History is something that has to be learned. It is not innate. We all learned about events such as the American Revolution and the Holocaust in school, but baseball history is something that must be sought out. Nowadays, though, it seems like young baseball fans could not care less about what shaped this great game. But they should, and that is why books like “The Fight of Their Lives” by John Rosengren are so important.
I remember when I first discovered that this “fight” in the title took place. I was probably around 12 or 13, reading about baseball as I so often did and stumbled across the story. “Holy crap,” I said to myself. “Someone hit someone else over the head with a baseball bat during a game?!”
The story is incredible even to this day. On August 22, 1965, Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants took his bat and cracked it over the head of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro. Fortunately Roseboro was not seriously injured; he did, however, need 14 stitches to close the wound on his forehead.
Rosengren takes the time to tell us what led up to the altercation — the heated rivalry between the two teams, the brushbacks from both sides in the series leading up to that “Bloody Sunday” as Rosengren calls the fateful day.
Marichal has been painted as the villain, with Roseboro as the innocent victim. While Marichal’s actions cannot be excused, the book does an excellent job explaining that it was Roseboro, not Marichal, who incited the incident. With Marichal at the plate, Roseboro had planned to throw a ball back to the pitcher as close to Marichal’s head as possible. Marichal said the throw skimmed his ear, which set him off. Roseboro never admitted until more than 20 years later that he was the instigator.
Later in life the two reconciled and became good friends. Marichal actually called on Roseboro because he felt the fight was keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. Marichal should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he was denied in his first two attempts. Many writers said they would not vote for him because of the fight. It was only after Roseboro publicly forgave him that Marichal was elected on his third try. The two remained friends with Marichal delivering a eulogy at Roseboro’s funeral.
Marichal and Roseboro will forever be linked and remembered by this incident, but the book tries to move past it so the two men can be remembered for their play on the field.
It is rarely mentioned that Marichal was a trailblazer; he was the first baseball superstar from the Dominican Republic, which now churns them out. But it all started with him. While Roseboro was never a superstar, he did make four All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves and caught two of Sandy Koufax’s no-hitters. He was among the wave of black ballplayers in the late 1950s that helped pave the way for others.
If I have one criticism of the book is that it takes a bit too long for the actual fight to occur. We finally read about it on page 113, and for a 211 page book, that is too long, in my opinion. It is like waiting until an hour into the movie for Marty McFly to go back to 1955. Rosengren gives important biographical history of the two men, but perhaps he gives a bit too much. I wanted to get to the point of the book, which is the fight itself and the aftermath.
There were also a couple of mistakes. Along with Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, he calls Pete Rose a “future Hall of Famer” (perhaps this will come true someday, but it is not as of the writing of the book). And in a footnote about black managers, Rosengren writes “…Cito Gaston and Ron Washington, who both led their teams to two World Championships…” Washington’s Texas Rangers, of course, lost the 2010 and 2011 World Series. Mistakes seem to find their way into many books these days. Perhaps editors do not really care about baseball history, either.
But these are minor compared to the overall finely written and researched book. If you do not know the Marichal-Roseboro story, you should read it. And even if you do know it, you do not know the entire story. “The Fight of Their Lives” is the only place where you will learn it.