Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Passing of Dock Ellis

Dock Ellis in 1999 being inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals, Pasadena, Calif

Dock Ellis in hair curlers as a Pirate

By chance, I happened to catch the news of the passing of Dock Ellis (on the Yahoo sports web page). Ellis, a native of Los Angeles, was a star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1968 into the 1970s. He was also a colorful personality. He was 63 when he died, the same age as me. Why am I writing of Ellis' death? While Ellis surely would not have remembered me, our paths crossed in the mid-60s.

I would have to do a little research to pinpoint the exact year, but it was surely 1964 or 1965. At the time, I was playing college baseball at Santa Monica College and semi-pro ball on the side. I had dreams of becoming a major league player (which, of course, never came to fruition).

In one of my semi-pro games, our team was playing a team from South Central LA called the Pittsburgh Pirate Rookies. (Rookie teams were common in those days. Like the Pirates, several other teams formed teams in the LA area, which were operated by locally based scouts. The players were usually local players in their farm systems or others they considered prospects. They were especially active in the off-season when "Winter-League" ball was still possible in California. Other teams that had rookie teams were the Dodgers, Phillies and Angels. I played for the Angel Rookies just before entering the Army in January 1966.)

But I digress. After playing the game against the Pirate Rookies, their coach told our coach that I would be welcome to come and work out with the Pirate Rookies on Saturdays. The coach was none other than Chet Brewer, a noted pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs in the old Negro Leagues. I eagerly accepted the invitation, and for the next couple of months, I would drive to a park in South Central where the team practiced.

And what a team it was; of course, there was Dock Ellis. In addition, there was Bobby Tolan, who was signed by the Pirates out of high school and eventually became a star outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds (Big Red Machine). There was Leon McFadden, who played briefly with the Houston Astros, Bob ("Bull") Watson, who played with the Astros and later became a top official for Major League Baseball's Commissioner's office-where he still works today. There was also Davey Nelson, who played for several major league teams and has been a coach for other teams until the present. (I don't forget Nelson because one Saturday during an inter-squad game, he spiked me in the leg while breaking up a double play at second base.)

But back to Ellis. It was on one of those Saturdays that we learned the Ellis had just signed a contract with the Pirates. Naturally, I and another player walked over to congratulate him. I remember the exchange so clearly. The other player said, "Hey Dock, congratulations on turning pro." His answer?

"Sheeet, I turned pro the day I was born, baby."

You see, this is not a knock on Ellis. When he appeared on the major league scene in 1968, he quickly established a reputation as being brash and cocky. He could back it up however, as he became a star starting pitcher. Later, he pitched for other teams, such as the Yankees, A's, Rangers and Mets. During his career, he was always talking and often saying things considered controversial. He was also considered a bit flaky. There was the time he pitched a no-hitter against San Diego and later claimed he was high on LSD at the time. There was the time when he was sent into a game as a pinch runner. It was a cold evening, and, as pitchers were allowed to do, he came out wearing a team warm up jacket. The umpire noticed that instead of a Pirates jacket, Ellis was wearing a Steelers jacket. He was promptly informed that he had to remove the Steelers jacket and put on a Pirates jacket. As he stood on the base in full view of the crowd, Ellis promptly removed the Steeler jacket, which revealed that he was not wearing any kind of shirt underneath. On another occasion, he appeared on the field in hair curlers.

David Maraniss, in his biography of Roberto Clemente, wrote movingly of the time after Clemente's untimely death when the whole Pirates team flew to Puerto Rico to participate in a memorial for "The Great One". Ellis, according to Maraniss' description, was "somber and shaken" in total contrast to the young man who was a non-stop talker. The brashness was gone as the young pitcher tried to cope with the loss of his great teammate.

Eventually, I stopped going to the Pirate workouts, and that brief association with Ellis and the others was finished. Naturally, I followed the success of Ellis and the others as they progressed to the Major Leagues. Tolan, Watson and Nelson have continued to be a part of the game as minor league manager, executive and coach respectively.

Ellis returned to California after his playing days were over and settled in Victorville working as a drug counselor. He also became active in educating younger ball players about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, which he himself had succumbed to. The Yankees hired him at one point to talk to younger players in the farm system. His cause of death has been reported as cirrhosis of the liver.

At times, I have thought back to those days in South Central. I also wondered if I had met Ellis again in later life, how he would have compared with the Ellis of his youth.

Rest in Peace, Dock.

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