By Eric Enders
Fifty years ago, in 1965, both baseball and America experienced memorably tumultuous years. It was the summer of Juan Marichal and Martin Luther King, of Selma and Sandy Koufax, of Willie Mays and Malcolm X. It was the year the polite demands of the Civil Rights Movement morphed into bloody confrontation in Los Angeles. It was the year that baseball's most heated rivalry exploded in a frenzy of violence. It was the year that a mild-mannered southpaw became an icon to an entire religion, and it was the year that a young redheaded announcer uttered the most memorable nine innings of broadcasting magic in the game's history.
On Feb. 21, 1965, as players prepared to report for Spring Training, Malcolm X was gunned down by members of the Nation of Islam during a speech he was giving in Harlem. The assassination came just two weeks after Malcolm had visited Selma, Ala., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a collection of local activists were organizing a series of marches to demand the right to vote for African-Americans in the South. Two states away, at Florida's Spring Training facilities, baseball's African-American players watched the Selma proceedings on television as they endured segregation and Jim Crow laws firsthand.
"The racial problem hit you right in the eye at Vero Beach," Dodgers catcher John Roseboro later wrote.
After signing Jackie Robinson in 1945, the Dodgers had been unable to find a place in Florida where their African-American players would be welcome, so they purchased an abandoned military base, renamed it Dodgertown, and transformed the old barracks into integrated player housing. But nearly two decades later, in Vero Beach and other Florida towns, black players still found themselves barred from restaurants and movie theaters.
"I hated it," Roseboro said simply.
The situation in Selma grew worse on March 7. King's supporters tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be beaten savagely by mounted police wielding billy clubs and tear gas. The nation watched, transfixed. For many, including Jackie Robinson, it was the last straw. The horrified ballplayer sent a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson warning that riots could break out unless the president intervened. Five months later, in his hometown of Los Angeles, Robinson's dire prediction would tragically come true.
Meanwhile, the two most diverse teams in baseball, the Giants and Dodgers, were expected to battle for the 1965 pennant. In the first regular-season series between them, Los Angeles suffered a devastating blow. On May 1, Tommy Davis, a speedy 26-year-old outfielder and two-time batting champ who had driven in a staggering 153 runs three years earlier, slid awkwardly into second, shattering his ankle. He would never fully recover, and the Dodgers' lineup floundered.
Nobody could replace Davis, but two men tried valiantly. "Sweet Lou" Johnson, a 30-year-old career Minor Leaguer, took over in left and batted .306 in his first month.
"He hit hard and hustled hard," Roseboro wrote. "He gave us a lot of life." For another spark, Los Angeles turned to freshman first base coach Jim Gilliam. After retiring just a year earlier, Gilliam, who had spent his entire storied career in Dodger Blue, was re-activated in late May. He reached base in each of his first 13 starts, and by season's end owned the best OPS among the regulars.
Counting all players, Los Angeles's best hitter by far was actually its number two starter, Don Drysdale. Double D not only won 23 games in 1965, but also batted .300, slugged .508 and tied a league record for pitchers with seven home runs. But it was ace Sandy Koufax who pitched the Dodgers into first place on May 5, and the club maintained a slim lead for most of the summer.
San Francisco, with a roster featuring six Hall of Famers, two Alou brothers and the first-ever Japanese MLB player (Masanori Murakami), remained in hot pursuit. A 20-9 run brought the Giants within one game of first place as a late August series against the Dodgers loomed. Before that, however, came the events Robinson had foreshadowed.
On the scorching afternoon of Aug. 11, five days after LBJ signed the historic Voting Rights Act, the California Highway Patrol stopped a man in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood for drunk driving. It was a legitimate stop -- the 21-year-old admitted to drinking -- but the suspect and his family objected to the way officers treated them. Hundreds of onlookers soon gathered. The original officers left, but others inflamed the hostile crowd by beating a female bystander with a nightstick. Rumors spread that the woman was pregnant, and the Watts Riots gathered momentum.
For the next six days, much of Los Angeles was set ablaze and looted in a paroxysm of protest against racism and police brutality. Liquor stores and pawnshops were ransacked, 200 buildings were burned to the ground, and snipers on rooftops took aim at the firefighters who came to help. One young Dodgers fan, then-10-year-old Ozzie Smith, later recounted the harrowing experience to The New York Times.
"We had to stay in the house for a week, maybe two weeks," Smith said. "My dad would go down to the store for food and come right home. You could hear gunshots all the time."
The violence wasn't organized or premeditated, but rioters targeted mostly white-owned businesses that were said to practice discrimination. "We note with interest that no residences were deliberately burned, that damage to schools, libraries, churches and public buildings was minimal," a government report later stated.
Ten miles away at Dodger Stadium, as Maury Wills and company faced the Pirates, management offered rain checks to ticket holders who didn't feel safe enough to attend. Players, too, were worried.
"I had to drive through that area to get to the ballpark," Johnson told the Los Angeles Daily News. "People were shooting. There were snipers on the freeway. I wore my uniform because that was my identification. I thought if people saw that I was a Dodger, I wouldn't get killed."
As the violence raged on, LAPD Chief William Parker only made things worse, calling the rioters monkeys and saying, "We didn't ask these people to come here." On the seventh day of rioting, 14,000 National Guardsmen managed to quell the disturbance. The final statistics were staggering; according to the official government report, 1,032 people were injured, 152 shot and 34 killed, including at least 23 by police. Almost 4,000 people were arrested, including (mistakenly) Dodgers outfielder Willie Crawford.
As commentators heaped scorn on the rioters, one observer sought the cause.
"Riots do not happen because … a crowd seeks to restrain an officer from making an arrest," wrote Jackie Robinson. "Riots begin with the hopelessness which lives in the hearts of a people who, from childhood, expect to live in rundown houses, to be raised by one parent, to be denied proper recreation, to attend an inferior school, to experience police brutality, to be turned down when seeking a decent job."
The Dodgers departed their still-smoldering hometown for San Francisco and the most important series of the season in mid-August with a half-game lead on the Giants. On the field, the aggression continued. The teams had been at each other's throats since April, when they'd had a benches-clearing incident in L.A.
As Roseboro worried about his family in Compton, Giants ace Marichal also grew anxious about violence back home. In April, a bloody civil war had broken out in the Dominican Republic, and in May, President Johnson sent 22,000 U.S. troops to support the military dictatorship that had deposed the democratically elected president. The chaos left Marichal out of contact with his family for weeks at a time.
"We just wanted the season to be over so we could go home," Marichal told writer John Rosengren.
"I really don't think Juan should have been playing at all," said Willie Mays. "He was pretty strung out, full of fear and anger, and holding it inside."
Marichal was typically genial and devoted to his Bible studies. But the Juan Marichal who woke up on Aug. 22 to face the Dodgers was not the same man who carried a picture of St. Martin, the peacemaker, in his pocket.
"Juan wanted to fight," teammate Matty Alou said. "He had the devil inside him that day."
Wills bunted the first pitch of the game for a hit, which Marichal interpreted as showing him up, so he later threw a fastball behind Wills' head. Koufax, in retaliation, threw well behind Mays. Marichal then knocked down L.A.'s Ron Fairly. Roseboro didn't trust the reticent Koufax to do the job for the Dodgers the second time around. As Marichal led off the fourth, he felt a whir by his right ear. It was Roseboro, intentionally buzzing him with the throw to the pitcher. Marichal called Roseboro a dirty name in Spanish, Roseboro insulted Marichal's mother, and suddenly, a crazed Marichal was clubbing the catcher over the head with his bat.
Koufax and the umpire watched helplessly as Roseboro "went after him as if it was a street fight." The Giants' on-deck batter, Tito Fuentes, also brandished a bat and appeared ready to start swinging before he was disarmed. Lou Johnson preferred punches, "swinging at anybody in a San Francisco home uniform."
The Dodgers' Howie Reed made a mad charge at Marichal, who by now had escaped the melee and was in the custody of several teammates. Safe in his cocoon, Marichal continued to shout taunts at Roseboro from afar.
"He's a [expletive] nut," said Dodgers coach Danny Ozark.
Mays, who had played peacemaker from the beginning, now sat in the dugout cradling Roseboro's head in his lap, tears dripping onto his jersey, which was stained with Roseboro's blood. In the midst of a tense and confusing situation, the game's greatest player also had proven to be its greatest statesman.
"It was Mays' finest moment on a baseball field," wrote his biographer, James Hirsch.
The fight became the talk of a shattered nation. Police were beating people up, rioters were destroying neighborhoods and now sports heroes were attacking each other. Roseboro was rushed to the hospital. "There was nothing but blood where his left eye had been," Dodgers Manager Walt Alston said.
Remarkably, three days later he was back in the lineup. NL President Warren Giles, not wanting a suspension to decide the pennant race, issued Marichal what is arguably the most lenient punishment in the game's history: an eight-day suspension (amounting to just one start) and a $1,750 fine.
Meanwhile, Mays, at the ripe age of 34, continued to compile the greatest season of his career. Moments after the Marichal fight, Mays hit a game-winning homer off Koufax, one of a league-record 17 bombs he hit that month. In September, he clubbed the 500th of his career. He ended the season with 52 round-trippers and a 1.043 OPS, leading the Majors in both categories.
"The Mays legend reached its zenith in 1965," Hirsch wrote, and the point was hammered home by Life magazine, which published an eight-page spread calling Willie's season "the most brilliant virtuoso performance ever seen in baseball."
With Marichal absent, Mays carried the Giants to a 14-game winning streak and a 4.5-game lead over the Dodgers.
September and October, however, would belong to Koufax. On Sept. 9, he tossed the eighth perfect game in MLB history, and added three more shutouts that month. The Dodgers won 15 of their last 16 games, and on the season's second-to-last day, Koufax threw a complete game to clinch the pennant. He finished the season with 26 wins and a record-breaking 382 K's. Everything looked great for the Dodgers -- except the World Series schedule.
In 1965, Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, fell on the same day as Game 1. Observant Jews were expected to devote the day to fasting, rest and prayer. Although he had never been a particularly religious man, Koufax knew that, as the world's biggest Jewish sports star, he was a role model, and decided to sit out. Drysdale started instead and was torched by the Twins. (On his way off the mound, Drysdale quipped to his manager, "I bet you wish I was Jewish, too.")
Koufax easily defeated Minnesota in Games 2 and 5. On the day of the winner-take-all Game 7, Alston agreed to start him on only two days of rest. The exhausted Koufax used nothing but fastballs to stymie Minnesota in a Series-clinching shutout.
Sandy's last stand was a fitting end to a baseball season that would long be remembered. In the aftermath, Roseboro settled a civil suit against Marichal for $7,500. As a result of his tarnished reputation, Marichal failed to gain election in his first two tries despite being eminently qualified for the Hall of Fame. The third year he called Roseboro, who was then running a PR company, to ask for his forgiveness and assistance. With Roseboro campaigning for him, Marichal sailed into Cooperstown in 1983. The two men even became good friends, and when Roseboro passed away in 2002, Marichal gave one of the eulogies at his funeral.
"It takes special people to forgive," he said. "I wish I could've pulled back those 10 seconds. I wish I could have had John Roseboro as my catcher."
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Eric Enders is a freelance writer and baseball historian. This article appears in the 2015 Official MLB League Championship Series Program.