Dock Ellis In The Country of Baseball
by Donald Hall & Dock Ellis (1976 & 1989)
Baseball writing has compared the National Pastime to many things from warfare to metaphors of life. It is the one sport perhaps where writers and poets often wax nostalgically for hours on end. Therefore, it is no surprise that a writer like Donald Hall would tackle baseball as a subject, and throw in an analogy as a reoccurring theme.
Donald Hall is an award-winning poet and author who rose to prominence in the baseball world through his appearance in Ken Burns’ epic documentary "Baseball" as one of the talking heads throughout the show. His love of the game was apparent there, and here in this book. He uses the comparison of baseball to a country: more so to a community where ballplayers enter the game, live, thrive, and finally fade away from view to sit on front porches and reminisce about glories past. He could have written a whole book along that line, but instead chose to focus it on the ballplayer Dock Ellis.
For those of you who don’t know, Dock was an outspoken pitcher who pitched for the Pirates, Yankees, A’s, Rangers, and Mets from 1968 to 1979. He threw a no-hitter in 1970 for the Pirates, and was a vital part of the rotation for that great team during that period. However, Dock became known more for his outspoken views on race relations in a time where the nation was still reeling from civil rights a mere decade before than his prowess on the mound, and as a result drew the ire of many people. He was a man who wouldn’t take any crap from anyone, no matter who they were.
These two disparate characters come together to compose an honest book about Dock’s career, and in the process describes such things as growing up as a middle class black person in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s (an explosive time in American history), playing in the minor leagues in the ‘60s when race was still an issue, playing for the Pirates in the early 1970s, and finally fading away from the game through alcohol and substance abuse. Although the subject of minor league bigotry was covered much more brutally in Curt Flood’s biography, this book still paints a clear picture of that problem.
In this book, the outspoken Ellis explains his point of view on his relationship with Pirates management, which finally turned sour during the end of the 1975 season when he called a team meeting and blasted manager Danny Murtaugh and owner Joe Brown. The book paints a love-hate relationship between these parties, and Dock still managed to speak highly of them, years after his career ended. The biggest impression one would get of Ellis after reading this book is that he was a flawed man who let his pride get the better of him. However, Dock gives some great commentary on pitcher psychology throughout the book, and leaves the impression that he is a smarter man than people give him credit for.
Perhaps the most interesting character to appear in this book was Dock’s mentor, Chet Brewer. Chet was an old Negro League pitcher who took Dock (and several other ballplayers including Reggie Smith, Willie Crawford, and Bobby Tolan) under his wing before Dock could get into trouble as a teenager. The conversation between the scolding Chet and the defensive Dock during a visit to the old neighborhood in 1974 was priceless.
The most controversial aspect of this book was the story about his no-hitter. When the book was originally published in 1976, it described Dock as being drunk on vodka when he tossed his classic game. However, when the book was republished in 1989, it was revealed that vodka wasn’t the factor with him: instead it was LSD, and the afternoon coffee for "sobering up" was instead Dexamyl and Benzedrine. Dock would briefly and honestly describe his slide into substance abuse when his career was winding down, and how he found his way into his recent job as a substance abuse counselor.
All in all this is an honest and entertaining book. --Al Arthurs