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.
“I didn’t want to go through Bombo Ramos’ story and all that,” Marichal says. “But then he asked me, ‘Did you ever have arm problems?’ And I was so afraid that he might think I had hurt my arm, and that was why I threw that way. So I said, ‘Well, there was a man in the Dominican named Bombo Ramos, and he was a sidearm pitcher, and he had become my idol.’
“After that he looked at me funny and he said, ‘Do you want to learn how to throw overhand?’”
There are certain moments in history that are cinematic — moments you wish you could have been there to see. The moment Rick Barry decided to start shooting free throws underhand. The moment Dick Fosbury decided to high jump by turning his back to the bar. The moment Kareem perfected the sky hook.
This is one of those moments — the instant that Juan Marichal began pitching overhand. As the story goes, the very first time he threw overhand in a bullpen session, his left leg went up high. It was natural for him. “It seemed impossible to me to do it without kicking my leg,” he says.
For years after that, Marichal used to stand on one leg in front of mirrors to strengthen his balance.
Here’s something funny: A couple of years later, coaches tried to get him to switch his motion again. It wasn’t the leg kick that bothered them, it was that he never seemed to look at the target. “If I give you a rifle to shoot,” Marichal told them, “do you think you can hit the target without looking?”
“No,” they said.
“Well,” Marichal said. “I hit the target. I think I’ll keep pitching this way.”
He did hit the target; Marichal was one of the greatest control pitchers ever. Four times he led the league in fewest walks per nine innings. Nine times he finished top five in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He did this despite throwing what today we would consider a suicidal number of innings. Marichal threw 295 or more innings in a season five times. Only Robin Roberts, Jim Palmer and Gaylord Perry did it more in the live ball era.
If you look closely at Marichal’s career, he had a remarkable talent for being second best. This, undoubtedly, has influenced the way people remember him.
— In 1963, Marichal went 25-8 with a 2.41 ERA — he led the National League in wins and innings. But that was Koufax’s first legendary season, and so Marichal was overshadowed and finished 11th in the MVP voting.
— In 1964, Marichal went 21-8 with a 2.48 ERA and led the league in complete games. But the young Bob Gibson was just about as good, and Gibson’s year was in the spotlight because his Cardinals pulled off one of the most miraculous comebacks in baseball history.
— In 1965, Marichal went 22-13, led the league in ERA+ and shutouts — TEN shutouts. I realize this isn’t apples to apples, but Juan Marichal had more shutouts in 1965 than Justin Verlander has had in his entire career. He had TWICE as many shutouts as Max Scherzer has had in his entire career. But he didn’t win the Cy Young anyway because Koufax was again breathtaking, and that was the year of the frightening Marichal-Johnny Roseboro incident, which we will get into in a minute.
— In 1966, Marichal went 25-6, led the league in WHIP, hits per nine and had a remarkable 6.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the best in baseball since Walter Johnson more than 50 years earlier. But, again, there was Koufax at his Koufaxian best.
— In 1968, Marichal went 26-9 with a 2.43 ERA, led the league in complete games, innings and strikeout-to walk ratio. But nobody even noticed because that was the year of the pitcher and, more specifically, the year of Bob Gibson and his 1.12 ERA.
— In 1969, Marichal led the league in ERA and shutouts and WHIP, but 1969 was the year of miracles, and the Cy Young went to the miraculous Tom Seaver.
Hey, if you feel like it, I’d love if you’d share this post with your friends!
Juan Marichal is a man seemingly without rage. You meet him now, and his warmth and sweetness overwhelm you. Filmmaker Jon Hock and I were lucky enough to feature Juan in the movie “Generations of the Game” that they show multiple times every day at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
There is this beautiful scene in the film where Marichal talks about how unlikely it is for a pitcher to come from his little town in the Dominican all the way to the Hall of Fame. And then he laughs. Oh, that laugh. It’s probably my favorite moment in the whole movie.
You know, one of his nicknames was “Laughing Boy,” because he was always smiling and laughing, even while on the mound.
All of which is to say: That terrible moment with Johnny Roseboro — it happened on Aug. 22, 1965 — still breaks Marichal’s heart. He makes no excuses. It was, he says, his worst moment in life. “I wish it never happened,” he says with his voice choking up a bit.
“I have to live with it for the rest of my life.”
How did it happen? Well, per Marichal’s insistence, there are no excuses to be offered. But it must be said that the heat between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1960s (like the heat between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants in the 1950s) was searing. It’s a silly trope to say that baseball players have changed — they haven’t — but circumstances were different then. There was so much less money in the game. Players couldn’t leave their teams. Pennant races were life-altering events. For many players, for example, winning the pennant meant not having to get an offseason job.
If the difference between winning and losing is a five-month vacation or selling insurance, you might take winning and losing personally.
The Giants and Dodgers were in the midst of a pennant race in August of 1965 — the Giants trailed by just 1 1/2 games. Obviously, the teams didn’t like each other. The biggest crowd of the season poured into Candlestick Park for the Sunday afternoon game. Marichal started for the Giants, Koufax for the Dodgers.
And right away, the fireworks began. Marichal buzzed Maury Wills and Ron Fairly, sending each batter to the dirt. Koufax threw what the Los Angeles Times called “a token fastball that sailed far over Willie Mays’ head” — Koufax was a famous pacifist who hated even throwing the ball too close inside. This was as close to the edge as he tended to go.
There was a lot of back-and-forth taunting and threatening and screaming after the pitch.
Marichal led off the bottom of the third inning. All game long, apparently, Marichal and Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro had been jawing back and forth. At one point, according to Felipe Alou, Roseboro told Marichal if he didn’t shut up, he’d get one in his ear. Marichal didn’t shut up.
Koufax threw just two pitches, the first was a strike. The second pitch was inside; it’s not clear how far inside it was. The newspaper accounts barely mentioned it. Either way, that was not the thing that set off Marichal. No, instead, he said that Roseboro’s throw back to the mound hit his ear. The Dodgers — including Roseboro — disputed this. “The ball didn’t touch him,” Roseboro insisted.
Even now, though, Marichal is convinced that Roseboro was trying to start a fight.
Here’s what Marichal says happened next: He turned to confront Roseboro and was greeted by numerous insults of his mother. He boiled, and then Roseboro stepped toward him, and Marichal thought a swing was coming. “I wasn’t trying to hit him,” Marichal wrote in his autobiography, “Juan Marichal.” “I was trying to stop him.”
That’s how Marichal remembers it. Others remember differently. The home plate umpire that day, Shag Crawford, said he didn’t see or hear anything that should have set off the fight. Roseboro insisted he didn’t say a word. The truth in such stories is never easy to find.
What we do know is that Marichal swung his bat and hit Roseboro in the head. He opened up a two-inch gash, and blood started pouring out, and Koufax raced in to get the bat away, and Mays reached in to help Roseboro, and the benches cleared, and it was 14 minutes of mayhem.
None of us wants to be remembered for our worst moment; it isn’t fair. But you also can’t take back a moment like that. Marichal was handed the largest fine in baseball history up to that point and was suspended for nine days. Many thought he should have been thrown out of baseball for life. Many thought he should have been arrested and jailed. Roseboro eventually sued Marichal and was awarded a $10,000 settlement.
Marichal retired in 1975 — strangely playing his last game for the Dodgers. In 1981, he was on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time — and received just 58.1 percent of the vote. “I can only assume they’re still punishing the guy for hitting John Roseboro on the head with a bat,” Tom Barnidge wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“I thought he was the best pitcher in the league,” Bob Gibson said sadly.
The next year, Marichal came closer — but still finished seven votes shy of election.
“Certain writers in Southern California,” Steve Daley wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “have never forgiven Marichal for swatting John Roseboro with a bat some years ago; they leave him off the ballot for that reason alone.”
Finally, in 1983, he made it with a solid 84 percent of the vote and went into the Hall of Fame with Brooks Robinson.
“I do not like talking about that moment,” Marichal says now. “It was wrong. There’s nothing else I can say. It was wrong. I wish I could take it back. But wishes like that do not come true.”
As mentioned, in 1975, at age 37, Juan Marichal signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was not a popular move. A Long Beach columnist named Bud Tucker wrote, “In an altogether appalling move, the Dodgers enlisted Juan Marichal. … To hell with that noise, the restless mob replied. It wouldn’t matter if the guy could win 25 games. Adolph Hitler is Adolph Hitler and Juan Marichal is Juan Marichal.”
“Juan Marichal playing for the Dodgers,” Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “is like King Faisal at a bar mitzvah, Brezhnev at a White House prayer meeting, it’s the chickens inviting the fox to dinner.”
But then the final word came down from the unlikeliest source — Johnny Roseboro held a press conference to welcome Marichal. And things settled down. Marichal pitched only two games for the Dodgers and he knew that he simply didn’t have anything left. So he retired.
“He’s one helluva nice guy,” Dodgers teammate Joe Ferguson said.
“It takes a lot of courage to do what he did,” Steve Garvey said.
Marichal returned to the Dominican Republic, where he had a banana and rice farm. He was friends with Johnny Roseboro for the rest of Roseboro’s life.