Saturday, December 20, 2008

R.I.P: Dock Ellis

ESPN.com and MLB.com are reporting that former major league pitcher Dock Ellis died Friday of a liver ailment at age 63.

Ellis had cirrhosis of the liver and had been on a waiting list for a liver transplant for seven months.

Ellis was known as a wild man during his playing days. The most famous story is his claim to have been on LSD when he pitched a no-hitter against the Padres in 1970 (I'm sure that made the Padres hitters feel even better about themselves). He walked eight batters in that game.

Ellis had many other controversial moments during his career. He was outspoken against the racism that he saw throughout baseball. In the minor leagues he once charged a heckler with a bat in Batavia, N.Y. (where many of wife's relatives live, by the way). In Cincinnati, he was maced by a security guard who wouldn't let him into the Pirates clubhouse. A moment I particularly remember reading about is when Ellis showed up at the ballpark with curlers in his hair. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn supposedly ordered Ellis to stop wearing hair curlers during games.

During the 1974 season, Ellis believed the Pirates were intimidated by the Reds hitters, and during his first start of the season against the team proceeded to throw at the first five Reds players he faced -- hitting Pete Rose in the ribs, Joe Morgan in the side, Dan Driessen in the back, and then walking in a run when Tony Perez dodged out of the way of several pitches. He then threw two pitches at Johnny Bench's head, but didn't hit him. He was promptly removed from the game (can you imagine what kind of brawl would develop if this happened today?)

In Donald Hall's biography "Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball," former Dodger Willie Crawford is quoted as saying, "Dock here is the same as Richie Allen. Because newspapers were trying to make them bad guys in the public's eyes instead of making them heroes like Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson didn't fight for blacks until he left baseball. Dock made his fight while he has been in baseball even though he put his job in jeopardy. There should be more black athletes doing this."

After his career was over, Ellis worked for the California Department of Corrections and for a drug counseling center.

My memory of Ellis, besides the "curlers in his hair" story, was his 1975 Topps card. The first time I saw it was when I was at my friend Jennifer's house. She had the card. I wanted that card. There was something about the blue-and-orange design combined with the fact that he was a Pirate (I quite liked the Pirates back then) that made me wish I had that card.

I remember my brother and I sleeping over at Jennifer's house as my parents and her parents would get together for the evening, and we were quite young at the time. Before I went to bed, I took one last, long glance at the card (I always liked the cartoon on the back, which mentioned former baseball player and heart specialist Bobby Brown -- a Dock on the front and a doc on the back!). At that time, I didn't know a thing about Ellis' eccentric reputation ("Mommy, what's LSD?")

Later -- about 30 years later -- I finally acquired that card. But it wasn't such an agonizing wait. Fortunately, later in 1975, I pulled the 1975 Topps mini from a cello pack:

And as Allen and Ginter fans know, there is nothing better than the minis.

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