Be sure to watch the accompanying animated short, "Superfly Spitball."
On that March afternoon four years ago, I asked Dock Ellis if he would mind reading the Jackie Robinson letter out loud. My then-girlfriend, with whom I was co-producing a radio feature, held the microphone.
We were in a town called Apple Valley in the Southern California boondocks, and we'd just finished taping a public radio feature about Dock. I'd been chasing the former Pirates pitcher off and on since my first job out of college, at an alternative weekly in Chico. The story of the no-hitter he pitched on LSD had become first an obsession and eventually a quest. Now I had it on tape, and after two hours of talking, the pitcher I'd followed since my childhood in Ohio—the Jet and Ebony regular whose last name is my middle name—was about to give me a bit more.
We followed Dock from his living room. Our host moved slowly, it seemed to me, for a man of just 63. Sickly, too. He retrieved from his office and brought into the hallway a brutally worn softcover version of his 1976 collaboration with the poet Donald Hall, a non-fiction work called Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. Dock put on his glasses and began to read a letter from Jackie Robinson, written in 1971 not long after Ellis had declared he had no chance of being named the National League's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. Sparky Anderson was managing the NL team, and Oakland's Vida Blue had been named the AL starter. "[T]hey wouldn't pitch two brothers against each other," Ellis had said. (He was named the NL's starter anyway.)
The controversy might not have registered as more than a minor dust-up today. But in 1971? Baseball lay at the center of the sports universe, and there hadn't even been one black All-Star Game starter, never mind two starters. We might be inclined to overlook the significance of that contest now. The best-remembered Brooklyn Dodger, however, saw every bit of its meaning, and his words to Dock Ellis in 1971—processed through Dock's aging body nearly four decades later—resonated like nobody's business.
"'I read your comments in our paper the last few days and wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your courage and honesty. In my opinion, progress for today's players will only come from this kind of dedication,'" Dock read. Then his voice began to quaver. "'Try not to be left alone.'"
Dock Ellis choked up more with every syllable.
"'Try to get more players to understand … and you will find great support. You have made a real contribution. I surely hope your great ability continues. ... That ability will determine the success of your dedication and honesty. Continued success, Jackie Robinson.'"
My ex held the mic, and Dock Ellis sobbed. Not like a baby, but like a grown-ass man assessing his life's meaning in the face of his impending demise. He rambled down the hall, howling: "Aaawww, shit! I never read that like that before!"
Don't get me wrong. I've had my fun with Dock Ellis & The LSD No-No, the animated No Mas short that grew out of that day in Apple Valley. In 2010, when the video was screening at Sundance and film festivals around the world, I would turn around in my seat, seconds before Dock related the thought—with that inimitable sense of wonder—"Ooh, I just made a touchdown!" It was such a high watching people erupt with laughter. I was as high as a Georgia pine.
But that film is a short take on a big life; it could only hint at the unique journey of the man, who passed away six months after our interview.
It galls me now that Dock is now largely thought of as a goof, if he's thought of at all. Try not to be left alone, Jackie Robinson told him. Well, that's what we've done to him: We've left him alone. Dock is unstuck from baseball's history, a character in a funny story. No one puts him on a continuum with Jackie Robinson on one end and free agency on the other. But that's where I see him, a black ballplayer straddling the reserve-clause era and the arrival of free agency, a man who brought many of the ways of old with him into baseball's new, Day-Glo epoch.
Dock was old-school enough to have once thrown at the first four Cincinnati Reds he faced, as a means of firing up his Pirates. But he lived at a perpendicular to baseball tradition, too. He was an acolyte of Roberto Clemente—both were discovered by the legendary South L.A. scout Chet Brewer—and he became famous in black America for taking up causes like sickle cell anemia, foster care, and prison reform. He brought social consciousness to baseball during an era when people seriously considering putting Negro Leaguers in a separate wing of the Hall of Fame.
And he was high as a Georgia pine, pretty much every time he pitched.
Dock has come to be my prism for viewing the game's meanings. The very first time talked to him, I was on my way into a Little League coaches meeting. He was still healthy enough to call me for an interview while driving home from work at a San Bernardino prison, where he served as a drug counselor. (Dock certainly knew his drugs. During the interview at his house, Ellis told me he got his lysergic acid from the labs of UCLA. O.G. shit. The uncut funk. I remember feeling so impressed when he scoffed at my mention of windowpane, which I'd thought was the shit when I first went dippin' into The Cidney Experience. Having studied the Donald Hall book and seen raw footage from No No: A Dockumentary, I now know just how complicated the man was. Dare I say, as complicated as LSD.)
As the other dads waited for me to wrap up my on-the-fly meeting, Dock and I discussed by phone the role of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Not for the last time, he would insist that drugs are nearly as big a part of the game as stealing signs and bases. Throughout the ensuing Little League season, I found myself repeating to my team of 9- and 10-year-old boys the expression "baseball ready." To be baseball ready is to be on your toes, wide-eyed and alert, ready to take advantage, ready to pounce.
And I can tell you where I was standing on the practice field—deep first, yelling at a 9-year-old—when it hit me:
"Baseball ready" means amphetamine ready.
The underlying ethos of baseball is woven into our entire office culture. We steal. We cheat. And, yes, we take drugs so we can stay on our toes, wide-eyed and alert. The long season is a grind for us, too. There is a shitload of work to do, and we all need a little edge.
Greenies in the locker room. Adderall at the office. Coffee mainlined to the brain in every workplace. (Richard Ben Cramer's biography has Joe DiMaggio drinking 10 cups a day.) The impulse to get a competitive edge either on the field or at your desk is as old as cocaine in Coca-Cola. Dock knew it. Here's a story he told me about Catfish Hunter:
Dock didn't see baseball as somehow exempt from the quirks and temptations of the American workaday existence. "Whatever goes on in life," he told me, "it goes on in life in sports."
The deeper story of Dock Ellis begins to be told here, with "Superfly Spitball," an animated short film from the forthcoming iBook Beyond Ellis D (Alexander-Swift). Animated by Heidi Perry and co-produced by Thor Swift, "Superfly Spitball" is the first of three new appropriately diverse animated shorts based on the 2008 interview that I conducted with the brilliant Neille Ilel. It doesn't give away too much to say that the short films in Beyond Ellis D are about the roles of speed and cheating in the national pastime. Inside the iBook narrative—which contains previously unheard no-no extras—Dock reads the Jackie Robinson letter and lets you, too, into the depth of it all.
"Like Mr. Magoo," is how, in those last months on Earth, Dock Ellis described his journey. Bumping from one amazing situation to another. He was a gadfly who skipped from one baseball milieu to the next, from one social setting to the next—from Thurman Munson's small collection of comrades to Texas Rangers owner Brad Corbett; from USO stages with Bob Hope to the "hooches" where soldiers in 'Nam did heavy dope to cope with the war's horrors.
Dock was into a little bit of everything. He was equal parts activist and trickster. Cautionary tale and thang to be. All-Star jock and storytelling giant. An all-around icon for the ages, the kind of guy they write songs about. Again and again. Goofs don't become folk heroes.
He lived a piece of his game's, and his country's history, and he lived it fully, right down the the drugs—prescribed and illicit alike—that quietly underpin much of America's workaday life. There's more to him than the story of how that cosmic day in San Diego went down. He still has so much to teach us. It's up to us now not to leave Dock Ellis alone.