Finding a Hall of Fame for Dock Ellis.
Let’s get Dock Ellis into the Hall of Fame. Oh, not really, of course—by the Hall’s statistical criteria, he isn’t even close. But after a visit to Cooperstown in September, I found myself imagining a Hall of Fame that would enshrine him.
Ellis is unquestionably famous, after all—infamous, too. He is the subject of No No: A Dockumentary, which headlined the Hall of Fame Film Festival I attended last month; a Society for American Baseball Research panel event a few weeks later; a psychedelic song, recorded in 1993, by Barbara Manning; and, especially, an excellent book, published in 1976, by The Paris Review’s own Donald Hall, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. Evidence keeps mounting that Dock—always flamboyant, often controversial—was the emblematic player of his era, the seventies, with its dubious introduction of such artificialities as the designated hitter and Astroturf; the acrimonious battle for free agency; and all those drugs.
Ah, yes, drugs. Ellis, who died in 2008, is best known as the pitcher who, in 1970, threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid—appropriately, his name in a box score reads, “Ellis, D.”—but that freak feat is a red herring, and it’s not even his most freakish. On May 1, 1974, Dock decided to send a message to the Pirates’ archrivals, the intimidating Cincinnati Reds, who had cowed Pittsburgh into competitive docility. “We gonna get down,” Dock decided. “We gonna do the do. I’m going to hit these motherfuckers.” Donald Hall recounts Ellis’s plan and its execution. The first guy Dock hit was Pete Rose (who should also be in the Hall of Fame, though for very different and far more genuine reasons). After he hit three batters, walked another who ducked and dodged four pitches, and threw two beanballs at future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, Ellis was mercifully removed from the game with this remarkable stat line: zero innings pitched, no hits, no strikes thrown, three hit batsmen, one walk, one run allowed. “Dock Ellis faced four batters in the first inning,” the box score decorously explains. Dock’s own explanation of himself in No No says more: “It’s not that you’ve got to watch how I pitch,” he insists. “You’ve got to watch how I play.”
The Hall of Fame is as much a fortress as a cathedral, and in some places it protects numbers more than heroes. An entire floor is devoted to the former—61, 3,000, and so on—and one baseball sabermetrician has even designed an earnest and elaborate data-crunching system to compute the Hall-worthiness of each candidate. Every off-season, baseball experts squabble over the nominees like pets over food, and make a dog’s breakfast of it.
It’s silly, and it misses the point, especially in this case. Ellis was the spiritual heir to Jackie Robinson, each a key symbol of baseball blackness for his time. In No No, Ellis shares a letter of support he received from the retired Robinson in 1971, when Dock was having the best season of his career. Robinson wrote him after Ellis made combative comments to the media, claiming he’d never be named the National League starter for the All-Star Game. Vida Blue had already gotten the American League nod, and “they wouldn’t pitch two brothers against each other,” Ellis declared. He was a master button-pusher. He was charismatic and sported flashy clothes and cars; wore curlers in his hair while in uniform, until management ordered them removed; and brazenly nominated himself as a book subject for Donald Hall, who was hanging around spring training looking for something to write about. “He was a chapter ahead,” says his Pittsburgh teammate Bruce Kison, in No No, and Kison wasn’t talking about Hall’s book. Ellis got that starting spot in the All-Star Game.
“I want you to know how much I appreciate your courage and honesty,” Dock reads aloud from Robinson’s letter of praise, offscreen. The torch is being passed, the era changing, from civil rights to Black Power to blaxploitation, Sidney Poitier to Richard Pryor. In 1971, the Pirates fielded baseball’s first all-black lineup, with Dock on the mound; they went on to win the World Series. As Dock reads the letter, his voice grows more intense, then wobbles, and then, on Robinson’s words “Try not to be left alone,” erupts into sobs. “Aw, man!” he wails in a teary falsetto. “I never read that like that!”
I was at the film festival representing Ivan Weiss’s Bull City Summer making-of film, Leaving Traces. I’d tell people our documentary was about the Bulls, and their eyes lit up every time. When the Bulls call themselves America’s favorite minor-league team, they aren’t exaggerating. One memorabilia store’s window boasting MINOR-LEAGUE GEAR FOR SALE displayed an enormous blue-and-orange Bulls logo, the iconic bull crashing through a Stonehenge-size D and virtually right onto a Cooperstown street.
Why is the Hall of Fame here, anyway, in the land of Natty Bumppo? Because of a myth: Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball in Cooperstown. “Every year,” Bernard-Henri Lévy writes in American Vertigo, “millions of men and women come, like me, to visit a town devoted entirely to the celebration of a myth.” Nonetheless, there is the Hall of Fame myth that Doubleday inspired, as well as Doubleday Field, right in the middle of town. On Friday afternoon before the film festival, there was a game going on. An over-forty league from Baltimore had rented out the park. Potbellied and hip-replaced men chuffed as they rounded bases and muffed easy grounders, but something remarkable came over them as the setting sun cast golden light from beyond right field: Put a baseball uniform on almost any man, no matter his age, shape, or arthritis, and he looks like a ballplayer. His carriage changes; his face, too. He walks with stoic uprightness, acquires a frontiersman’s sense of gravitas that can explode into urgent, heroic daring at any moment. When a third baseman named Andy Shank (a great baseball name) speared a line drive, reaching for it backhanded, the play had the same snap and fling as its major-league iteration. The game is the game, no matter who plays it, and it’s great.
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Despite its portentous reputation, the Hall of Fame is surprisingly small (you can see the whole thing in two or three hours), not because it’s inadequate, but because baseball is so big. The Hall only has room for the greatest hits, and it manages to gather nearly all of them, along with a lot of memorabilia, which provide a fascinating evolutionary history. Balls used to have tiny, low stitches, which must have vexed pitchers (smooth balls don’t move as much in flight), jerseys were wool cardigans, and bats were cumbersome and imbalanced. Gloves were maddeningly slow to change. The one Willie Mays used to make “the catch” in 1954 looks unthinkably tiny. So does the great second baseman Joe Morgan’s. (Morgan also took one in the ribs from Dock that day in Cincinnati.) How did he ever catch anything in it? He had to have his glove hand in exactly the right place to snare that little white rat as it scurried toward the outfield. Morgan’s glove sits there in its shrine, stronger evidence of his greatness than any of his numbers.
The tools of the trade are the most interesting things in the Hall (the hallowed plaques are the least). Look at 2014 inductee Tom Glavine’s shoes: the left one has the ankle cut away, exposing the inner foam core, in order to give relief to his injured Achilles tendon. The gorgeous satin jersey on the second floor, worn briefly by the Braves when they started playing night games in 1946, was not an aesthetic or comfort choice but “for better visibility under artificial lighting.” I started to think more about what belongs in the Hall of Fame, less about who—not least because the Hall is a private nonprofit, founded by a hotelier in an effort to boost tourism during the Depression, and although it is MLB approved, it isn’t an unassailable authority. The Hall farms out its induction votes to a motley group of baseball writers, some of whom barely qualify as such, and the committees that round up players whose eligibility has expired have made many poor decisions. Highpockets Kelly is a great name, and so is Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner, but neither belongs in the Hall, not even by its own reckoning; clubbiness, perception, and pedigree trumped even the numbers in these cases and others. Still, the Hall does manage to snag nearly all the deserving in the end, and it makes those it refuses even more famous: Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe, Barry Bonds. To the right of the plaques for the 2014 inductees hang a clutch of empty ones, awaiting future honorees. It’s nearly impossible not to see them as the plaques that rightly belong to Bonds, Roger Clemens, and all the other greats whose performance-enhancing drug use has kept them out.
Who would have pegged LSD for a performance-enhancing drug? It was one for Dock that day in 1970. It’s not to say he would have been a Hall of Famer had he dropped acid before every start, of course. He’d probably have been out of baseball well before his actual exit in 1979. But he was halfway out of baseball even in uniform, and not just because his mind was usually altered. “If Dock is pitching,” one of his teammates marveled, “you know he’s high. But how high is he?” And on what? In Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, Hall takes him out to lunch in Cincinnati at Pigall’s (they refused Dock entrance until he went back to his hotel and put on a coat), where Dock ate poached trout and knocked back plenty of Pouilly Fuissé—“his favorite wine,” Hall notes—“moaning with the excellence of the food.” Pouilly Fuissé!
Since Dock’s time, ballplayers have lost most of their color, and their combativeness is restricted almost exclusively to the diamond—they have one of America’s most powerful sports unions and little to fight for anymore when it comes to money and labor rights. They no longer participate much in the culture around their sport, which is itself shrinking. Two of the eleven entries in the Hall of Fame Film Festival were about saving old ballparks, two were about baseball teaching young people intercultural appreciation and understanding, and two were about the Chicago Cubs. We were also treated to twenty just-discovered seconds, at full speed and then in slo-mo, of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig playing an exhibition game in Fresno in 1927. It was like watching footage of a couple of ivory-billed woodpeckers.
As I walked through the Hall’s gallery of plaques, I overheard a kid ask his grandfather, Where’s Derek Jeter? Grandpa: He’s not in yet. (Active players aren’t eligible.) As Jeter’s career came to its prenostalgized end in September, the striking thing was his participation in his own early induction. He accepted feting and gifts in every big-league ballpark on his farewell tour—including what seemed like innumerable ceremonies in his Yankee Stadium home—wore custom cleats that looked suspiciously like Hall of Fame plaques, and did a Gatorade commercial so self-aggrandizing and condescending (and in black-and-white, of course) as to verge on parody. If Ellis was the heir of Jackie Robinson, Jeter is the heir of Joe DiMaggio: the classical ballplayer, rightly beloved by the masses and his peers, amazingly graceful and strong on the field even as his skills declined with age, his play full of personality and audacity and heroics; yet characterless and dry off the field, where he was necessarily chary of the media, some of whom didn’t shy from taking resentful parting shots even as others piled on the mound of hagiography. The polarization has only made Jeter more famous, of course, but his inarguable greatness was plainly visible to us right on the field. Dock Ellis’s ran far beyond the country of baseball. They both belong in some kind of Cooperstown.
Adam Sobsey has covered the Durham Bulls since 2009 and was the lead writer for the Bull City Summer documentary project in 2013. He has also written for Baseball Prospectus since 2011. He is at work on a book about Triple-A baseball. Follow him on Twitter.