Thursday April 14th, 2011

Just a Bit Outside

Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball by Donald Hall
Fireside, 352 pp., $22.95

Donald Hall has been U.S. Poet Laureate, was educated at Exeter, Harvard, and Oxford, and is generally associated with contemplative life in New Hampshire and poetry collections with titles like Kicking the Leaves and The Purpose of a Chair.

Dock Ellis was a voluble baseball pitcher in the 1970s who once purchased a Cadillac custom-designed for a pimp who could no longer afford it. He christened it the Dockmobile. He also pitched a no-hitter while under the lingering influence of LSD, and said of the achievement: “I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate.”

country-of-baseballNeedless to say, when I discovered, while reading Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods, that Hall had written a book called Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, I felt a strong urge to find a copy. When it arrived, I was surprised by its appearance, both its juvenile-looking cover, which suggests a young adult novel about an athletic social outcast, and its thickness. I figured it for a slender, poetic thing, but it’s not that at all; it’s a bit overlong, and more of a transcript than a meditation.

The lack of meditation, it turns out, is the good news. Only in the opening chapter does Hall indulge the pseudo-spiritual view of the game that is more than acceptable to harbor in your heart but treacherous to commit to the page. An example: “In the country of baseball, time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward and forward, until we seem so reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same.”

That’s plenty of that, thank you, Mr. Poet Laureate.

On May 1, 1974, Ellis’ Pittsburgh Pirates, in last place, played the Cincinnati Reds, a team in the midst of its Big Red Machine dominance over the National League. Ellis thought his club showed too much fear around the Reds, and he set out to correct that. He remembered thinking (and saying to teammates) before the game, “We gonna get down. We gonna do the do. I’m going to hit these motherfuckers.”

True to his word, Ellis beaned Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Dan Driessen in quick succession to load the bases. It’s hard to imagine a pitcher not being ejected from a game today for intentionally hitting the first three batters of a game. But Ellis was left in to do his best with Tony Perez, who barely managed to dance away from danger and draw a traditional walk. With the score now 1-0 and the bases still loaded, Ellis threw two pitches in the vicinity of Johnny Bench’s head, and was lifted from the game by his bewildered manager.

By the end of 1974, most of Ellis’ best work was behind him. The Pirates gave up on him after he reacted to a reduced role by, among other things, holding a closed-door team meeting in which he ripped into his manager. He would bounce around to four different teams before landing back in Pittsburgh for seven valedictory innings of work in 1979.

Ellis was an outspoken African-American player, which initially earned him an undeserved reputation that he occasionally attempted to live down to. His work off the field with prisoners and various charities went largely unpublicized, and his harmless eccentricities on the field garnered overreactions from fans predisposed to dislike him. He started wearing curlers in his hair around the ballpark in 1973, and was ordered to stop. “There are many black men who wear curlers to help their hair,” Ellis said. “I didn’t hear anybody put out any orders about Joe Pepitone when he wore a hairpiece that went down to his shoulders.”

Hall the writer mostly stays out of the way of Ellis the talker. Direct quotes make up a good deal of the book. Hall asked Ellis about his rookie year, when he wasn’t getting into many games:

“I was always throwing the ball in the bullpen every time we were on TV. I had to throw on TV, to let the people back home see me. If I wasn’t going to pitch, at least they could put the camera on me and say”—Dock does this Curt Gowdy voice—“‘That’s the rookie Dock Ellis warming up or getting loose or something.’”

“They let you throw anytime you wanted to, down in the bullpen?”

“Oh, yeah. I was noted for that. Every national TV game, I was up.”

Hall’s adherence to letting Ellis have his say (the author credit is officially Donald Hall with Dock Ellis, after all) doesn’t just yield a treasury of quotations. By following Ellis closely, Hall also shows us an era of baseball that may as well have occurred a century ago. It was a time when Southern California was considered the most fertile place for talent, and the racial issues reflected in discussions of Ellis were more relevant not just because of the historical era but because African-Americans played such a large role in the sport — in 1974, 27% of major leaguers were African-American; today, that number is around 9%.

In 1974, the average baseball salary was $40,839. (By 1984, it would be $329,408. Today, it’s $3.3 million.) Just the fact of Ellis’ openness with Hall is testament to how times have changed. (Athletes today are only ever accidentally open, having their bad behavior rooted out by reporters or, perhaps even more often, by Deadspin fans with a smartphone camera.) But Ellis let Hall into his life, and other fans as well. He knew certain families he would visit on the road, and the precise habits of particular fans in other ballparks. Not only is Hall’s mythologizing limited, but the book reflects the game when it was experienced on a more human scale. And with a character as human as Ellis — as wise-cracking, wise, goofy, proud, self-defeating, talented, and mortal — who needs myth?

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

Books mentioned in this review:

Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball
Cardboard Gods