Another Reason for Remembering Dock Ellis

Culture Watch

Mr. Citron is a law professor and a writer who lives in New York City.

Dock Ellis, the former pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and several other teams, died on December 19.  He was 63-years old and his death was reported on sports pages across the country.  The obituaries recorded his 138-119 record as a major leaguer, recalled his 1970 no-hitter (which Ellis later said he threw while under the influence of LSD), and paid tribute to his tendency to speak freely.  However, none of the obituaries that I read noted Ellis’ collaboration with Donald Hall on one of the more intriguing baseball books of the modern era, Donald Hall's Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball

When I learned this summer of Ellis’ medical problems – he had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, which ultimately led to his death – I was inspired to reread Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball ("Country").  Country had had been one of my favorite books when I was growing up in Pittsburgh.  Ellis and the Pirates were part of my childhood:  I went with my parents to Three Rivers Stadium when Roberto Clemente got his 3,000th hit – Ellis pitched six innings to help shut out the New York Mets that day – and still have the photos of me with Ellis and other Pirates taken by my mother on a number of "Camera Days" at the ballpark. 

I first read Country when I was in high school.  Country is a distinctively 1970s artifact.  It features long conversations between Ellis and Hall, usually lubricated by alcohol, about nearly everything of interest to a teenager:  race, sex (and marriage), the psychology of competition, voodoo in Haiti, the Vietnam War (Ellis visited the troops with a contingent from Major League Baseball, including Bobby Bonds), and how to throw a curveball and conceal a spitball.  

Country, published in 1976, also provides a detailed portrait of a transitional era in major league baseball.  Major league baseball had been integrated since 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and still held the interest of African Americans.  Country was written just as salaries were due to skyrocket with the advent of free agency.  The lives of Ellis and other players are fascinating because their lives were more or less like everyone else’s and were not exotic due to the extravagant salaries baseball players are paid today.  The Country of Baseball described by Hall provides an approximate mirror of society and is not an exclusive enclave.  (Another sign of the times:  when Hall discusses drug use by baseball players, he is referring to recreational drugs, not steroids.)

I was probably 15-years old the first time I read Country and read it annually until I graduated from high school.  Ellis was irresistible to any adolescent.  He was an intelligent and charismatic person and a talented and accomplished athlete.  Although most of the baseball discussion in Country is about pitching, Hall does not neglect Ellis’ occasional stints as a pinch-runner and his deserved reputation as a pitcher who could hit.  He also describes Ellis’s prowess as a high school basketball point guard. 

Ellis also was a racial minority who – it’s not a cliché the first time you hear the phrase as a teenager – spoke truth to power.  Hall dubbed Ellis baseball's "Muhammad Ali" because he freely spoke his mind.  The "Ali" label doesn't quite fit, partly because Dock never elevated himself above his peers but more because he never was an entertainer.  The label is nevertheless revealing because, circa 1976, it signified that Ellis was an outspoken black athlete who understood the consequences of his words and actions but did not restrain himself to conform to the expectations of the Pirates’ management or fans.

For a teenager in Pittsburgh who enjoyed playing baseball and basketball but was more adept at reading books, there was something inspiring, even heroic, about Ellis.  He was a rebel with a cause who lived according to his own code.  Ellis spoke freely to reporters, campaigned against sickle cell anemia and visited prisoners in the local penitentiary, and did what he believed was the right thing to help his team – even throwing at the first five Cincinnati Reds in a 1974 game, hitting three of them, in an attempt to rally the Pirates, still sluggish after the death of Roberto Clemente in 1972.  (The Pirates won the Eastern Division that year while the Reds finished behind the Los Angeles Dodgers – Q.E.D.)  Ellis was authentic, and no quality in an adult is more appealing to an adolescent than being true to one’s self.   

I was a recent college graduate when an updated version of Country came out in 1989.  Hall disclosed what has become Ellis’ signature accomplishment:  that Ellis threw his no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1970 under the influence of LSD (and Dexamyl and Benzedrine, which Ellis swallowed in the clubouse before taking the mound).  This revelation was astonishing. 

Beyond the obvious emotions – what hubris!  What a perverse triumph of the human will (and amphetamines) over a powerful psychedelic drug!) – I marveled at Ellis’ ability to inspire a new fan base, the druggies, more than a decade after he had left baseball.  A psychedelic rock band in Cincinnati took the name “Dock Ellis,” no doubt in homage to the LSD no-hitter.  Among black baseball players, Ellis has a singular crossover appeal to the drug counterculture. 

I knew of Ellis’ recent medical ailments when I reread Country this summer.  This time, I was most engaged by the epilogue added by Hall to the 1989 edition entitled, “The Adjustment.”  This chapter is more than an update on Dock’s activities since he was traded to the Yankees after the 1975 season; it also includes a candid account of Ellis’ successful efforts to sober up and become a drug and alcohol counselor. 

What struck me most was the elegiac tone of the epilogue.  Like most professional athletes, baseball players enjoy their fame and peak earnings at an early age.  They then have to live the rest of their lives, inevitably defined by their accomplishments as young adults.  Ellis left baseball when he was 34-years old and made his adjustment, helping young men troubled by the same problems with drugs and alcohol that afflicted him.  Long after fame had departed, Ellis found his glory doing meaningful work and caring about his family.  I believe that is Country’s enduring lesson for me as I settle into middle age. 

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