May’s birthday boy

May 6, 2022 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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“A hard act to follow.” The reality of that phrase for John Junior Roseboro is why he is May’s Birthday boy. Can you imagine being a young catcher behind Roy Campanella? Can you imagine your grooming years cut short when Campanella is paralyzed in an auto accident, and you become the Brooklyn Dodger’s starting catcher? And finally, can you imagine having to do more than live up to that legend in your career and get out of the shadow it cast for many Dodgers fans? Even though “Rosie” was a “Bum” for half a season, he still requires recognition.

Roseboro, born in Ashland, Ohio, was picked up by the Dodgers in 1952. He could hit, and unlike most catchers, he could also run, stealing a high of 11 bases in one season.

But what is needed most in a catcher is a baseball mind. A catcher has to know the nuances on the field. He needs to know the obvious and not-so-obvious things about every batter. Then he has to call the game around what he knew and how it was playing out on the field. 

He was a young kid with good skills who had no idea what would happen to him. He was quiet, unassuming, and easy to get along with. Yet when Campy went down, John Roseboro had to rise like a Phoenix from those ashes. And he did. He made the All-Star team his first full playing season. He was judged by Steve Tedder of The Hardball Times as the 7th greatest left-handed catcher in baseball history.

And but for one incident, John Junior Roseboro was the little engine that could. He just puffed along doggedly doing his job and that job produced wonderful numbers. He was a six time All Star. Three times he won World Series Rings. Twice he won Golden Gloves, once finishing second to Joe Torre in a decision that was widely hooted. Highlights on the field? He had them too. In the 1963 World Series, he hit a three-run dinger off Whitey Ford. It was the only home run by a left-hander off Ford that entire season. In 1964, he threw out 60.4% of the runners who tried to steal on him. That’s almost twice the average, and the 9th highest in MLB history. In ’66, he had a career high 903 put outs.

In 1,585 games he collected 1,206 hits and had an on base percentage of.326. That means one out of every three at bats he was on base. He had a stunning career fielding percentage of .989, caught 112 shuts outs, which is 19th all-time, and caught two of Sandy Koufax’s no hitters. Durable he was too. In 11 of his 14 seasons, he caught at least 100 games. Baseball historian Bill James ranks Roseboro as the 27th all time greatest catcher in the game. And most would respond with surprise, “Who knew?”

The reason for trades of older players can be very complex. Sometimes the player is popular and will draw fans. Sometimes someone sees a way to squeeze a little more success out of the player through better coaching and management. Sometimes that player fits a piece needed in a team’s puzzle. Though he no longer ran much, while his hitting had tailed off, put John Roseboro behind the plate, and you had a no-worries catcher. Roseboro played for the Minnesota Twins and Washington Senators. He coached and was a catching instructor. He and his wife founded and ran a PR firm. Sadly, in yet another case of “only the good die young,” Roseboro had heart issues that could have been taken care of today. Back then, they killed him at 69.

There is, however, a story within the story. As one sportswriter put it, no good ballplayer wants his career overshadowed by a brawl so vicious that it is the first thing talked about when his name comes up. But so it was after the Roseboro-Juan Marichal bat man fest at home plate.

This is the story within the story, and there is another story within it. Which one was the motivating factor? Who knows? I’ll lay it out for you and give you a foreshadowing hint that there is also a moral at the end of the story.

The word rivalry didn’t fit what went on between the Dodgers and the Giants. So bitter and intense it was, that the move by both teams to California didn’t dampen it a bit. The short of it was Maury Wills came to bat and bunted his way on. That was followed by a Ron Fairly double and a run. Marichal thought a bunt was a cheap shot against him, a star flamethrower. When Wills came to bat,  Marichal tried to throw a ball through him. Wills flattened himself by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin. When the Giants came up, and the Say Hey Kid Willie Mays stepped to the plate, all assumed that Sandy Koufax would do the same. He did throw a high hard one over Mays’ head but later Koufax said he threw so hard and was so wild he was afraid if he hit Mays, he’d really hurt him. Both benches were warned, and Marichal came to bat. Words were passed. An incensed Roseboro stood up, fists clenched, and Marichal hit him in the head twice with his bat splitting open his forehead and setting off a 14-minute bench-clearing brawl.

The other story? Racism. The game was played in the shadow of the Watt’s Riots in LA, which took place in the shadow of Roseboro’s home. At the same time, a civil war was raging in Marichal’s birthplace, The Dominican Republic. The tensions between ethnic groups were palpable and deadly. Some say that was the back story of what was taking place on the field.

The moral? After several years of animosity and lawsuits that included a quick and substantial fine, suspension, and further punishment of the Giant phenom despite his immediate apology, wich Roseboro refused to accept because it was made through the press and not to him personally. And yet,  Roseboro decided to put it to bed. He forgave Marichal. They became good friends, often spoke together publicly about that day. The bat-wielding Dominican was an honorary pallbearer at Roseboro’s funeral. He said that if it weren’t for Roseboro’s forgiveness, his career would have been irreparably harmed. Without that apology, “I never would have gotten into the hall of fame.”

Get it, dear reader? I hope so.

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