Crime and Punishment: The Marichal-Roseboro Incident

Article excerpt

The Marichal-Roseboro incident is one of the most heavily documented yet least understood on-field episodes in baseball history. Because the affair caught spectators and press by surprise, there are no photographs and only a few conflicting eyewitness accounts of the initial phase of the event. Given the resultant confusion about the episode, contemporary accounts, compilations of the game's "memorable moments," and general histories of both the game and the National League as well as autobiographies and biographies of players, managers, and executives are incomplete and often inaccurate in relating, first, that on August 22, 1965, Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants laid his Louisville Slugger upside the head of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, and second, that for his assault Marichal received one of the heaviest penalties in baseball history. (1)

There is much more to it than that. The Marichal-Roseboro incident is one of those events that lend themselves to what interdisciplinary scholars call "micro-ethnography," events that represent fundamental aspects of the participants' lives. Put otherwise, the Marichal-Roseboro incident is a case study of ethnicity and American race relations in baseball during the 1960s as well as of the administrative workings of Major League baseball.

This diamond drama had three principal players. One of the key figures was Warren Crandall Giles, president of the National League. In 1951 Giles, then president of the Cincinnati Reds, was stalemated with Ford Frick, then National League president, for election to the office of commissioner of baseball. Giles withdrew after the seventeenth ballot, allowing Frick to become commissioner; as a quid pro quo he was subsequently elected to replace Frick as head of the Senior Circuit. A strong president, Giles supported the unionization of umpires, league expansion, and franchise relocation--including the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to California in 1957--and strongly urged teams to sign Latin and African American players. (2)

The other two principals were baseball players: Juan Marichal, star pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, who hailed from the Dominican Republic, and John Roseboro, the outstanding catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, an African American from Ashland, Ohio. Each was at the height of his career in 1965. Marichal, "The Dominican Dandy," reached the majors in 1960 and became the National League's winningest pitcher in the decade. In 1963 and 1964 he posted consecutive 20-win seasons (25 and 21); on July 13, 1965, he was named Most Valuable Player in the annual Major League All-Star Game after pitching three scoreless innings. On the eve of the Giants-Dodgers series, Marichal was fashioning the finest season in league history with a 19-9 record and a 1.65 ERA. (3) Johnny Roseboro, who became a Dodger in 1957, was an outstanding defensive catcher and team leader. He was named to the National League All-Star team in 1958, 1961, and 1962.

The two ballplayers were temperamental opposites. Nicknamed "Laughing Boy" in the minors, Marichal was a cheerful, gregarious, easygoing fellow who was popular with teammates, fans, and even baseball beat writers. Roseboro, an ex-football player, was soft-spoken and quiet, hence the nickname "Gabby," but competitively aggressive. They shared in common concerns beyond the ballpark. Earlier in the year a bloody civil war had erupted in the Dominican Republic prompting U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower in late April to dispatch 20,000 troops to establish order. The result was a military dictatorship and an inability from outside the country to communicate with family and friends by mail, telephone, or telegram. Marichal surely joined teammate Felipe Alou in brooding about his family's welfare; Alou recalled that he "had no idea how my parents were while I was in America. Correspondence then was poor and despite three months of trying, I had not been able to get a call through to my folks. …