Every once in awhile I enjoy tweaking my father-in-law by making a reference to Juan Marichal. The mere mention of the “Dominican Dandy” brings out a few exclamation marks from my wife’s dad. You see, he’s a Dodger fan, going all the way back to the Brooklyn days, and he remembers all too well the time that Marichal decided to take a bat to the head of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro. I try to explain to my father-in-law that Marichal is really a pretty good guy, that he actually reconciled with Roseboro, but he won’t buy that line—not at all.
This 1974 card of Mr. Marichal is one of the last two regular cards that Topps issued for the Hall of Fame right-hander; the other one is part of the Topps Traded series for 1974, featuring Marichal in the colors of the Red Sox. Yes, it is strange to think of him in Beantown after all those years by the Bay, sort of like watching Elston Howard finish up his career in Boston after all those seasons in pinstripes.
Although it has no remarkable monetary value, the regular issue ’74 Marichal encapsulates the lasting image of the great right-hander’s most memorable attribute—not his onetime bat-wielding incident, but an extraordinarily high leg kick that counterbalanced a no-windup delivery. The photographer skillfully manages to catch Marichal’s left leg near its highest point, with the toes of his left foot practically even in height with the tip of his cap. (Don’t try this at home; it’s sure to cause a muscle pull or some other significant injury.) The photo on the card is particularly striking because few pitchers in today’s game use this kind of a motion, in part because of the modern-day emphasis on the slide step and in part because pitching coaches like to teach more compact motions, thereby lessening the possibility of bad mechanics. As distinctive as Marichal’s motion seems in contrast to today’s big league pitcher, it’s hardly the only one of its kind in baseball history. A number of great pitchers have used high leg kicks and—in contrast to Marichal—large, convoluted windups, including Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Warren Spahn. For years, the high leg kick was considered important for a variety of reasons; it added to a pitcher’s velocity, proved distracting to a hitter, and helped a pitcher hide the ball—and his pitching arm— behind his leg.
While one’s eyes naturally tend to gravitate toward Marichal’s front leg, his back leg is also worth a look. In the photo, he’s bending his right knee severely, almost unnaturally, as a way of absorbing all of the weight that the leg kick causes to shift to the back side. The more I look at that back knee, the more my own joints start to suffer.
Other attributes of this card bear exploring. The photograph for the ’74 Marichal was taken during a day game at Candlestick Park, at a time when the old stadium still featured artificial turf—and lots of empty seats beyond the left-field fence. Yeah, those were the really fun days in Frisco, when players not only had to deal with the howling wind and glaring sun at The Stick, but also the rock-hard turf that supplied a pounding to the legs of infielders and outfielders. Of course, the fans didn’t have much fun either while dealing with the Candlestick elements, which kept down the size of the crowds in 1973, the year that this Marichal photo was taken. (The Giants finished a more-than-respectable 88-74 that season, but drew fewer than 900,000 fans, the third-worst figure in the National League.) So even on a day when the popular Marichal pitched, fans showed their apathy in the form of their absence.
Still, for those who had a chance to watch Marichal, he usually entertained with a speckled assortment of breaking pitches and that gymnastically fashioned leg kick. And perhaps that helped him atone for that one incident—one that he probably regretted for years—at least until he finally made amends with Mr. Roseboro.