Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Thursday, January 17, 2013

John Roseboro

While watching the MLB network the other day,  they were replaying the "greatest baseball brawls in the modern era."  Listed #1 of course was August 22, 1965, the Roseboro-Marichal incident at Candlestick Park.  The whole thing got me thinking about John Roseboro and what followed was a series of web searches on the great Dodger catcher who took residence behind the plate with the club from 1958 to 1967.  I hadn’t realized it, but it has been 10 years since John passed away in 2002.  There is so much that we never knew about the man and his greatness needs to be explored.

Sadly, Roseboro is mainly remembered  by the casual baseball fan for that brawl, and that isn’t right.  A man that was such a silent leader deserved much better.  And certainly not for a brawl.  His career was much more than that.  This was a ball player that knew the right way to approach the game, and it wasn’t easy for him.  Imagine being the player that would replace Hall of Famer Roy Campanella who had been left paralyzed following the 1957 season.

Nicknamed “Gabby” due to his quiet nature and his teammates proclivity to poke fun at teammates with a moniker that addressed their opposite traits, John wasn’t just a quiet man, he was insightful and intelligent.  He was a listener and a man that would pick up things quickly.  He was as tough a backstop as there was in the game.   When he spoke up, it was an E.F. Hutton moment.  People listened.   Especially his pitching staff.  This was a pitchers era in which he played, and there are those that credit Roseboro for the development of that great Dodger pitching staff.  He really knew how to call a game and get the most out of them.  A two time gold glove award winner, Rosey also protected his teammates with all he had.

Known for blocking the plate with ferocity.  He learned to brace for collision from his football days as a linebacker.  He'd get down low and use that low center of gravity to lay the contact on the runners with full force.  He’d leave a sliver of the plate visible, to coax the runner to go for that section of the plate and then he lay the tag on them as they went for it.  On more than one occasion, Roseboro had teeth knocked out on plays.  He claimed that the Dodgers gave him a beautiful set of teeth with all the cosmetic dental work they did to correct the damage to his grill.

Tim McCarver tells the story of colliding with Roseboro at a play at the plate during Tim’s rookie year.   During the fifth inning of a June 22, 1963 game at Busch Stadium, Roseboro met him up the line and they had a bone crushing collision that Leo Durocher said was the nastiest home plate crash he had ever seen in his 50 years in the game dating back to when he was Babe Ruth’s teammate.  Both players were knocked senseless for a few moments, but this was a time when you continued playing after getting your “bell rung.”   Today we call them concussions and we make sure that players sit for days, if not weeks, to ensure there is no permanent head trauma and that there is sufficient healing time.  Both players continued on in the game.

Roseboro remembered the play because he claims his knee was never the same after it.   He talked about it 14 years later saying “Alston was trying Tommy Davis at third.  Tommy tried a lot of places because he threw almost like a girl.  A ball was hit to him and he threw a lob job home...the ball and McCarver arrived at the same time.  I braced myself, caught the ball.  He hit me so hard my glasses flew off and were broken...he hit my right knee and it has been screwed up ever since.”    When McCarver stepped up to the plate to bat a few innings later, Roseboro looked up at him and quietly asked, “Are you alright?”   McCarver nodded affirmatively and Roseboro said, “That kid, is how you play the game.”
John was always among the league leaders in caught stealing percentage, throwing out as many as 60.4% of would be base stealers in a season.  That great pitching staff that he managed rewarded him with record numbers of putouts in ’59, ‘61, ’62 and  ’66.  Larry Sherry gets credit for suggesting to Koufax to ease up a bit and not try to throw the ball through his catcher.  What many don’t realize was that Roseboro played a big part in calming Sandy on the mound and raising his confidence level.  In the 7th game of the ’65 World Series, knowing full well that Sandy’s curve wasn’t working that day, Roseboro simply knew that Sandy’s fastball was enough that day.  He told him to “blow ‘em away,” and he continually put down that one finger all day, insisting that he continue throwing that deceptive blazing fastball.

Clutch hitting was also a part of Gabby’s game.  He never hit higher that .287 in a season, but he’d hit that occasional clutch homer that was a key to victory.  His proudest offensive achievement was a 3-run homer off of Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium that propelled the Dodgers to a game one win.  He also caught Koufax’s then record 15 k’s in that game.
Koufax and Roseboro celebrate the 1963 World Series sweep of the Yankees (AP photo)

“He didn’t hit for a high average, but he always seemed to come through when we needed it most,” says Wes Parker of his former teammate.  He took pride in the fact that  during his time as the Dodger catcher, a period of 10 seasons, the Dodgers were World Champs three times, pennant winners 4 times and second place finishers another three seasons.  When asked about the Giants failure to dominate over the Dodgers during that time period, Roseboro acurately described the era: “I don’t know why the Giants didn’t win any more pennants than they did.  They had the ability but we pulled together as  a team better and we were more stable.  More than they did.  We didn't change managers the way they did.  We played with more confidence.  We usually won, so we expected to win.  They usually lost, so they expected to lose.  If we lost, we expected to bounce back.”

No catcher aside from Bill Dickey has handled on a consistent basis more Hall of Fame pitchers that Roseboro (Koufax, Drysdale and later Sutton).  Not Bench, Berra, Cochrane, Campanella nor Fisk.  Don Newcombe defined Roseboro’s work behind the plate saying, “He gave his target the same way, and he was very smart calling pitches.  He knew what he was doing, so you never had to shake him off, but both he and Roy (Campanella) made sure their pitchers would shake them off sometimes, but it was an act to confuse hitters.  We always threw what he called.”
Still, with the clutch hits and the amazing defensive exploits he is primarily remembered for the Marichal incident, and he seemed to understand that.  In the first words of his autobiography “Glory Days With the Dodgers and and Other Days With Others,” he wrote: “The thing I’m remembered best for is the Juan Marichal incident.  It’s too bad, because a ballplayer would like to be remembered for something better than a bloody brawl, but that’s what everyone always remembers, even those who weren’t there or weren’t even following baseball back in 1965.”

This 1978 autobiography by Roseboro is an extremely honest narration of the 60s Dodger dynasty.  I highly recommend it.
A man of principal and an opinionated one at that.  When Marichal apologized through the media a day after the brawl, Roseboro didn’t accept it and he let the world know why saying to Mel Durslag of the Herald “to start with he apologized through the press and never directly to me.  But even if he had come to me face to face, I wouldn’t have been impressed because apologies, in my book, don’t make up for the original deed.  There are too many people in this world who do terrible things intentionally who feel they can ease out of trouble with an apology.”  

But as the years passed and eventually Rosey’s career ended, he let bygones be bygones.  He admitted that he played a role in the event with the throws back to the mound that wizzed past Marichal’s head, and that he had done so on purpose in order to protect Koufax from being ejected in a key game in the pennant race.  “I think he (Marichal) was scared and he flipped the panic button.”

It was a tense time for both players.  Marichal hadn’t heard from his family in the Dominican Republic for months as the Trujillo government was engaged in clashes with the opposing political party, of which Marichal’s cousin was a leader.  Roseboro was enduring the Watts riots and would be forced to wear his uniform home from games to ensure that police let him through to his home in South Los Angeles.  The brawl erupted while these two rivals were each enduring personal turmoil.

Yankee great Mickey Mantle took pride in being a “great teammate” and asked that those words be etched on the plaque that was placed in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.  I think many would agree that Roseboro was exactly that with the Dodgers, a great teammate.  In his autobiography, John discusses the relationship he had with his teammates in detailed fashion.  He pulled no punches and criticized his pals if he felt they merited it.  He gave a brutally honest opinion on them all.  It left the reader with the impression that his pals would not be offended by his words, because they were honest portrayals and Roseboro would criticize himself for his weaknesses as well.

1965 Spring Training photo, L-R: Willie Davis, Derrel Griffith, John Roseboro, Ron Fairly, Tommy Davis, 

Some of the interesting tidbits he threw out about his teammates:

Charlie Neal: “he had a lot of hot dog in him.  He was as mean as any player I’ve ever known and he wasn’t afraid to fight.  He used to throw low to first to make the runner duck.”

His roommate Maury Wills: “After he got famous, success did change him.  After he had that big year in 1962 and became a star, he started to dress to the teeth and change a couple times a day.  We used to eat in our room, but now he wanted to eat out in fancy restaurants every night.”  Forced to field his phone calls and screen them for him each night, it got too much for Roseboro, who had to ask Alston to not room him with Wills any longer.  “I broke up with the best roomie I ever had, but it was for the best for both of us.  He understood and we have remained the best of buddies.”

Willie Davis:” a natural athlete...he was never satisfied.  He was always screwing around with his batting stance.  He was always screwing around with a new fad or a religion...he’d sit at his locker and chant.  It didn’t help him hit .300. Oh, he was a good player a lot of the time, but he was always on the verge of being the best and he never became that.”

Lou Johnson:”Willie (Davis) got in debt, but Johnson set all records in this respect.  Lou was a good ballplayer for a while, but not that good.  He wasn’t a bad guy, but was unreliable...Buzzie (Bavasi) took all of his credit cards from him and had him on an allowance while his back bills were being paid off.”

Sandy Koufax: “He’s leading the life he always wanted to lead.  He’s a hermit.  He values his privacy and publicity means nothing to him.”

The end of careers are never happy occasions and when the Dodgers traded Roseboro after the 1967 season to the Minnesota Twins, they essentially had given up on the 34-year old receiver.   Rosey wasn’t happy leaving the only organization the had known in baseball, but he made the best of it.   He wasn’t through though and had an excellent first half in Minnesota in 1969, making the American League All Star team.

Roseboro at the plate as a Twin during the 1969 All Star game.

He stuck in the majors until 1970 when injuries finally caught up with him and shut him down.

He played for Billy Martin in Minnesota and recognized the greatness in him as a manager, but also pointed out that Martin’s temper would be the cause of his downfall, which turned out to be prophetic.

He played for Ted Williams with the Senators and said he learned  more about hitting from him in those few months than he had from anyone else in his entire career.  Unfortunately for Roseboro, he stood up to Williams when he ordered him to have his hard throwing righty, Joe Coleman, throw exclusively breaking balls, even if he got shellacked for doing so.  Roseboro refused and Williams immediately benched him.  He was released before the season ended and relegated to bullpen coach.

Roseboro fell upon tough times after retirement and lost all his money in a series of investments that went wrong.  Filing for bankruptcy a few years later and destitute after a divorce.  He went though extremely tough times financially and even contemplated suicide before he recovered and found his second wife, Barbara, who remained with him for his remaining years.

Returning to the dodgers fold as a roving hitting/catching instructor and serving on the speakers bureau.  John remained active until ill health effected him in his later years.  His reconciliation with Juan Marichal was well chronicled by the MLB network last year., where it was reported that Roseboro broke the ice with the BBWAA when he criticized the fact that he was getting snubbed in the Hall of Fame voting.  The next year (1983) after his comments, Marichal was voted in.  Roseboro and Marichal shared time together.  Their families vacationed together.  When Roseboro died, Marichal spoke at his funeral.

Months before his death, after another debilitating stroke, Roseboro expressed to his wife and daughter that he was done and his will to live was gone.  Barbara reached out to the Dodgers and out of the woodwork, his former teammates started reaching out to him.  Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills, Tommy Davis, former owner Peter O’Malley.  Even Juan Marichal urged him to fight.  Though he shouldn’t have survived the night, Rosey held on for another three months.
A signed John Roseboro card.  I received this in the mail a few months before John's death in 2002.

A great Dodger he was, and it is believed that he died happily, knowing that the teammates he loved were with him in his corner to the end.  Roseboro said it many times in his autobiography.  He loved being a part of the Dodgers.  That period of his life meant so much to him.  It may be accurate to say that he was the leader of that team.  He certainly had the most level head of them all.  A quiet leader and influential spokesman through actions, and few words.  That was the legacy of John Roseboro.


  1. John only played a few games with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957 and I must admit I don't recall listening to any games with him playing.Campy's accident put him behind the plate full time in 1958.

    He was just a good solid player. We were pleased he was a Dodger. He had a great K/BB ratio and did so many things to win games. He certainly was a pitcher's catcher.

    Apparently John had a great sense of balls and strikes, not as easy for a catcher as one might think.In this story Ron Luciano asked his advice on a call. I don't doubt the story since it was Luciano.

    A good post Evan and a deserving one for John.

  2. In Roseboro's book he claims that in '57, Gil Hodges came down with an injury and the Dodgers were going to call up Jim Gentile to play some 1B. But on that particular day, Gentile could not be found. It was an off day for the Montreal club and he wasn't anywhere they could contact him, so they told Roseboro to come up instead. Alston immediately inserted him in the lineup to play first. It was May 14, 1957 according to baseball-reference.com. Roseboro went 1 for 4 with his first hit being a bunt single off of Lindy McDaniel.

    He remained with the club for the rest of 1957 and was the third catcher. He only got in 35 games with the Brooklyn club. He mentions catching Sal Maglie in his book, and Sal was traded to the Yankees during that '57 season, so he did some time behind the plate.

    Rube Walker was Campy's backup in 1957 and in '58 he was the Dodgers opening day catcher in San Francisco. But Roseboro started the first Dodger home game at the Coliseum and took over from there with Joe Pignatano supplanting Walker as the backup. 1958 was Walker's final year in the big leagues. I'll edit and include a 1957 photo of Roseboro with Brooklyn.

  3. Fine, fine piece on Rosey, Evan. I have some amusing b/w photos of him, 1969 Twins Yearbook you might like. I am encouraged to find his autobiography, sounds like a great read. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for noting how the Watts riots and Dominican revolution put both Roseboro and Marichal under great stress even before the beanball wars began in August '65. Other than Charles Einstein, few mainstream sportswriters have bothered to acknowledge this. I still remember hearing Russ Hodges on KSFO freak out when the "incident" took place-- I was nine years old and listening to the ballgame on our back porch in Mill Valley.

    1. Thanks for your comments and insight Malbuff. Yes, it was definitely a time of turmoil for both men. Only they could fully understand the personal stress they were under, combined with the pennant race and high intensity on the field. Interesting your comments about Russ Hodges call of the event. It would be interesting to hear it all these years later.