When baseball fans hear the name Juan Marichal, the image of his unique pitching style is the first thing that comes to mind. The left leg elevated high in the air and the incomparable elegance of his delivery hypnotized hitters.
Beyond his high style, Marichal also one of the best pitchers in history. A six-time 20-game winner, the former San Francisco Giants great won a total of 243 games, and his 191 wins during the 60s were the highest total of the
decade. Marichal never won a Cy Young award, because in the years he was great, somebody–namely Koufax, Gibson, Chance or Seaver–was historically great. Marichal pitched in eight All-Star games, winning two of them, and he was voted the 1965 game MVP. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983, his third year of eligibility.
After retirement, Marichal directed the Oakland Athletics program in the Dominican Republic during the late 80s through the mid-90s, which produced many recognizable major leaguers, including Miguel Tejada, Luis Polonia, Felix José, Angel Berroa, and Jesus Colomé. During the first administration of current president Leonel Fernandez, from 1996 through 2000, Marichal was the Minister of Sports and Physical Education.
We sat down with the great Dominican Dandy a few weeks ago before a Dominican Winter League Finals, where Marichal was working the games as an analyst for ESPN Deportes. We talked about his beginnings, the story behind the high leg, the Giants of the 60s, pitching, and other interesting topics.
Baseball Prospectus: Mr. Marichal, it is an honor to have this time with you. First, let’s talk a little bit about your background. Where do you come from, and what kind of childhood did you have?
Juan Marichal: It is a pleasure, Carlos, and thank you and Baseball Prospectus for the interview. I was born at Laguna Verde, which is a countryside community from the Montecristi province of the Dominican Republic. My childhood was pretty much the same as any other country boy’s back then. I used to walk several miles to school in the mornings, then help my mother doing agricultural jobs, and when I was done with those responsibilities, I would just have fun like any other kid, especially playing baseball.
BP: That means you were introduced to baseball at an early age?
JM: Right, I was a great fan as a little kid. I loved to play the game. My older brother, Gonzalo, knowing that passion, always brought me bats, gloves and balls from the city. It was very difficult at that time for a country boy to get a baseball. But he always supported me. He was raised in the city and I was raised in the country, and I’ll say that support helped me a lot in my desire to become a baseball player.
BP: It was a different era, where parents were not exactly very supportive when a kid wanted to be a ballplayer: they would prefer to have a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Did you dream about being a baseball player at that age, and what did your parents think about it?
JM: I remember very well all the problems and disagreements I had with my mother. From time to time when I was on my way to the school, if I happened to bump into a few of my friends and an ongoing game of baseball, all my intentions of making it to school suddenly disappeared. Unfortunately for me, in a small town the teachers know their pupils’ mothers very well. Anytime I skipped school to play baseball, my teacher went to my house and told my mother “Manico didn’t show up at school today.” And then my mother would ask me, “If you don’t go to school and study, what are you going to do when you grow up?” and I would say to her “I’m going to be a baseball player.” (Laughs)
BP: What happened in the following years that fueled that desire to become a baseball player?
JM: Although I always said I wanted to be a ballplayer, I played the game because I liked it, not because I thought (or was even aware) that I could make a living and earn money playing baseball. I started playing in my town, in rural championships. By 1955 I played in my first organized tournament in the city of Montecristi. There was a family named Santos in the city and they were huge baseball fans and promoted the game in the city and province. One of the Santos brothers–named Papo Santos–organized a team sponsored by a liquor company he worked for, and I played my first organized championship for that team.
BP: There’s a very interesting story about why you decided to be a pitcher. Would you tell us about it?
JM: Well, that’s a beautiful story. I played shortstop when I was a kid, because I loved to be involved in all the action during a game, not to mention play every game. I remember that in one of those years in the mid-forties, the Dominican Republic national amateur team was playing an exhibition series in Montecristi. I went to the games, and in the afternoon game a gentleman named Bombo Ramos was scheduled to pitch. When I saw him pitch I fell in love with his pitching style and mannerisms, and at that very moment I decided I wanted to be a pitcher.
When I returned to Laguna Verde after the game, I told every one of my friends that I was done playing shortstop, that from now on I was going to be a pitcher like Bombo Ramos. And then I started to pitch. I imitated him in everything. Bombo was a sidearmer, and so I pitched that way too. Perhaps not many people will remember this, but my first year in the minor leagues, pitching for Michigan City, I threw sidearm all the time.
BP: What came after the conversion? Did you have success quickly, and what happened then in the following years?
JM: Fortunately I did. I became a very good pitcher. In those years I kept playing baseball in Montecristi during my teens, and one day the team for the Dominican Military Aviation (as the Dominican Air Force was called back then) came to town to play a series of games against some of the province’s amateur teams. At the time I was pitching for a team sponsored by the Grenada Fruit Company, and I pitched twice against them and won both games. They were stunned because they were considered one of the best teams in the country. Many players from the national amateur team played for them. The thing is
that this was General Ramfis Trujillo’s (Dictator Rafael Trujillo’s son) team, because he was the chief commander of the Aviation. As you may know, that team was not supposed to be embarrassed that way.
The next day I was at my house when a Jeep from the Aviation showed up, and two men asked my mother for a youngster named Juan Marichal. Back then, when a pair of soldiers in a jeep came looking for you, that could mean very bad things. My mother was terrified, and when I asked what they wanted me for, they ordered me to report to the Air Force Base in Santo Domingo. I was now a member of the Military Aviation, and the new pitcher of the baseball team.
BP: Well, I guess you were not given many other options. Who discovered you first and signed you for the Giants?
JM: Several scouts were following me when I was pitching for the Military Aviation. Horacio Martinez (former Negro Leagues shortstop) was then a bird-dog scout for the New York Giants and he and my brother Gonzalo established a good friendship. They made a gentleman’s agreement based on that friendship, as my brother promised Don Horacio that the moment I was ready to sign, I was going to sign for him and the Giants. Several teams scouted me: the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Pirates with Howie Haak who signed many players during those years and many others. But our word was given to Don Horacio, and the agreement stayed. When I was ready he approached us and made a formal offer to sign with the Giants. Alex Pompez, the famous Cuban scout, officially signed me with the New York Giants on Sept. 17, 1957.
BP: There was a very different climate in the United States back then. For a young Latin kid, non-white, how difficult was it to handle the racial problems that existed?
JM: When I arrived my first year at Sanford, Florida and experienced it, it was very difficult and it was a terrible surprise. I just couldn’t believe it. But I was able to handle it because I made a promised myself I wouldn’t quit for that kind of problem. Unfortunately, many kids couldn’t handle it, and returned to their countries. But I kept saying to myself that playing baseball in the US was the best way I had to help my family. That helped and motivated me to keep trying and fighting, and thank God those problems didn’t obstruct my desire to become a baseball player. But I
tell you, for a person coming from the Dominican, who’d never experienced something like that, it was stunning to see a human being despise another one just because his skin color.
BP: Being one of the first Latin-American superstars put players like you, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Luis Aparicio and others in a situation where you represented the pride of many people. That could mean a lot of pressure. Did you feel it? And how did you handle being in the center of all that attention?
JM: Yes, sure, you feel certain responsibility and pressure. Many of us followed the example of players like Felipe Alou–who had and still has a strong personality and leadership–and Roberto Clemente. In many ways we played for the pride, not only of our countries, but for all Hispanic countries. Modesty aside, I made it to the big leagues and had the good fortune of being compared to the best pitchers of the era. When you’re in that situation, having reached a certain status, you must conduct yourself a certain way, because you were representing not only baseball, but also your country.
BP: How and when did you adopt your unique and elegant pitching style, mostly remembered by the high leg in the air?
JM: Well, I’ve already told you the story about Bombo Ramos, and how I was basically a sidearm pitcher from that moment. In 1959 I was pitching in Springfield, Mass., and almost at the end of the season my manager–Andy Gilbert, who also managed here in the winter league–asked me, almost innocently, “Juan, why do you pitch that way?” The question took me by surprise because I was almost finishing my second year in the minor leagues, and everybody in the Giants system knew how I was, and the way I pitched. I told him that it was the way I learned how to pitch; I didn’t tell him the Bombo Ramos story at all because I didn’t want to enter into details. But he insisted, and then I told him the story.
Then he asked me “Has your arm never been sore?” I said no. Then he said “Would you like to learn to pitch overhand?” and I asked him what was the benefit of doing so, to change the way I had always pitched. Andy said “Well, you’ll be more effective against left-handed hitters.” After he said that I thought about it for a minute, and said, all right I want to learn. We took a couple of balls, got a catcher and went to the bullpen. The first few pitches I tried to throw overhand I noticed that it was almost impossible for me to throw the ball without elevating my left leg high in the air. From that exact moment, the famous leg in the air was born.
BP: Was Andy Gilbert right about the benefits of the change in style?
JM: Oh yes he was. It was almost a blessing and I’ll always be grateful to Andy because after he taught me to throw overhand I learned a slider, my screwball, an overhand curve and a change-up. As you can see, that helped me a lot because I practically added four new pitches, which was one of the reasons I pitched 16 years in the big leagues.
BP: Now that you mention those pitches, there was a famous story in the sixties–I think it was published in a magazine somewhere–that you were a pitcher who could throw more than ten different pitches. Was that really true, or it was just a combination of throwing angles and a little bit of journalistic exaggeration?
JM: I remember one writer that wrote something about that, but I think that what he was referring to is that I could pitch from different angles. When you throw a fastball overhand and one from three-quarters, both will have different movements, and hence would look like different pitches. But I just had five pitches. I could threw my curveball and fastball from different angles. In the case of the screwball, you can only throw it from the top of your arm, overhand. The slider, to be a very effective pitch, also must be thrown that way. But coming back to the question, definitely the writer
exaggerated a bit about the fifteen different pitches or something like that. (Laughs)
BP: Let’s talk a little bit about pitching patterns. Depending on the hitter being left-handed or right handed, what kind of pitches did you use? Also, did you change your approach depending on the game situation and pitch-count?
JM: I learned to study the hitters. Their movements, how they moved their hips, how they moved their hands, how fast their arms reacted when the pitch was coming. And I’m sure–because I experienced it–that it is extremely difficult for a left-handed hitter to get a good cut on the ball if the pitch is located from the middle of the plate to the inside. Everything low and outside they handle with incredible ease. A pitcher with good command must keep his pitches from the middle-in to left-handed pitchers, and if it’s a little bit high–belt high and a little bit more–that’s the pitch the left-handed hitters cannot hit. Now, if you throw them low and in the middle, they golf the ball a long way.
Right-handed hitters don’t have the same kind of problems with inside pitches, and I can’t really tell you why this is. With those hitters, you use your fastball to set them up for a breaking pitch on the outside corner of the plate. A good slider, curveball or sinking pitch, if you have it.
In my case, my screwball was so effective that the left-handed hitters had a lot of difficulty hitting it. What I commonly did against lefties was to use my fastball to set up the screwball. I faced many dangerous left-handed hitters like Willie Stargell or Billy Williams, or Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski in All Star Games, and they had a tough time hitting my screwball. I think I was able to handle lefties very well. The Dodgers usually tried a lineup with nine lefties against me, and I was able to beat them, and the Phillies tried the same thing, too. I’ll say I was more effective against lefthanded than righthanded batters, and it was because the screwball.
BP: Who were the most difficult hitters for you, and the opposite side of the coin, the ones you dominated easily?
JM: I’ll say that I could dominate those hitters who tend to pull the ball. The thing is, I had very good command, and those hitters kept trying to pull the ball, even though I was pitching in the outside corner, on the black, as we say in baseball. On the other hand, my worst headaches were the players that pushed the ball the other way, or used the whole field. The spray hitters. That’s a very tough kind of hitter for a pitcher with good command as it was my case.
BP: Any name that you remember ?
JM: Oh, sure. There was one that owned me, and his name was Tony Gonzalez, from the Phillies. He hit the ball all over the place against me. He wasn’t a terrible hitter, but wasn’t a good one either.
BP: The San Francisco Giants of the 60s had an outstanding system that produced an incredible number of talented players, including you. But for a franchise that was able to produce probably the best talent of the era, one pennant and a whole bunch of second places seems a little bit disappointing. With arguably more talent than the Dodgers or Cardinals, why weren’t the Giants able to be more successful?
JM: There’s something that many people probably don’t know. I don’t like to talk about my teammates in other ways than positive ones, but the Dodgers had a playing style that was more successful than ours. They were always playing for a run because of the tremendous pitching they had. They stole bases, moved runners, executed the hit and run plays very well, played good defense, and that helped the Dodgers to win those pennants and World Series. However, our style of play was completely different. Horace Stoneham, the Giants owner in those years, believed in the home run. And we always played waiting for the longball, but as you may know, home runs just happen. If you go to the plate trying to hit one, there’s a very good chance you won’t get it. It’s not that easy.
Another thing, if you go back and check the stats of the sixties, the Giants were among the last in fielding and hitting. That was strange because when you checked the newspapers and saw names like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Bobby Bonds, the Alou brothers, Jim Ray Hart, in the box scores, I mean, how could a team like this ever lose a game? I don’t think we ever learned to play baseball like the Dodgers. The Dodgers had better fundamentals, and were better prepared to win ballgames than the Giants. Our defense wasn’t very good and we did a poor job producing runs in the right moments.
BP: You were recognized, among other pitchers of the era, as a workhorse, a pitcher capable of throwing a huge amount of innings and be effective without getting hurt. In the last decade the complete game has almost disappeared, and there’s a marked tendency from the organizations to limit the amount of work of their pitchers–especially the young ones–as a way to protect their arms. What’s your opinion on this? Do you think it’s a good strategy, or will it be better for the pitchers to throw more–well managed, of course–as a way to build arm strength?
JM: I’ll say it’s counterintuitive. I don’t think you can build enough arm strength if you’re throwing less and less. A lot of times it is not the managers, but the General Managers and front office staff that want to protect the pitchers, but they end babying them more than is needed. A pitcher needs to develop a strong arm, and the only way to develop a strong arm is by throwing. If you throw five innings a start, there is no way your arm is going to develop strength. Well, it will develop strength, but just for five innings. The moment you pass the five innings, the arm will start to tire, and you’ll get hurt.
We were broadcasting a game during the Dominican League season, and Manny Aybar had allowed just two hits in five innings and the game was tied at one. In the top of the sixth, a couple of hitters got on base and Licey manager Manny Acta took him out of the game. Why !? I just cannot understand why he did it. Those things surprise me a lot, because I pitched in a time when you were supposed to finish what you started. It was a different era. I remember guys that won twenty games, and completed just six or seven games. The moment they were going to discuss their next contract, the first thing the GM would say to them is that they didn’t deserve a raise because they just completed six or seven games. Nowadays 20 wins means millions of dollars, and six complete games means you led the league. (Laughs)
BP: If a young pitcher asks you for some advice, what will you say to him?
JM: First of all, work, work, and work hard every day. Be focused on your job. If you’re a starter, try to study or learn about the opposing hitters and follow your preparation routines between starts almost religiously. The same thing for the relief pitchers, although they must be prepared to do this on an everyday basis. If you have a good fastball, try to learn and develop a second effective pitch. It is almost impossible to be successful in the big leagues with just one pitch. Maybe a Mariano Rivera or a guy like him. I’ll tell you something, one of the most effective pitches in baseball is the change-up, and the changeup is one of the easiest pitches to learn. You don’t need to have a Pedro Martinez or Eric Gagne changeup to be effective. Sometimes an average change, combined with a good fastball and other average pitch, could mean a big difference in a pitcher’s performance. Also, dedicate your time to learning the art of pitching. When you can throw ninety-six or ninety-eight miles per hour, but are not able to make outs consistently, what’s the velocity good for? You need to have common sense and say to yourself, I’m going to learn to pitch.
I’m going to tell you a story. A few years ago I was in San Francisco and Orlando Cepeda and I were talking with Felix Rodriguez. I remember that Orlando told him, “Felix, when you return to the Dominican, look for Juan and he’s going to help you to learn another pitch. You’ll see that with your fastball you’re going to be one of the better closers in baseball.” Well, even though he promised to call me, I never heard from Felix or saw him again during the winter. That young man, with another good pitch, would be a phenomenon as a closer. But sometimes I guess they don’t have enough time to learn a little bit, or are not proud enough. I wanted to be a baseball player and I did it, but after I made it to the big leagues, I wanted to be one of the best, and I worked every single day for that goal. I had a lot of pride. My best advice to every young player will be that, work hard.
BP: Jose Rijo would testify that learning from you could be a good thing sometimes.
JM: Yes, that’s right, he’s a good example. Jose had an electric arm, but very little idea about how to pitch. I worked with him here when he was with the Athletics and I was the director of Oakland’s operations in the Dominican. He worked hard, he had the right attitude and disposition to learn, and you can remember the results. Jose was one of the better pitchers in baseball until he hurt his arm.
BP: Speaking of another Dominican pitcher, you have a very close relationship with Pedro Martinez. What’s your opinion about him at this stage of his career, when he’s obviously not the same pitcher of three or four years ago, and what do you think about his chances in the National League and the future?
JM: Years ago I said a few things about Pedro, and several sportswriters, perhaps not able to understand what I was trying to say, criticized me for my words. What I said then, answering a question about him was that Pedro had to learn to strikeout fewer hitters. The idea is that when you strikeout fewer batters, you use fewer pitches to make an out, and that was what I was trying to say. You can learn to depend less on the strikeout and use the defense behind you. And the last couple of years Pedro has demonstrated that you can pitch effectively without a ninety-eight MPH fastball. You just have to locate your pitches well, and make good pitches. Doing that you’re going to win a lot of games. Last season Pedro had many games where he didn’t strikeout ten or twelve batters, but won those games and threw a lot of other good games. He’s not the same pitcher anymore; he needs to think a little bit more on the mound now. Some days the fastball will be there and he’ll be able to get hitters with it. Sometimes not. But he has the repertoire and intelligence to stay in the major leagues for many years to come, and pitch effectively.
BP: What was your most memorable game?
JM: People say that a no-hitter or a perfect game is the most memorable game in baseball. I threw one no-hitter in my career against the old Houston Colt 45’s, and that was definitely a great moment. But my most memorable game was the 16-inning duel against the late Warren Spahn. The fact that there’s a good chance that we’ll never see again two pitchers throwing 16 innings each make that game very special. You can watch a perfect game–one of the most difficult feats in baseball–any given day, but, I don’t think a game like that one will happen again.
BP: How in the world could both of you last those 16 innings and not say, “that’s enough!!”??
JM: (Laughs) You know, there’s a funny story behind it. When the innings started to pile up, Warren said to his manager that if that young kid stays on the mound one more inning, then he’d stay one more inning. I think one of our coaches heard that and when he came back to our dugout he told us what Warren had said, and then I said that if that old guy stays on the mound one more inning, I’m not coming out. After the sixteenth I was completely exhausted and definitely unable to stay in the game. When we were walking back to the dugout I waited for Willie Mays and told him, “Chico”–as we always called each other–“I’m spent, you need to do something and win this thing right now.” Then Willie told me, “Don’t worry Chico, I’ll hit a homer and win it for you.” Like in the movies, he did it, and the rest is history.
Carlos J. Lugo is a broadcaster for ESPN Deportes, covering the Dominican Winter League. He can be seen and heard on
Winter League telecasts throughout the offseason. You can reach Lugo here
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