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Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball

Uploaded: Aug 11, 2014

Remember the pitcher Dock Ellis?

I have always read a lot of baseball books, and lately I've been reading even more, trying to learn all I can about the world in which I've set my first series of mystery novels. I've discovered that statistical analysis has taken over the baseball-publishing business. Call it the Moneyball effect. But stats can only hold your interest so long, no matter how groundbreaking. Lately I've found myself craving narrative and coming up largely empty.

I recently read a couple of books filled with insider anecdotes?one was about the so-called "baseball code," the unwritten rules governing beanings and retaliation and so forth; the other was the memoir of a prominent play-by-play announcer. Both gave me what I was looking for: details to use in altered form in my novels. But both read like catalogues. When I was a kid in LA, the LA Times printed a daily column in the sports section called "Notes on a Scorecard," which contained exactly that?random notes about the previous day's sporting events, as jotted down by the columnist. He was an observant guy, steeped in the lore you expect a sportswriter to know, but the column lacked coherence. In short, there was no narrative.

My other life as a historical novelist has made me a diligent follower of footnotes and citations. While short on narrative, the two books mentioned above were rich in references, and one of them (I think it was the baseball-code book) led me to Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, a 1976 book by Donald Hall.

Wait, I thought -- Donald Hall? As in, the 2006 US Poet Laureate and author of the children's classic The Ox-Cart Man?

Yep, same guy. In the mid-1970s he became involved in a book project called Playing Around, wherein a few prominent writers (George Plimpton was another) put on uniforms and participated in Spring Training. Hall liked the experience so much that he went looking for a book project that might keep him in what he calls "the country of baseball" a while longer. He was attracted to Ellis, the flamboyant Pirates right-hander, and once Ellis learned Hall was a writer, he basically pitched the book to him.

Hall ended up following Ellis through the 1974 baseball season (and checking in a few times after that), interviewing teammates, coaches, and even his family in California. 1974 wasn't a particularly good year for Ellis, but that was beside the point. What Hall captured was even better?a raw, unvarnished account of a year in the big leagues.

I would be remiss if I didn't explain that Dock Ellis wasn't just any player. He was an iconoclast, a player who loved his celebrity for many reasons but mostly because of the platform it gave him to speak his mind. In the early 70s, African-Americans were still subject to blatant and sometimes violent public racism, especially in the South. In one scene Ellis and his teammate, African-American slugger Willie Stargell, are stopped at the gate of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and asked to produce ID?something none of the white players are asked to do. Ellis also speaks his mind about the unfair labor practices of the MLB owners (this was before collective bargaining). And it wasn't just speech that made Ellis a lightning rod. He also, famously, wore hair curlers while warming up in the bullpen?for fashion, he says, but also to bait the racists.

By the end of the book I understood why Donald Hall was so drawn to Dock. He was stranger than fiction. If I were to invent a character who wore curlers in the bullpen and still managed to score atta-boy letters from Jackie Robinson (it's true!), my readers would cry foul. It would be too cartoonish, too strange, too much. It's counterintuitive, but a book about Dock Ellis could only work as nonfiction. When you claim that your subject pitched a no-hitter on LSD (as Ellis did), you need the weight of truth to back you up. Otherwise it's a hack move, an overreach.

The only problem with Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball is that it's hard to find. Order it online or use to find it in a library near you. You'll see that there is an original 1976 hardcover edition and a 1989 paperback reprint; I recommend the paperback, which includes an update on Ellis's life after baseball.

If you need a break from stats, get your hands on this book. It's the best baseball novel I've read in years.