Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Inspiration of Dock Ellis – It’s Not Just About LSD by Rich Puerzer

Dock Ellis was a complicated dude. When he played baseball he was a great pitcher and teammate, and generally a bad ass. He was among the first generation of African-American athletes who did not put up with being mistreated due to the color of their skin. Unfortunately, due to his addictions, which he kicked much later in his life, his career was prematurely abbreviated. He was also a terrible husband and father for quite a while.  The complicated nature of Dock is probably what has inspired so many artists to create works that reference the feats and life of the ballplayer. Of course many have been drawn to write and sing about the fact that Dock threw a no-hitter while he was on LSD. You probably already know something about that. But many more have been inspired by other aspects of Dock’s larger than life personality, his exploits on and off of the baseball field, and the racism that he faced and fought. Let me tell you about some of the artists and art that Dock Ellis has inspired.

In 1973, Dock met the poet and author Donald Hall when Hall and four other friends, all distinctly non-athletic but huge baseball fans, took part in the early weeks of the Pirates spring training. Hall and his friends co-authored a book about their experiences, Playing Around: The Million-Dollar Infield Goes to Florida (Little, Brown and Company, 1974). It is an entertaining read, and mentions Dock here and there. But the best outcome of their experiences was the relationship that formed between Donald Hall and Dock Ellis. They came to know and respect each other, and eventually collaborate on a great book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1976). As you might expect from the collaboration of a poet and a bit more complicated than average ballplayer, this is not a regular baseball biography. While it does recount Dock’s youth, his time playing for Negro League great Chet Brewer in Los Angeles, his ascension to the majors, and his successes and trials to the time it was authored, it spends more time painting a distinct picture of a talented black man trying to make it in the majors and in the world. The general message from the press during Dock’s career focused on and even sensationalized his bad boy image—there was a Sport magazine article in September 1971 about Dock titled “If It Wasn’t For Baseball, I’d Probably Be In Prison.” Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball tells a much more nuanced and complete story, at least through 1975, of Dock’s life. It is a fine book on Dock, and the baseball world for a black player in the 1970’s.

Another poet who was moved to write on Dock was Tom Clark, who wrote one of the coolest baseball poetry collections, Fan Poems (North Atlantic Books, 1976). Fan Poems features three poems about Dock as well as a pencil sketch of Dock’s profile. Clark also included Dock in his book Baseball: The Figures (Serendipity Books, 1976). This is another unique book, which has two pages for each of 33 different players active during the mid-1970’s. One page is a painting by Clark of the player, some printed in color and some in black and white, and the other page is made up of quotes attributed to and somewhat representative of the player. The painting of Dock features him in a warm-up jacket and stocking cap with a serious countenance, and he looks to me like he is answering a question with one of the controversial quotes listed on the next page. It is a cool image. From the work of Donald Hall and Tom Clark, it is clear that Dock was a poet’s kind of ballplayer.

Dock has also inspired a few singer-songwriters/bands to write about his exploits. I know that there are more out there, but my short roster of performers who have written really good songs about Dock is Chuck Brodsky, S.F. Seals, and The Baseball Project. Chuck Brodsky, falls on the folksinger end of the music spectrum. He sings “Doc Ellis’ No-No,” from the album Baseball Ballads (CD Baby, 2002), simply accompanied by acoustic guitar. S.F. Seals, a band named after a Pacific Coast Team and led by singer Barbara Manning, sing about the infamous no-hitter on the song “Doc Ellis,” found on the Baseball Trilogy EP (Matador Records, 1993). Their song is a noisy, crunchy, somewhat psychedelic rock song with lyrics about where Dock’s mind was that day. I love both songs and think that they both interpret the crazy and likely one-of-a-kind game in a brilliant way. And about the “alleged event”—although he threw the no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on June 12, 1970, it was not until 1984 that Dock made the claim that he was on LSD when he threw the no-no. Some have argued that it is hard enough to throw a no-hitter, let alone on the influence of a mind-altering substance. But it is too good a story to be denied. That said, later in his life Dock spoke of the LSD-enhanced no-hitter with embarrassment.   

The Baseball Project wrote a song about a different, but equally controversial, chapter in Dock’s pitching record. (As an aside, as someone who grew up obsessing on the somewhat unique combination of college radio and Bill James in the 1980’s, to me, The Baseball Project is easily in the top-five coolest things to happen in this world in the last decade.) The Baseball Project’s song “The Day That Dock Went Hunting Heads,” from their album 3rd (Yep Roc Records, 2014), is about the game Dock pitched on May 1, 1974. Dock was annoyed with what the Cincinnati Reds had been saying in the press about his Pirates, and so he hit the first three batters in the Reds lineup, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Dan Driessen, and tried to hit Tony Perez and Johnny Bench before he was pulled from the game. It’s a great song—it’s catchy, it rocks, and it namechecks Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh. Like the SF Seals and Chuck Brodsky tunes, it tells a great story and does justice to the story of Dock Ellis.

The final artistic effort I will describe on Dock Ellis is the 2014 film, No No: A Dockumentary, directed by Jeffrey Radice. No No is a great documentary, telling the story of Dock’s life, both on and off of the baseball field.  It uses a great deal of beautiful footage of Ellis playing in the 1970’s, interviews with players he played with and against, relatives, and friends, and interviews with Dock himself. The film works very hard to present a complete picture of Dock Ellis, the man. Of course it tells the tale of the LSD no-hitter, as well as the story of Dock being called on the carpet for wearing curlers, and the controversy he created when he stated that they would not let brothers (Dock and Vida Blue) pitch against each other in the All-Star Game. But it also looks beyond the controversies, and details the impact the death of teammate and friend Roberto Clemente had on Dock, and the respect that Dock’s teammates Steve Blass and Bruce Kison had for him. Further, it describes Dock’s addictions to alcohol and drugs, and the pain it brought to him and others. Dock states in the film that he was always on drugs when he pitched—this includes greenies, which were ubiquitous in major league clubhouses. It describes the harrowing tale of abuse that he inflicted on his wife Paula when he was released by the Yankees. To me, the most powerful scene in the film is when Dock reads a letter which Jackie Robinson wrote to him. Dock begins to break down as he reads the words of encouragement that Jackie wrote, urging him to continue to stand up for himself. I don’t know that I would have thought of the more than slightly unhinged Dock Ellis and the dignified Jackie Robinson as having much in common, but both men have had a truly profound and positive impact on others. Dock Ellis died in 2008, and before his death he worked as a drug counsellor. He was very effective, and as you can imagine, did not follow the book in his approach to helping others. No No is a really great film, definitely worth your time, and as of the writing of this, available on Netflix. I’ve watched it six times, and enjoy it more with each viewing.

I highly recommend that you seek out the books, art, songs, and film Doc Ellis has inspired. Like Zisk itself, they tell tales of baseball from off the beaten path. It looks like Dock’s inspiration continues to live on as well. In preparing this article, I came across a recent story that Ice Cube is producing a biopic on Dock Ellis, with his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing the role of Dock. I can’t wait!!

Rich Puerzer teaches engineering and occasionally baseball at Hofstra University on Long Island.  His most recent baseball research project was on the Harrisburg Giants of the Negro Leagues in the 1920’s, who fielded one of the greatest outfield combinations in the history of baseball. Check it out!!

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