The Dock Is Out: Dock Ellis (1945-2008)

“Dock Ellis was my first client in baseball, and he gave me as much joy as anybody outside of my family… He was so unique. He was viewed by some people as an outlaw, but he was far from that. He was so ahead of his time. He was so intuitive and smart and talented and independent. And he wasn’t about to roll over for the incredible prejudices that existed at the time.

“He was a very special person and he had an absolute army of fans and friends. He was at the cutting edge of so many issues, and he never backed down. I was proud to be his friend and stand with him.”

— Tom Reich, Ellis’ former agent

Pre-empting my posting of the first two articles of my Hall of Fame JAWS series here, the Futility Infielder home office flag will be at half staff for the remainder of the holiday season due to the passing of Dock Ellis. The following is an encore of the piece I wrote about him back in May, when the news that he was critically ill came to light.

Rock out to the SF Seals’ wonderful “Dock Ellis,” a song that for my money is the best rock song about baseball ever written.

• • •

Over the weekend, the news came down that one of my favorite baseball eccentrics, Dock Ellis, is critically ill due to cirrhosis of the liver, fighting for his life in the hope of getting well enough to be put on a transplant list. He’s had some problems with health insurance in recent years; Yankees president Randy Levine has pledged the club’s support in helping with his medical expenses.

Ellis had a few big years pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, notably in 1971, when he went 19-9 with a 3.06 ERA for a team that would win the World Series. That was the only season in which he made the All-Star team or received Cy Young consideration (he finished a distant fourth behind Fergie Jenkins, Tom Seaver and Al Downing), but he was a solid, intimidating pitcher who won 138 games in the majors and a key hurler on five division winners over the course of his 12-year career. He’s got a few other claims to fame:

• On June 12, 1970, Ellis pitched a no-hitter while purportedly under the influence of LSD. He walked eight batters and hit one.

• In the summer of 1971, Ellis was named to the NL All-Star team. With Vida Blue set to start for the AL, Ellis declared that there was no way NL manager Sparky Anderson would dare start him to create a matchup of two black pitchers. Wrote Kevin McAlester in a lengthy, worthwile profile for The Dallas Observer in 2005: “This launched the inevitable national sportswriters’ debate about how racism didn’t exist in 1971, and how dare he and why would he and so on and whatnot. The flap had its intended effect: Anderson, grumblingly, started Ellis, and the pitcher soon became one of the most reviled players in the league, branded a troublemaker and miscreant.” Ellis received a letter of praise from Jackie Robinson following the incident.

• On September 1, 1971, Ellis took the field as the starting pitcher for the first all-black lineup in major league history. It wasn’t one of Ellis’ better outings; he was knocked out in the second but the Pirates came back to win 10-7.

• In 1973, following a profile in Ebony magazine on his hairstyle, Ellis took the field for a pregame workout wearing hair curlers, a move that drew the wrath of stuffed shirt Bowie Kuhn. Said curlers were donated to the Baseball Reliquary upon Ellis’ induction into the iconoclastic museum’s Shrine of the Eternals in 1999.

[I visited the Reliquary this summer, shortly after this piece was initially written, for a fantastic retrospective of past exhibits called “The Tenth Inning,” one that included the curlers and so many other cool mementos. If you’re ever in the LA area, a stop to see the Reliquary’s wares at the Pasadena Central Library is a must.]

• On May 1, 1974, attempting to light a fire under his team, the Pirates, Ellis drilled the first three Reds’ hitters to come to the plate. Pete Rose, the first batter, actually rolled the ball back to Ellis upon being hit. Joe Morgan got plunked, as did Dan Driessen. Tony Perez was nearly hit as well; he walked. Finally, with a 2-0 count on Johnny Bench, Ellis was pulled by manager Danny Murtaugh. Bronx Banter has an excerpt of the story behind this from Ellis’ entertaining biography, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, (written by future US Poet Laureate Donald Hall).

• In December 1975, Ellis was traded by the Pirates to the Yankees for pitcher (and real-life MD) Doc Medich. Also in the deal was a second base prospect named Willie Randolph. Ellis would go 17-8 with a 3.19 ERA during his only full season with the Yankees, helping them to their first pennant since 1964. Randolph took over the starting slot at the keystone and hit .267/.356/.328 while stealing 37 bases. The deal, engineered by Yankee GM Gabe Paul, ranks among the best in Yankees’ history.

After being traded by the Yankees — to Oakland, in a deal for Mike Torrez — early in 1977, Ellis bounced around to Texas and the Mets before finishing his career with a few more games as a Pirate in late 1979. They would again go on to win the World Series, though he played no part in that. Drug and alcohol problems had hastened Ellis’ departure from the majors — he later said he never pitched a game without the aid of amphetamines — but upon leaving baseball, Ellis checked into a rehab facility and cleaned up. He went on to become a drug counselor.

Back in 1993, a band called the SF Seals, led by baseball fan Barbara Manning, released a three-song EP on Matador Records (run by Can’t Stop the Bleeding domo Gerard Cosloy). Two songs were covers, one devoted to Denny McLain, the other to Joe DiMaggio. The sole original “Dock Ellis,” is a chugging psychedelic rock number memorializing some of the pitcher’s signature moments. Rock out to Dock and spare a moment for him in your thoughts today.

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