Dock Ellis

May 18, 2008
Dock Ellis seemed to add an exclamation point to every moment he was ever involved in. I just wanted to take a moment on this Sunday afternoon to thank him for all those exclamation points, and to wish him the best. As reported in today’s New York Post (link provided by Baseball Think Factory), Dock Ellis is in a situation his wife calls “a matter of life and death.” Every so often, especially upon hearing somber, sobering news like that, I wonder why my life has come to center around the thin rectangular representations of baseball players from three decades ago. Sometimes I think it’s a strange mid-life crisis. Sometimes I think I’m slowly, publicly losing my marbles. But maybe I just have a need to connect to a time that, thanks to Dock Ellis and all the others, felt as wild and weird as a Jimi Hendrix solo screaming though the acid-dazzled brain of an unhittable major-league pitcher.


  1. 1.  Josh —

    If you are indeed “losing your marbles,” we should all aspire to losing them so eloquently.

    I think I’m close to your age. (I was born in January 1968, just prior to the Tet Offensive. Bonnie and Clyde was enjoying its renaissance in movie theaters and well on its way to becoming a classic after Beatty somehow persuaded Warners to re-release it after its first release was a fizzle.)

    I responded to an earlier query in Jon Weisman’s Dodger site about “Who is your favorite sportswriter?” by saying something, more-or-less, along the lines of:

    “I haven’t had a favorite writer since Pauline Kael retired in 1991.

    But I do have one now.

    Josh Wilker is not only my favorite sportwriter, but my favorite writer, period.

    Not exactly sure how to explain why, but he seems to be about my age and from the same part of the country, and his work really fits into my frame of mind.”

    Thanks again for a nice little piece, Josh.

    Not sure if this particular nugget provides any insight, but Jimi Hendrix is by far my favorite musician.


  2. 2.  1 : Thanks a lot, skybluestoday.

    I like Pauline Kael, too. And Jimi Hendrix, of course. My theory is that the Ellis, already a very good pitcher, became unhittable on June 12, 1970 (http://tinyurl.com/4qlzpa), because of Hendrix. He stayed up all night before his no-hitter listening to Hendrix records under the mind-expanding influence of LSD. Next day he realizes he’d forgotten he was supposed to pitch, rushes to the park, to the mound, maybe the following lyrics thundering in his head:

    “Well, I stand up next to a mountain/And I chop it down with the edge of my hand…”

  3. 3.  I got this card in the only pack of 1979 Topps I’ve ever opened (back in 2003), and much of Dock’s face and torso is draped in the ominous shadow of a gum stain. It’s nice to see what it would look like in more ideal condition.

  4. 4.  2 : Just to clarify, the bit about Ellis listening to Hendrix while on acid the night before his no-hitter is fact (according to Ellis himself as reported in Donald Hall’s book Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball). I think the way I wrote it made it sound like it was part of my theory. I was only conjecturing on the lyrics rattling around in his head and the effect of the music on his badass voodoo child pitching that day.

  5. 5.  Josh- you once mentioned playing pickup basketball while, um, under the influence- which I described in the Steve Carlton thread as you “channeled Dock Ellis…the creativity flowing through your fingers like Jimi at Woodstock” …so reading that -Dock- actually channeled Jimi before his narcotic no-no of sorts really blows my mind.

    I was also wondering if you had ever checked out ebay and thought about dropping a few bucks on some unsealed 70’s topps wax packs, just to bring back some memories.

  6. 6.  5 : I might just have to look into that eBay stroll down memory lane. Thanks for suggesting it.

  7. 7.  Josh, thank you for featuring this particular Cardboard God. I got a lot of Rangers and Indians that year from Topps, and at least five of Dock’s card as pictured. It was many years before I understood his significance. Baseball, and society in general, is better for its oddballs. We need them to keep pushing the odd envelope. Corporate button-down squares might sell more soda pop, but really, is THAT such a good thing?

    And yes, Hendrix (speaking of oddballs). VOODOO CHILD was the first song of his that I heard where it was clear that Jimi wasn’t just performing, he was casting a spell. There was magic being summoned by those lyrics and music, and if Dock invoked an LSD sigil to tap into that power temporarily, well, that’s just fucking awesome.

    There’s always a price, though, isn’t there? I ask you and your many readers to help me understand where the magic went. The game feels too slick to allow for magic now, much like the society it’s marinating in. Our loss, entirely.

  8. 8.  I can’t remember who said it but somewhere in The Glory of Their Times an old player commented that baseball had more eccentrics back in the early 1900s because the differences between the city and the countryside were so much more pronounced in that era. In other words, a hick from the countryside was much more likely to act really strange as social norms weren’t as pervasive…see Waddell, Rube. Moreover, the population was about 80 percent rural then, as opposed to 80 percent urban/suburban today, so you wound up with a lot more variety.

    On the other hand, are there really fewer eccentrics today than there were 30 or 40 years ago? Is it just the distortion of the nostalgia goggles? For example, Manny Ramirez is one of a kind. So was Turk Wendell. Prince Fielder seems like an offbeat guy…Ichiro might not be a true eccentric (although he says some crazy things) but he plays so differently than anybody else, it adds a unique touch of variety to the game. No, I’d say that the eccentricity is still there but maybe it’s become harder to see because our own cynicism has grown with age.

  9. 9.  My favorite Hendrix stuff is, oddly enough, the late-period stuff. I adore almost all of the (generally unfinished) songs that make up the Cry of Love and First Rays of the New Rising Sun releases. I Think Jimi was growing by leaps and bounds at that point, and his untimely death strikes me as the ultimate Rock and Roll Tragedy, worse than Buddy Holly or Otis Redding or John Lennon or Duane Allman.

    Those final tracks are so exciting and inventive to me — he managed to get so much imagination and creativity into 4-5 minute tunes, which are every bit as wild and psychedelic as his acid classics. Plus they have that hot urban “Funky Pimp” sound down cold.

    I’m talking about tunes like “Straight Ahead,” “Dolly Dagger,” “Freedom,” “Ezy Rider,” In From the Storm,” and even minor doodles like “Hey Baby (Land of the New Rising Sun)”.

  10. 10.  8 : Interesting points about the superold old school and present day eccentrics. I think things are different these days in general because there’s a more corporate vibe in the game, but a few inimitable oddballs like Manny will always be around. At least I hope they will.

    9 : Yeah, I wonder where he would have gone musically had he lived. Things got pretty ugly for capital R Rock in the next couple decades, but maybe his genius would have always kept him on the weirder, wilder fringes of the mainstream.

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