I was upset to read the news about Doc Ellis over the weekend. Ellis is critically ill. He was a lively character as a player and a good, hard-ass pitcher. After battling addiction for years, he’s spent most of his post-baseball career as a counselor. I can only hope he receives the treatment he needs before it is too late.
In the meantime, here is a great story of just how tough he was in his prime. The following excerpt is from “In the Country of Baseball,” written by Donald Hall.
In spring training 1974, Dock Ellis, felt that his Pirates had begun to loss some aggressiveness.
“You are scared of Cincinnati. That’s what I told my teammates. Every time we play Cincinnati, the hitters are on their ass.”
In 1970, ’71, and ’72, he says, the rest of the league was afraid of the Pirates. “They say, ‘Here come the big bad Pirates. They’re going to kick our ass!’ Like they give up. That’s what our team was starting to do. Cincinatti will bullshit with us and kick our ass and laugh at us. They’re the only team that talk about us like a dog. Whenever we play that team, everybody socializes with them.” In the past the roles had been revered. “When they ran over to us, we knew they were afraid of us. When I saw our team doing it, right then I say, ‘We gunna get down. We gonna do the do. I’m going to hit these motherfuckers.’”
Sure enough, on May 1st, the Reds came to Pittsburgh and Dock Ellis was pitching.
He told catcher Manny Sanguillen in the pre-game meeting, “Don’t even give me no signal. Just try and catch the ball. If you can’t catch it, forget it.”
Taking his usual warm-up pitches, Dock noticed Pete Rose standing at one side of the batter’s box, leaning on his bat, studying his delivery. On his next-to-last warm-up, Dock let fly at Rose and almost hit him.
A distant early warning.
In fact, he had considered not hitting Pete Rose at all. He and Rose are friends, but of course friendship, as the commissioner of baseball would insist, must never prevent even-handed treatment. No, Dock had considered not hitting Pete Rose because Rose would take it so well. “He’s going to charge first base, and make it look like nothing.” Having weighed the whole matter, Dock decided to hit him anyway.
“The first pitch to Pete Rose was directly toward his head,” as Dock expresses it, “not actually to hit him, ” but as “the message, to let him know that he was going to get hit. More or less to press his lips. I knew if I could get close to the head that I could get them in the body. Because they’re looking to protect their head, they’ll give me the body.” The next pitch was behind him. “the next one, I hit him in the side.”
Pete Rose’s response was even more devastating than Dock had anticipated. He smiled. Then he picked the ball up, where it had falled beside him, and gently, underhanded, tossed it back to Dock. Then he lit for first as if trying out fro the Olympics.
As Dock says, with huge approval, “You have to be good, to be a hot dog.”
As Rose bent down to pick up the ball, he had exchanged a word with Joe Morgan who was batting next. Morgan taunted Rose, “He doesn’t like you anyway. You’re a white guy.”
Dock hit Morgan in the kidneys with his first pitch.
By this time, both benches were agog. It was Mayday on May Day. The Pirates realized that Dock was doing what he said he would do. The Reds were watching him do it. “I looked over on the bench, they were all with their eyes wide and their mouths wide open, like, ‘I don’t believe it!’
“The next batter was [Dan] Driessen. I threw a ball to him. High and inside. The next one, I hit him in the back.”
Bases loaded, no outs. Tony Perez, Cincinnati first baseman, came to bat. He did not dig in. “There was no way I could hit him. He was running. The first one I threw behind him, over his head, up against the screen, but it came back off the glass, and they didn’t advance. I threw behind him because he was backing up, but then he stepped in front of the ball. The next three pitches, he was running. I walked him.” A run came in. “The next hitter was Johnny Bench. I tried to deck him twice. I threw at his jaw, and he moved. I threw at the back of his head, and he moved.”
With two balls and no strikes on Johnny Bench—eleven pitches gone: three hit batsmen, one walk, one run, and now two balls—[manager, Danny] Murtaugh approached the mound. “He came out as if to say, ‘What’s wrong? Can’t find the plate?’” Dock was suspicious that his manager really knew what he was doing. “No,” said Dock, “I must have Blass-itis.” (It was genuine wildness not throwing at batters—that had destroyed Steve Blass the year before.)
“He looked at me hard,” Dock remembers. “He said, ‘I’m going to bring another guy in.’ So I just walked off the mound.”
Again, my thoughts go out to Doc and his family.