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Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Fight of Their Lives: A Review

Professional baseball and its players are marked by individual moments that act like bricks to build lasting legacies. They are most commonly memorable teams, heroic plays and legendary displays of skill. Unfortunately, they aren’t always positive, as John Roseboro and Juan Marichal can attest. Despite their statuses as two of the best players to ever step on a diamond, their baseball identities are indelibly linked because of a violent confrontation they had during a 1965 game. However legacies can be changed, and that happened in this instance as detailed in John Rosengren’s book, The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption (The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group; Lyon’s Press;

On August 22, 1965, The San Francisco Giants hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers, as the two teams battled for supremacy in the race for the National League pennant. Marichal, pitching for the Giants, had a throw from Roseboro, the Dodgers’ catcher, buzz by his head. Perhaps the worst brawl Major League Baseball has ever seen ensued over the next tense minutes. When it was over, punches had been thrown and Marichal had struck Roseboro over the head with his bat, creating jarring images that resonate to this day.

Although Roseboro retired as a widely-respected multiple All-Star selection, and Marichal eventually was inducted in the Hall of Fame, the incident haunted both men. Rosegren’s work (which was published last year in hard cover and has just been released in paperback) is a comprehensive examination of the incident, not only covering the clash, but exhaustively detailing how both men got to their particular boiling points that day and how their actions subsequently impacted them.

As with any fight, the proverbial saying of “it takes two to tango” aptly applied to the Marichal/Roseboro clash. Rosengren smartly gives each man their own space in his story, which makes it all the more interesting to see how they arrived at their ultimate collision point.

Once the stereotypical reasons for any baseball fight (gamesmanship, competitive spirits and testosterone) are stripped away from the incident, there are still a number of interesting factors that contributed to this moment of baseball infamy. Roseboro, an African American, had suffered through racial indignities both privately and professionally. The same applied to Marichal, a native of the Dominican Republic. In both instances, fierce pride fueled how they carried themselves on a daily basis.

Rosengren also writes of how the role of wide-spread violence and unrest from that summer can’t be ignored. The Watts riots took place where Roseboro lived and had just started to subside at the time of the fight. Additionally, The Dominican Republic was in the midst of a bloody revolution, and Marichal was constantly worried about the safety of his many family members who lived in the country. To say that both men may have possibly been on edge on the day of the fateful game could be a major understatement.

After the detailed backgrounds of both men, The Fight of Our Lives takes the reader through a minute-by-minute account of the fight and then the fall out, which was severe, especially for Marichal, who was largely defined by his role in the incident for many years.

Fortunately, like all good stories, this one has a happy ending. As the years passed, both men, fierce rivals even before their violent encounter, gradually reconciled and in the biggest of surprises became true friends. This is where Rosengren truly shines, as such reconciliations are often a trope used to tie up such stories with a neat little bow. To the contrary, this story is one of actual redemption.

It would be an oversight to not mention how well sourced this book is. The theme of baseball history, which can be so grounded in anecdotes, demands such detail to cement its authenticity. The bibliography and list of citations gives any reader interested in following up with more research on this story a fantastic road map to start that journey.

Baseball legacies really are built brick by brick but as Rosengren shows, sometimes damaged foundations can be repaired under proper circumstances. There are two sides to every story and there is always a possibility for redemption. The connection between Juan Marichal and John Roseboro had an ugly beginning but a beautiful end—and instead of being remembered for one of baseball’s ugliest incidents it can now be filed as one of its best stories.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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