Ten Who Missed: No. 1, Juan Marichal
Happy Friday! Welcome to the final entry in our “Ten Who Missed” series — a companion to The Baseball 100, I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I appreciate all the suggestions for ANOTHER Ten Who Missed, plus numerous other series ideas. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of JoeBlogs next week — got some special plans for that — so keep the suggestions coming! Here are the rest of the Ten Who Missed essays:
Bonus essay: Zack Greinke
No. 10: Vladimir Guerrero
No. 9: Eddie Murray
No. 8: Shoeless Joe Jackson
No. 7: Turkey Stearnes
No. 6: Harmon Killebrew
No. 5: Barry Larkin
No. 4: Minnie Miñoso
No. 3: Joey Votto
No. 2: Jim Palmer
Juan Marichal’s story begins with a story of another Dominican Dandy: The story of Bombo Ramos. Best anyone can tell, Bombo Ramos was something like the Dominican Satchel Paige. He was a right-handed pitcher who threw breathtakingly hard fastballs; the couple of catchers who caught both Ramos and Paige say there wasn’t even a single mph difference between them.
But the similarities went beyond that. Ramos, like Satch, was a larger-than-life character. He was idolized in his baseball-crazy country back in those days before any Dominican player had broken through into the major leagues. And you know Paige had nicknames for his pitches — Trouble Ball, Midnight Rider, Long Tom and especially the Bee Ball, so named because it always be where it’s supposed to be.
Well, Bombo Ramos named his pitches too. His favorite was a nasty two-seam fastball he called “La Diabla” — She Devil.
Juan Marichal was 10 years old when he and his brother went to see Bombo Ramos pitch.
“He was like a god to us,” Marichal says.
And in many ways you can divide Juan Marichal’s life into two eras — BB (Before Bombo) and AB (After Bombo). Before Bombo, Marichal was a shortstop who saw himself becoming a great baseball hitter.
After Bombo …
“I went back to my hometown,” he says, “and told all my friends that I want to be a pitcher like Bombo Ramos. I wasn’t gonna play shortstop anymore.”
Months after Marichal saw him pitch, Bombo Ramos died in one of the great tragedies in sports history, the 1948 plane crash that killed 22 players on the Santiago baseball team. In the Dominican Republic, everyone knows it simply as La Tragedia de Rio.
After that, Marichal had only one goal in life: He had to replace Bombo Ramos. He copied everything he could remember about Ramos’ style and rhythm. Ramos threw sidearm. So Marichal threw sidearm. Ramos overpowered hitters. So Marichal threw the ball as hard as he could. Ramos was bigger than life. So Marichal intended to become bigger than life.
“I didn’t know anything about the major leagues,” Marichal says. “I just wanted to play baseball and be a hero in my country.”
Marichal grew up in Laguna Verde, a desperately poor farming village. Now, all of the stories of Dominican kids overcoming their circumstances and finding ways to play joyous and brilliant baseball sound deeply familiar. But there were no such stories for Marichal to take inspiration from. In his neighborhood, the kids used to hit golf balls wrapped in cloth with tree branches carefully prepared. Their gloves were cut-off milk cartons and pieces of canvas. And the dreams of playing baseball in America were not even feasible enough to be dreams.
“I’m going to be a baseball player,” Marichal would tell his mother.
“You can’t get through life just playing baseball,” his mother would respond.
You could understand his mother’s doubts: There was no path to the major leagues for a Dominican pitcher. There had never been one before. But Juan Marichal was determined, and he continued to play ball. And then, through a series of what turned out to be fortunate events, Marichal ended up getting drafted into the Dominican Air Force. Marichal did not fly. He did not work on planes. He did not do anything that could even be loosely described as fighting. He had been drafted to play ball.
The New York Giants — thanks in large part to a one-time Negro leagues executive named Alex Pompez — were the first major league team to aggressively scout the Dominican Republic. Pompez and others saw Marichal pitching for the Dominican Air Force team, and offered him $500 to sign.
He was still a sidearmer then — this is well before the famous high leg kick — and there was still a sense that he was overthrowing on every pitch. Even so, in his first professional year, he went 21-8 with a 1.87 ERA, 246 strikeouts against just 50 walks. The next year, in Class A ball, he pitched just about as well.
And then he went to Tacoma and everything changed. His manager was a cup-of-coffee major leaguer named Andy Gilbert, who took one look at Marichal’s pitching motion and thought: “This guy’s arm is going to blow up.”
He asked Marichal why he pitched that way.