Skip to comments.John Roseboro, RIP: Forgiveness Incarnate
Posted on 08/20/2002 9:09:23 PM PDT by BluesDuke
John Roseboro, RIP: Forgiveness Incarnate
by Jeff Kallman
What should we call it when a decent baseball player, probably thrice as decent a man, is remembered best for a desperate sprawl to avoid having his head split further open, his ordinarily warm face pushed back into a contortion of cold agony? Call it disproportionate, call it unfair, and call it as distorted in the retelling as it was in its actual ignition and action.
"The thing I'm remembered for most is the Juan Marichal incident," wrote John Roseboro, to begin his 1978 autobiography. "It's too bad, because a ballplayer would like to be remembered for something better than a bloody brawl, but that's what everyone always remembers, even those who weren't there or who weren't even following baseball in 1965."
Then, perhaps, the least we can do for Roseboro, who died 16 August in Los Angeles (complications from a stroke; he was 69), is to remember something better about the quietly warm man (Roseboro's quiet manner earned him the needling nickname Gabby from his Dodger teammates) who succeeded Roy Campanella behind the plate for the Dodgers.
Four All-Star selections and two Gold Gloves make a pleasant enough beginning. Whatever Roseboro lacked as a batter (though he was actually slightly more valuable than his surface statistics; Bill James ranks him the 27th best catcher of all time, in fact, gleaning that Roseboro's creating about sixty runs a year in his era would equal about 80 runs a year created today) he had well enough as a receiver. His range factor was over a full point above his league's average (6.75 for Roseboro compared to 5.64 for his league) and he was an excellent plate defender with a serviceable throwing arm.
But Roseboro's truest gift was his handling of a pitching staff, a craft he learned from Campanella directly. "He gave his target the same way, and he was very smart calling pitches," said Roseboro's old roommate, Don Newcombe on learning of Roseboro's death. "He knew what he was doing, so you never had to shake him off, but both he and Roy made sure pitchers did that on purpose in order to confuse hitters. He became very successful with that."
Taken overall, Roseboro is short enough of a Hall of Famer in his own right. But for handling Hall of Fame pitching behind the dish he is in a league populated by perhaps two others, one of whom is a Hall of Famer. Think about this for a moment: John Roseboro as a regular catcher handled more future Hall of Fame pitchers than every catcher who is in the Hall except one.
The one is Bill Dickey, who handled Lefty Gomez, Waite Hoyt, Red Ruffing, and Herb Pennock. Roseboro, of course, had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Don Sutton. None of the others - not Mickey Cochrane, not Yogi Berra, not Roy Campanella, not Johnny Bench, not Carlton Fisk, not Gabby Hartnett - handled as many Hall of Famers in their days as regular catchers.
Cochrane? Hello, Lefty Grove. Yogi? Calling Whitey Ford. Campy? He handled a Drysdale barely enough developed and a Koufax, who was kept from proper development by a devil-in-the-details bonus rule of the day, who could not find the strike zone with a search warrant.
Bench? Welcome, Tom Seaver, as the towering Met was dealt to Cincinnati from spite (his general manager's) and, as it happened, at the beginning of his career's second and slightly lesser half. Fisk? Seaver, when Tom Terrific got a second dis from the Mets that let the White Sox snatch him unprotected in the old, disgraceful free agent compensation pool of the early 1980s. Then, again, Fisk could add a second oak leaf cluster to his ribbon when Dennis Eckersley goes in, Dennis the Menace having served time with the Red Sox before they screwed the pooch with Fisk. Hartnett? He got Dizzy Dean after Dean's arm was shot and when Hartnett himself was coming to about the end of the line as a regular player.
Other than Dickey and Roseboro, one other catcher can claim to have handled three or more Hall of Famers as a regular catcher, and he isn't in the Hall of Fame, either: Jim Hegan, who had the honour of handling three future Hall of Fame starters (Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn) and one relief pitcher who was bound for the Hall of Fame by way of his Negro Leagues legend but was still one hell of a reliever when he made the majors for a few happy years - Satchel Paige.
The salient point: A man does not have to be a Hall of Famer himself in order to engender the kind of implicit faith that brings future Hall of Famers to put their trust and their pitching into his hands. And even accepting that it is in large enough part a random happenstance, it yet speaks well enough of John Roseboro that such was the case for him.
Unfortunately enough, the two sentences with which Roseboro began his autobiography yet remain true. It also remains true that the incident is the way in which too many people first remember Juan Marichal, too. Both men actually deserve far better, especially since the incident's telling and retelling has almost obscured its actuality.
The news of Roseboro's death prompted enough television sports reports to trot out the image by which most people remember the incident: Roseboro collapsing after Marichal poleaxed him with his bat, a swarm of Giants and Dodgers pouring out of the Candlestick Park dugouts after Koufax swooped down from the mound to try helping his teammate. So what actually happened?
The date was 22 August 1965, as the pennant race was about to head for the stretch, and it was the third in a series of hotly contested games between the Giants and the visiting Dodgers, who were slugging it out for yet another pennant. Marichal squared off against Koufax, the two best pitchers in baseball going at it for the two best teams in the league, a fan's dream with a pennant prospectively on the line.
The Dodgers managed to pump out a 3-1 lead very early in the game, not always a simple thing to do against Marichal. The two teams had exchanged knockdown pitches throughout the series, and this game was no different, Marichal knocking down Maury Wills and Ron Fairly in the early going, two hitters not exactly unknown for crowding home plate for that extra little edge.
Perhaps the sweetest-mannered man in baseball in his time, a man whose preferred counterattack was sheer pitching dominion, Koufax nevertheless was not quite as allergic to a brushback as he was reputed, perhaps because he could whistle his exploding fastball inside and its natural movement would already begin dismantling a batter without having to buzz him. But Koufax pushed Willie Mays off the plate early enough, and then sent a little message to Marichal when the high-kicking Giant pitcher batted in the third inning, brushing the Dominican Dandy back off the plate just so.
No muss, no fuss, right? Not exactly. Roseboro by his own accounts was steamed enough that he wanted a little stronger message sent to the Giants to knock it off, and he foolishly enough decided to send it himself. Koufax brushed Marichal back with a tight, inside curve ball, but Roseboro dropped the ball. At some angles watching film of the game, it can appear as though Roseboro, retrieving the ball, took a step or two as if to position himself exactly for a reverse purpose throw before throwing back to Koufax - and the ball did zip just past Marichal's head.
Not surprisingly, Marichal - it was one thing when his mound opponent moved him back or flipped him outright (that's baseball, ladies and gentlemen) - was somewhere between outraged and a little petrified. "Why did you do that?" he screamed at Roseboro, who apparently answered in kind enough, though exactly what the Dodger catcher said is even more lost in the translation. Now, read very carefully, though it would help if you could have a film of the game on as you read: Roseboro looks as though he is actually charging toward Marichal.
It certainly must have looked that way to Marichal, who subsequently said he thought Roseboro's movements suggested the Dodger catcher might think about hitting the Giant pitcher with his catcher's mask. Already disoriented by the unexpected duster from behind, Marichal could easily enough have believed Roseboro, well enough packed and with heavy equipment strapped on that could injure in a collision, was on the attack. In the event, as Roseboro moved forward Marichal poleaxed him with his bat, three times.
That was, of course, inexcusable regardless...and Marichal has long enough known it. But think for a moment how safe you might feel with a fully-equipped catcher charging at you at what looks too vividly like full power after you've just missed being hit in the side of the head by a hard thrown baseball from behind you.
The dugouts emptied, another unidentified Giant was said to have waved a bat, and order only began to be restored when Willie Mays plowed his way through the crowd to get Roseboro out of the melee and toward medical attention, dragging him toward the Dodger dugout. Marichal got thrown out of the game post haste and also got a nine-day suspension plus a fine. Order was finally restored, and Koufax, understandably enough, was less than his usual self the rest of the day, Mays whacking him for a three-run homer that ultimately meant the ball game, 4-3.
Dodger fans who thought Marichal's punishment too lenient should have known better: the two great teams went practically to the wire for the 1965 pennant, but Marichal's suspension cost him two starts...and the Giants lost the pennant to the Dodgers by two games.
Roseboro at first filed a $100,000 lawsuit against Marichal but the two men settled in due enough course for a reported $2,000. Now, fast forward: Marichal was denied the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility when he should have been a no-questions-asked first-ballot, first-year-eligible Hall of Famer. (Says who? Says the record: Juan Marichal was the best righthanded pitcher of the 1960s.)
Enter John Roseboro. After Marichal was bypassed in his second year of eligibility, too, Roseboro - probably to the surprise of many - actively campaigned for Marichal's election. In essence, Roseboro said The Incident was long enough over and done with and an aberration in the bargain; he had even gone far enough to visit Marichal in the pitcher's native Dominican Republic and the two men actually struck a kind of friendship up.
Roseboro's campaign worked: Marichal was elected in 1983, and he made it a point to thank Roseboro specifically and with a little effusiveness during his Hall of Fame induction speech. And in the final weeks of Roseboro's life, as he fought off one after another severe health assault, his callers included not just his old teammates and various former rivals but Juan Marichal.
Not for nothing did Roseboro's widow tell the press upon her husband's death, "It was an honour to be his wife."
I trust that Lasorda's "Great Dodger in the sky" has a spot for Roseboro in the starting line up.
This game will not be easy.
There'll be trouble, there'll be strife
To make the winning runs, my boy.
For this game is played on the field of life.
So stand behind your team, my boy.
There'll be many who'll applaud.
Just remember that you're the player,
And the umpire here is God.
by Jim "Mudcat" Grant
R.I.P. for a good ballplayer, who got the fuzzy end of the lollipop, and didn't deserve it.
Acording to the Post article, the put the incident nehind them, and became GOOD friends, later on. :-)