The world of baseball lost one of its most colorfully eccentric characters on Friday, when former Yankee Dock Ellis died from liver failure. A mere 63 years of age, Ellis managed to pack more “living” (both good and bad) into those years than most of us could have done in a hundred and 63 years.
The following are excerpts from my original manuscript on the 1971 Pirates, a team that featured Ellis as one of its most central figures. We’ll miss you, Dock.
The veteran right-hander certainly possessed the repertoire of a winning pitcher: a fastball that ran away from right-handed hitters, a sinking fastball, an effective but sparingly used breaking ball and a tenacious mindset. In one of his 1970 regular season starts, Ellis had demonstrated all of his talents at their peaks. On June 12, he had forged a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, overcoming eight walks, a hit batsman, and several bases-loaded situations. His lone post-season start also showcased his occasional brilliance. In a playoff game against the Reds, Ellis concluded his season with nine innings of shutout pitching, before falling to fatigue and giving up three runs in the 10th to lose the game—and the series.
While Ellis possessed many talents, his resume also carried several red flags. The owner of a fragile right arm, Ellis [in 1970] had missed six weeks in August and September with elbow soreness, which cast some doubt on his health heading into the new season. Ellis had also proven to be a source of controversy. He had criticized the Pirate coaching staff for a failure to detect an unnatural change in his pitching motion and had feuded off and on with Pittsburgh-area writers. More significantly, Ellis possessed a dark side that had not been fully revealed to the public; the 26-year-old pitcher was using a variety of drugs. As he would disclose many years later, he had pitched his no-hitter against the Padres under the severe influence of LSD. Ellis had also taken prescription drugs Benzedrine and Dexamyl within two hours of his masterpiece at San Diego Stadium.
Just a few weeks earlier, Ellis had made headlines by predicting that he would not be selected to start the All-Star Game. Ellis had reasoned that with American League manager Earl Weaver likely to select the sizzling Vida Blue as his starter, baseball’s powers-that-be would want at least one white pitcher starting the midsummer classic in Detroit. “They wouldn’t pitch two brothers against each other,” Ellis told a reporter from the New York Times. Ellis also offered a secondary reason for a possible snub. “Sparky Anderson [the National League manager] doesn’t like me.”
Much to the pitcher’s surprise, Anderson announced that Ellis would start and would indeed face Blue in Detroit. Anderson denied that Ellis’ comments had, in any way, swayed his decision. “His 14-3 record and the fact that he hasn’t pitched since last Tuesday is what forced me to choose him,” Sparky told the New York Times, while defending Ellis’ outburst against him. “I think everybody has a right to say what he wants.”
In response to his outburst, Ellis received a number of angry letters from fans, who criticized him for being so presumptuous about Anderson. Ellis also received at least one positive letter—which came from the major leagues’ first African-American player of the 20th century. “I don’t mind those [negative] letters,” Ellis told The Sporting News, “but there was one letter I was particularly pleased with. Jackie Robinson wrote me a letter of encouragement. I met him last April in New York, and then I received this letter from him.”
On Tuesday, July 13, just hours before the start of the All-Star Game, Ellis offered no apologies for his recent remarks doubting the possibility of African-American pitchers starting the national pastime’s showcase game. “When it comes to black players, baseball is backwards, everyone knows it,” Ellis told a reporter from the New York Times. “I’m sort of surprised that I am starting, but I don’t feel my statements had anything to do with it.” Ellis also seized the opportunity to complain about the lack of endorsements for black athletes, compared to the commercial opportunities given to white players. A reporter asked Ellis if he had received any endorsement offers in light of his brilliant pitching in the first half of the season. “Aw, man, c’mon,” Ellis said incredulously. “Come to me for endorsements?”
Later in the season, Ellis would complain that black players received less attention from the media and less promotion from the front office than white athletes of similar ability. Ellis brought up several examples from the Pirates’ own roster. “Bob Moose and I are the tightest,” Ellis told Phil Musick of Sport magazine, “but when he came up, he was a phenom. Richie Hebner, he was Mr. Pie Traynor. Why don’t they publicize black players like that?”
Throughout his life, Ellis had bristled at racist treatment. During his first spring training in 1964, Ellis said he had argued or fought with seven different teammates who had used ethnic slurs in conversing with him. Seven years later, such instances of face-to-face racism still bothered Ellis, but he had learned to use restraint. During the 1971 season, Ellis and a black friend visited a high school that had been affected by racial divisions. On the way to the school, a police officer called out to the two men, referring to them as “boys.” “That’s where I’ve changed,” Ellis told Sport Magazine. “Three years ago, I would’ve jumped on the cop’s chest. But all I did was to correct him.”
Ellis, who would eventually be featured on the cover of the August 21st issue of The Sporting News, had emerged as one of the National League’s most dominant pitchers—and one of its most intriguing personalities. While some black players shied away from public discourse of their own Afrocentric world views, Ellis reveled in such discussions. In an article in Sports Illustrated, Ellis explained the significance of his daughter’s Swahili name, Shangaleza Talwanga. Ellis, one of three black pitchers on the Pirates at the time, explained that it meant “everything black is beautiful.” In the Pirates’ clubhouse, Ellis enjoyed listening to loud music that he labeled “funky.” On the field, when preparing to take his at-bats during games he pitched, Ellis donned a fuzzy batting helmet, which he referred to as “velvetized.”
At times, though, Ellis’ behavior bordered on the bizarre. Two years later, in perhaps his most celebrated incident, Ellis would walk out onto the field before a game against the Cubs wearing a head full of hair curlers. “I think the big thing with him when he come out on Wrigley Field with the hair curlers,” recalls Richie Hebner, “is that when he did that, other than surprising a lot of people at Wrigley Field, it surprised a lot of guys on the Pirate team. When I saw it, I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ ” Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reportedly conveyed his unhappiness over the hair curler episode to Bill Virdon, who by now had succeeded Danny Murtaugh as the Pirates’ manager. Virdon, relaying the commissioner’s message, told Ellis to cease his practice of wearing the curlers on the field. “Look, Dock,” Virdon said, “I don’t care what you wear, but the front office doesn’t like it, the umpires don’t like it, and if you’re not careful, you’re going to get fined.”
Bob Robertson recalls his own involvement in the hair curler episode. “[The manager] comes to me and says, ‘Go out and ask Dock why he’s got those curlers in his hair?’ So I did. And I think, if I can remember correctly, Dock said, ‘That’s me. Those are my curls.’ And that was about it. So I went back and told [Virdon] and that was the end of that stuff.” Much to Virdon’s delight, Ellis would not wear the hair curlers on the field again.
Although Ellis often made news of the controversial variety, he also strove to help others in the Pittsburgh community. Each week, Ellis visited the Western Penn Penitentiary and counseled inmates, often drawing on his own troubling experiences, which included a 1964 conviction of grand theft auto. Ellis also helped administrators in developing and improving recreation programs for the prisoners. Ellis believed that most of the inmates, whom he termed “residents,” were worth the effort of rehabilitation. “What people tend to forget is that only about four per cent [of the prisoners] are in there for terrible crimes,” Ellis told The Sporting News. “Most of the others will be out of there in a few years. These are the people we are especially trying to help.”
Ellis criticized the way administrators ran prisons such as Western, and expressed concern over their treatment of black inmates, who constituted about 70 per cent of Western’s inmate population. “The wardens say things are OK in the prisons,” Ellis told a reporter from Sport Guide, “but they’re not. The brothers are being treated like they are in a concentration camp. A lot of them would rather be sent to the front line in Vietnam than have to put up with what they go through… a lot of those guys are just back from the war. They tell that prison life is like life in the Army, maybe worse. I’ve seen guys back from [Viet] Nam—one arm shot off, two arms shot off, two legs shot off, blinded, burned—but I believe it when they tell me life is worse in the prisons. You dig?”
While Ellis believed that black and white inmates were treated equally poorly, he claimed that prison guards encouraged segregation among the prison population. Ellis explained that guards did little to prevent prisoners from carrying weapons and failed to discourage fights. “There should be reforms,” Ellis told Sport Guide, “but they’re not coming. In fact, the state [Pennsylvania] is making sharp cutbacks.” Ellis recommended a variety of changes, including the installation of new kitchens and larger recreation rooms, and the availability of black-related literature to the inmates.
Perhaps because of noble efforts such as these, several teammates expressed fondness for Ellis, both as a person and a teammate. At times, the pitcher’s own controversial, standoffish exterior masqueraded a pleasant personality. “If Dock will let you inside that little atmosphere he’s built around himself,” Willie Stargell pointed out to Phil Musick of Sport magazine in 1971, “you’ll find a sincere, warm person.”
“Personally, I think Dock Ellis is one fine human being,” Robertson says. “I’m gonna tell you about Dock. We used to be able to bring our family or our friends into the clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium, and Dock and I got along great. He was a jokester in the clubhouse. Muhammad Ali—Cassius Clay—come in there one time, and he and Dock knew one another. Dock used to talk like him.” During the 1971 season, Ali visited the Pirate clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium. Ali proceeded to needle Ellis. “What’s this I hear about you saying you’re as pretty as me,” Ali asked of the boastful Ellis. “Prettier,” Ellis replied with a smile.
Those kinds of exchanges involving Ellis served as good natured sideshow entertainment in the Bucs’ clubhouse. “We used to laugh at Dock so much,” Robertson says. “But Dock was the type of guy that if I brought one of my friends in there, and then all of a sudden I’d bring him back two months later, Dock Ellis would be the first person to go up and shake this man’s hand and say, ‘Nice to see you again.’ That was my impression of Dock Ellis.” Unlike other self-centered athletes, Ellis remembered the “little people” that he had met along the way.
On May 1, 1974, Ellis became involved in one of his most celebrated controversies when he hit the first three Cincinnati Reds’ batters he faced. Later, Ellis revealed that he had intentionally tried to hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Dan Driessen with pitches, and had also attempted to hit the fourth batter of the inning, Tony Perez, but missed with four consecutive pitches. Ellis then tried to hit the fifth batter, Johnny Bench, with two more pitches, before Danny Murtaugh lifted him from the game.
All the while, Ellis continued to battle physical ailments, including elbow and knee trouble. Ellis still managed to win 12 games in 1973 and 12 more the following season, while posting earned run averages of 3.05 and 3.15. Dock helped the Pirates to Eastern Division championships in 1972 and 1975, and didn’t allow an earned run during the National League Championship Series.
In 1975, Ellis encountered his most troublesome season in the major leagues. On August 16, the Pirates suspended Ellis for 30 days without pay for various acts of insubordination. In particular, Ellis had angered Danny Murtaugh when he had refused to warm up in the bullpen during a game against the Reds. After the season, Ellis told Pittsburgh reporters he would prefer to play for Billy Martin, the controversial manager of the New York Yankees. Shortly thereafter, the Bucs complied with Dock’s wishes by sending him, pitcher Ken Brett, and minor league second baseman Willie Randolph to the Yankees for veteran pitcher George “Doc” Medich. Ellis would pitch extremely well for New York, forging a record of 17-8, while helping the Yankees to their first post-season berth in over a decade.
The following season, Ellis became angered when he and Yankee management could not agree on a new contract. In an interview with The Sporting News, Ellis offered Yankee owner George Steinbrenner some pointed advice. “I think he should stay up in his office, push his buttons, count his money, and stay out of the locker-room.” Soon after, Steinbrenner “pushed a few buttons,” sending Ellis, utility infielder Marty Perez, and minor league outfielder Larry Murray to the Oakland A’s for right-handed pitcher Mike Torrez. The trade reunited Ellis with his former Pittsburgh battery-mate, Manny Sanguillen, now the No. 1 catcher in Oakland.
Ellis lasted less than two months with the A’s, who felt they would not be able to sign the soon-to-be free agent right-hander. On June 15, 1977, just before the annual trading deadline, the A’s sold Ellis’ contract to the Texas Rangers. Ellis finished his most traveled major league season at 12-12, having played for seven different managers over the course of the year.
After a 1-5 start in 1979, the Rangers dealt Ellis to the New York Mets for two minor league pitchers. In late September, with the Mets well out of contention, Ellis was sent packing again. The Mets sold him for slightly more than the $20,000 waiver price to his original major league team—the Pirates. Appearing in three late-season games, Ellis pitched effectively in relief for Pittsburgh. Although the Pirates qualified for the playoffs, on their way to their second World Championship of the decade, Ellis’ late arrival left him ineligible for post-season play.
Ellis’ major league career ended after the 1979 season, the same year that he checked himself into a drug and alcohol abuse center. In 1984, Ellis revealed to the Pittsburgh Press that he had pitched his famed 1970 no-hitter against the San Diego Padres under the influence of LSD. Ellis claimed that he didn’t even realize he was scheduled to pitch that game until six hours before game time.
Ellis made several other startling admissions after his career ended. “I was on drugs every time I took to the field,” Ellis told USA Today in 1985. “Quite frankly, I had a chance to injure a lot of lives,” Ellis said, perhaps referring to the game in which he had intentionally hit three straight Reds batters with pitches. “Thank God I didn’t hurt anyone.” As a result of his own drug-induced lifestyle, Ellis decided to take up a career as a counselor to drug abusers and alcoholics. “What we need to educate our young about is the abuses of alcohol and drugs,” Ellis emphasized. “When I say young, I mean starting with kindergarten. That’s the time when little bitty kids with little bitty eyes start watching and following adults.”