Spring training is rolling right along. Players all across the major leagues are fighting for roster spots, Ryan Braun apparently can’t not hit the ball (hmm, suspicious…maybe…PED’S?!?!?! *cue screeching violins*), and yours truly is equally focusing his attention between baseball, his own outside projects, the final month ever of How I Met Your Mother, and trying to decide which NBA team he should root for. (I mean, Stephen Curry is awesome, so Golden State? Or the Bulls, even though they’re perpetually doomed?)
What this means is that there’s not terribly much for yours truly to write about. Fortunately, I have made promises, promises that I intend to keep. Thus, a book review.
The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption
As a member of the Internet Baseball Writer’s Association of America, I am privy to internal peeks and reads of various books and other projects that my fellow members are working on/on the verge of releasing (at their discretion of course). The above title is the latest work from award-winning author John Rosengren (who described the byline as “the worst subtitle in the history of publishing”, a point I disagree with) and details the story of…well, Juan Marichal and John Roseboro, their ugly brawl, and their story of friendship and redemption.
I don’t know about you, but while I was raised on stories of baseball past, when it came to Juan Marichal, I heard only a few facts: he was one of the best pitchers of the 1960’s (no small change), he had that amazing leg-kick delivery, he was a (somewhat) pioneering Latin ballplayer, he was a Giants icon, and he was a Hall of Famer. Oh, and one day, he randomly took a bat to the head of the Dodgers catcher, starting an ugly, ugly brawl. On a related note, you are now also privy to everything that I heard about John Roseboro growing up. (I won’t lie, much of my knowledge begins and ends with the Ken Burns Baseball miniseries and with whatever random facts anyone can scrounge up about the Reds.)
Rosengren, author of Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes and Blades of Glory: The Story of a Young Team Bred to Win, makes the fight the central chapter of his book, though not the central focus. By the time we reach the brutality of the fight itself (let it be known – when bats are being swung as weapons, it is a dangerous, scary sight), he has already immersed us in the backgrounds of both Marichal and Roseboro. While Marichal is a Hall of Famer, it’s not often that his backstory is illuminated; such honors are typically saved for the Gehrig’s, Ruth’s, and Aaron’s of the world. As I’ve mentioned before, Roseboro isn’t exactly a household name, either. As biography, Fight of Their Lives does an excellent job of portraying the ballplayers as humans rising from humble beginnings in the Dominican Republic and Ashland, Ohio, respectively. The book proceeds swiftly through their early lives, though not at the expense of storytelling or historical illumination about the foundation these two men received. Things that stand out are Marichal’s intense devotion to Christianity following a childhood life-threatening illness, as well as Roseboro’s anxiety at having to replace the legendary Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. By the time we reach the fight, we’re aware of what kinds of men we’re dealing with – great ones.
Given that the fight took place in 1965 between a black man and a Latino, it’s safe to say that outside events helped to shape the fight, something that gets lost in the shuffle of pictures and hazy memories. Rosengren takes great care to illuminate the social conditions of the ballplayers’ worlds, documenting the Watts riots in Los Angeles with an unflinching eye. A casual student of history myself (well, that’s what I’m calling my college minor in the subject), I was not aware of the intensity of the rioting in California that the book describes, although I like to think that I’m not so ignorant as to ignore that racial tensions were skyrocketing all across the nation in the 60’s. I will state, though, that I was completely unaware of the terrifying revolutionary actions happening in Marichal’s homeland Dominican Republic during the same time period – Marichal was constantly making himself ill as he worried about his family’s status during a violent coup that led to U.S. troops swarming the country. While it sounds like a lot of ground to cover, Rosengren moves swiftly across the pages of history, informing the reader of these lost events as he funnels toward a fight that looks (granted, in hindsight) semi-inevitable, regardless of the players.
After the fight, a little time is spent on the immediate aftermath, as well as the decline phases of both player’s careers – this being baseball, all things must pass. Following their retirements, Rosengren tells of how Marichal and Roseboro came together in friendship, helping one another to make sense of their lives after baseball, whether it be through golfing in charity tournaments or spending time in intimate family gatherings. Of particular note is how Roseboro’s P.A. firm helped to boost Marichal’s Hall of Fame candidacy, just as it seemed on the verge of stalling out. The resounding theme is that all divides can be healed and friendships can be forged that last a lifetime, spanning all boundaries and divides.
If there is a criticism, it is the overall brevity of the book – if only because I’m a baseball junkie and would gladly spend more time reading about the Dodgers of the 1960’s, or the lives of these two men. Then again, brevity is the soul of wit, and Rosengren doesn’t waste a word of prose as he describes the lives of these two famous players. What a story indeed.