset Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption  by John Rosengren. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview with John and read Bill's book review.)

Chapter 10:  Johnny, I Need Your Help

Juan Marichal belonged in the Hall of Fame. His career numbers were remarkable: 3,507 innings pitched over 16 seasons, 243 career victories, .631 winning percentage, 244 complete games, 2,303 strikeouts, 2.89 ERA. He won 20 games in a season six times and made nine All-Star teams. He also established himself as the dominant pitcher of the decade:  His 191 wins during the Sixties were 27 more than Bob Gibson won, 33 more than Don Drysdale and 54 more than Sandy Koufax. In short, he should have been a Hall of Famer on the first ballot.

But not everyone saw it that way.

In 1981, his first year of eligibility, Marichal received only 233 votes or 58.1 percent. Seventy-five percent was required for induction. He finished behind Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges, Harmon Killebrew and Hoyt Wilhelm. Gibson was the only one who received enough votes (84 percent) to make it in. But even Gibson could not believe Marichal had not made it. No way did Gibson think he was 104 votes better than his former rival. “He was the greatest pitcher I ever saw,” Gibson said.

Despite his great career, Marichal had never won a Cy Young Award, but the overwhelming barrier to his induction was the Roseboro incident, the way it tarnished his reputation and threatened to permanently mar his legacy.

The following year, Marichal led the list of pitchers on the ballot, but again came up short, garnering 73.5 percent of the vote, still not enough. Only Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson earned enough votes for induction, both in their first year of eligibility. The outcome suggested that BBWAA members considered the severity of Marichal’s fight with Roseboro warranted more than a single year of withholding their vote.

Marichal had not campaigned on his own behalf. He had simply waited to see how the writers voted, but as the year wore on, he decided he might be able to influence the outcome. So he called John Roseboro at Fouch Roseboro & Associates.

Juan thought it might be possible for Roseboro to clear his name. Given that Roseboro had admitted in his autobiography that he had provoked the fight made Juan think he might be ready to reconcile.

“Johnny, I need your help,” Juan said.

Johnny knew how Juan had suffered at the hands of the press in the immediate aftermath of their fight and still now seventeen years later with every article written about that day and every vote withheld from the BBWAA members. That bothered him. The guilt he felt for his part had never completely left him. Here was his chance to let Juan know he wasn’t angry at him any longer.

“Okay,” he said.

They came up with the idea that Johnny would play in Juan’s charity golf tournament in the Dominican Republic. The public gesture would provide opportunities for press coverage in the Caribbean and the United States. Johnny and his wife Barbara agreed to conduct their most heartfelt public relations campaign.

In December, Johnny, Barbara and ten-year-old Nikki flew to the Dominican Republic. The Marichals welcomed them warmly to their Santo Domingo home. Johnny and Juan, who had competed against one another and twice occupied the same clubhouse at All-Star Games, had never really talked to one another meaningfully. Over meals and poolside, the two ex-ballplayers who seemed so different on the surface–one Latin, the other American; one an extrovert, the other an introvert; one a devout Catholic with six children, the other a remarried divorcé with a stepdaughter–had much in common. They shared an abiding love of baseball, competitive spirits and an appetite for laughter. They both came from humble beginnings, had endured racism and experienced success. And, surprise of surprises, they enjoyed one another’s company.

They gave a press conference and posed for photos. They said that the sportswriters had made too much of their altercation in 1965, that it had simply been a game that had gone bad and that they were not enemies. Johnny pointedly said that day should be forgotten and advocated for Marichal’s election into the Hall of Fame. The Dominican papers recorded their remarks and published the photos. The message back to the United States in general and the BBWAA members in particular was clear: We’re friends now. You can’t hold the past against us any longer.

But those seven days in the Dominican Republic proved far more significant than a choreographed publicity stunt. Juan had finally delivered the personal apology to Johnny, and Johnny had deliberately forgiven Juan. Their interaction relieved both men of the weight that had burdened them for seventeen years. “Johnny and his wife and daughter, they really forgive me,” Juan said. “That took a big load from my body. I knew I had made a mistake, and it had been hard for me to live with that on my conscience. When Johnny forgive me, I was so happy.”

In January of 1983 Marichal received a phone call from Jack Lang, the BBWAA’s national secretary. “Congratulations,” Lang said. Marichal had received 83.6 percent of the vote. He became the first living Latin ballplayer to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “I don’t think any person on earth now is happier than I am,” he said.

Juan thanked God for giving him his talent and the chance to display it during his baseball career. He was so excited he called Johnny Roseboro.

“I’m going to Cooperstown,” he said and choked up. “Thank you. Thank you.”

Both men cried.

Excerpted from The Fight of their Lives:  How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption
© John Rosengren 2014


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