What Baseball's Most Famous Brawl Photo Didn't Show You

It's been 49 years since Giants ace Juan Marichal clocked Dodgers catcher John Roseboro with his bat. The moment was captured in Neil Leifer's iconic photograph, which in turn shaped the collective memory of the incident. Today, Marichal is remembered as the villain, Roseboro as the helpless innocent in the middle of what looks like a mob action. But it turns out that the photo, a compelling image of one of the most disturbing moments in baseball history, is also a bit of a lie.

What Baseball's Most Famous Brawl Photo Didn't Show You

That's the Dodgers' ace, Sandy Koufax. He and Marichal were facing off at Candlestick Park that afternoon—Aug. 22, 1965—in the finale of their four-game series, in the thick of a pennant race. The series had already been testy, even by the standards of a rivalry that had survived the cross-country exodus of 1957. In the second game, Roseboro objected to a pulled-back bunt attempt by Giants outfielder Matty Alou in which Alou seemed to flick Roseboro's mitt. Marichal came to the defense of his friend and teammate, yelling at Roseboro from the dugout steps. According to John Rosengren's The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption, Roseboro glared at the pitcher.

"You sonofabitch, if you have something to say, come out here and say it to my face!" Roseboro yelled. Then he said to Alou: "If he doesn't shut his big mouth, he'll get a ball right behind his ear."

Two days later, with Koufax and Marichal on the mound, things were still tense. In the top of the second, Marichal threw at the Dodgers' leadoff speedster, Maury Wills. Koufax responded in the bottom of the inning by sailing one over Willie Mays's head. Marichal responded in the top of the third by coming in on right fielder Ron Fairly, sending him to the ground. The ump, Shag Crawford, warned both benches.

"Who do you want me to get?" Koufax asked Roseboro, according to Rosengren's book.

"I'll take care of it," Roseboro replied.

What Baseball's Most Famous Brawl Photo Didn't Show You

That's John Roseboro. A rock behind the plate, Roseboro, in the words of columnist Jim Murray, was a "no-nonsense, show-up-for-work guy ... conscientious—and ballplayers who are, are in shorter supply than .400 hitters." He also knew how to fight, having been trained in boxing and karate.

Roseboro had more than baseball on his mind that day. A week before the game, he'd seen the Watts Riots engulf Los Angeles. One night, according to The Fight of Their Lives, he scooped up the guns around his house in south-central L.A. and kept vigil by the front door. By the time he and the Dodgers left for San Francisco, the riots had caused $40 million in property damage, 34 deaths, and more than 1,000 injuries. "I'd wake up in the morning and say to myself, 'Why are they playing games?'" Roseboro said, according to Rosengren.

But here he was anyway, playing games on Aug. 22. Marichal was leading off the bottom of the third. Everyone expected a brushback. Here's how John Rosengren describes what happened:

Koufax curved a pitch across the plate. Crawford called it a strike. Juan exhaled. He prepared to swing at the next pitch. Roseboro called for a fastball. Low and inside. Sandy delivered. Juan held off.

John intentionally dropped the ball, moved behind Marichal to pick it up, and whizzed his throw past Juan's face. Marichal later said the ball clipped his ear. He turned to face Roseboro. "Why you do that, coño?!"he demanded.

Roseboro, one of the strongest men in baseball, had decided that if Marichal challenged him, he was going to "annihilate" him. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Roseboro dropped his mitt and stepped toward Marichal. "Fuck you and your mother!"

"Game delayed, argument," read the Western Union ticker.

What Baseball's Most Famous Brawl Photo Didn't Show You

Marichal clubbed Roseboro with his Louisville Slugger, catching him above his left eye and opening up a two-inch gash. They staggered toward the pitcher's mound in a scrum, as players and coaches from both teams raced toward them. Crawford took down Marichal, who lay on his back, kicking. Willie Mays grabbed a bleeding Roseboro and helped restore peace, leading to another classic Leifer photo.

After the 14-minute brawl, Mays homered off Koufax, and the Giants went on to win, 4-3.

What Baseball's Most Famous Brawl Photo Didn't Show You

That's Giants second baseman Tito Fuentes, bat seemingly at the ready. If you watch film of the incident, you'll see that Fuentes plays no role in the fight. He never swings the bat, and in fact it gets plucked out of his hand as other players swarm the field. But he lends the photo a sinister air, as if he and Marichal are ganging up on the stricken Roseboro.

Fuentes, who would enjoy a long career as a bat-flipping showman, was 21 at the time. He'd debuted just a few days earlier, part of an influx of Latino players to which Sports Illustrated dedicated a remarkably ham-fisted story in its Aug. 9 issue. (The Giants had a number of Latino ballplayers: Marichal, Fuentes, Matty and Jesús Alou, and Orlando Cepeda.) "Caribbeans in general have the reputation for being temperamental, and the ballplayers are no exception,"Robert H. Boyle wrote, adding that because of his prideful bearing, "a Latin must be handled more tactfully than his American teammates. The Latin shows a tendency to take criticism, however well intentioned, as a personal affront." He also wrote that "Latins sometimes play with a reckless individuality. Indeed it is the individuality in baseball that they like."

The magazine would be echoed after the incident by columnists like Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who wrote,"These young Caribbean hot bloods absolutely must be taught restraint."

What Baseball's Most Famous Brawl Photo Didn't Show You

Esteemed photographer Neil Leifer was not supposed to be at Candlestick that afternoon because he had already shot the first three games of the series. But he convinced his assignment editor at Sports Illustrated, George Bloodgood, to allow him to stay over so he could concentrate on shooting Koufax and Marichal using color film.

He set up behind home plate, between the backstop and the first row of seats, in a narrow walkway that was primarily used for television cameras. Thus, he was perfectly positioned to shoot Marichal's Game of Thrones moment.

Leifer, it should be noted, has made a habit of being in the right place at the right time to capture indelible moments in sports history. He snapped Ali standing over Liston in 1965 as well as Alan Ameche's touchdown in the gloaming in 1958.

The Marichal-Roseboro fight happened "so fast," Leifer told me recently, that he had "no idea" if he'd gotten the shot. All he knew was, he was on the 36 th frame of a 36-picture roll of film.

Yes, film: Remember that? "The two things you worried about in those days were focus and exposure—two things nobody worries about today," he said, referring to the advent of digital photography. "I wasn't too worried about the exposure—it was pretty basic because it was a sunny day—but the focus is never a sure thing. I was using a 180-millimeter lens, and I was probably about 80 feet from home plate. The only thing I knew was, mine was the only picture taken at field level. There was no one else down there."

Leifer hand-carried the film back to New York that night. When the magazine's editors saw what he had, Leifer recalled, they changed the layout to make his photo the lead. His composition turned out to be excellent. The bodies and bats in the foreground and the stands in the background converge to frame Roseboro's falling body. Your eye is drawn to him as, arms extended, he crumbles to the grass as in a sacrifice.

The photograph appeared in the Aug. 30, 1965, edition of SI, accompanied by the text: "'Giants' pitcher Juan Marichal, swinging his bat like a henchman's ax, had opened a two-inch gash and raised a swelling the size of a cantaloupe on the left side of Roseboro's head.'"

What Baseball's Most Famous Brawl Photo Didn't Show You

Like Roseboro, Marichal had things on his mind beyond baseball. He'd spent that whole summer worried sick about the safety of his family and his homeland as the Dominican Republic fractured into a violent civil war. A wealthy landowner with connections through his in-laws to the barbarous ruling Trujillo family, Marichal backed the conservative cause that would eventually regain the presidency in the form of Joaquín Balaguer. Earlier that year, President Lyndon Johnson, fearing a "second Cuba" was in the offing, had sent U.S. forces to the D.R. in an attempt to assert order in the country. "I really don't think Juan should have been playing at all," Willie Mays would later tell The New York Times. "He was pretty strung out, full of fear and anger, and holding it inside."

Marichal received the balance of the blame for the fight. He was suspended for eight playing dates—two starts, essentially—and fined $1,750. Roseboro went so far as to sue Marichal, eventually settling out of court for $7,500. The Dodgers wound up winning the '65 National League pennant by two games over the Giants.

It would be years before Roseboro admitted his own role in touching off the brawl. "It was intentional all right," he said in his autobiography, Glory Days with the Dodgers, and Other Days with Others (written with Bill Libby) in 1978, referring to his ear-grazing throw. "I meant for him to feel it." He'd been steeling himself for a fight, too. "I was so mad I'd made up my mind that if he protested, I was going after him. He protested, so I started out of my crouch. … I went to hit him with a punch, and he hit me with his bat."

Which brings us back to Leifer's photograph, a perfect shot that in a way was too perfect, too articulate, too neatly resonant with the major themes of the day. It showed, or seemed to show, the martyrdom of Johnny Roseboro at a time when Civil Rights advocates were being pummeled by firehoses, German shepherds, and, yes, baseball bats. It showed, or seemed to show, the embodiment of the prevailing stereotype of the "hot-tempered" Latino ballplayer, even though Marichal was anything but hot-tempered.

Great photos tell their own stories, occasionally at the expense of the events being depicted. You think of Leifer's other famous photograph from that year, the one of Muhammad Ali exulting over the stricken Sonny Liston. Through the prism of Ali's greatness, it's seen as a portrait of dominance, such that it blots out the squalid and hinky circumstances of the fight and the knockout itself. Leifer captured Marichal's disproportionate response in such a way that few people remember or even care about the provocation.

Roseboro and Marichal would eventually strike up a friendship. When Marichal's Hall of Fame candidacy ran aground on sportswriters' lingering memories of the fight, Roseboro began to stump for his old nemesis. Upon election in 1983, Marichal phoned up Roseboro to tell him the news.

"I'm going to Cooperstown," he said, as recounted in The Fight of Their Lives. "Thank you. Thank you."

Then the two men cried together.


Related: Doping, Cheating, And Insta-Celebrity: The Story Behind The First Great Sports Action Photograph, Taken In 1908


David Davis is the author of Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze (St. Martin's).