Card Corner, 1973 Topps: Dock Ellisby Bruce Markusen
February 08, 2013
This Topps card of Dock Ellis is one of the most vibrant action shots in the 1973 set. With his left and right arms both extended, Ellis looks almost birdlike in his delivery. There is a certain poetic symmetry to his motion, with his glove hand pointed downward and his pitching wrist also flexed toward the ground. It is classic Ellis, reminiscent of a pitching motion that made frequent network television appearances in the early 1970s.
The photograph is not exactly an original, though. It is almost identical to his 1972 “In Action” card, allowing us to assume that the picture was taken during a 1971 game. The photograph for the earlier card appears to have been snapped during the same pitch in the same game but only a moment sooner in his pitching motion.
The setting places Ellis on the mound at Candlestick Park. The card gives us a clear view of the 410-foot marker at Candlestick, along with many decidedly empty outfield seats, a common occurrence in San Francisco in the early 1970s. The background also includes a blurred view of the Pirates’ center fielder. He is wearing a glove on his right hand, indicating that he is likely Al Oliver, one of the Pirates’ primary center fielders in 1971.
The following spring, the Pirates promoted Ellis to the starting rotation full time. With a dynamic fastball, he made an immediate impression on former Pirates ace Vernon Law. “I believe that Ellis has better all-around stuff than Bob Gibson,” Law told Pittsburgh writer Bill Christine. “He still has to learn how to use it in order to be a big winner. Take a look at Ellis on the sidelines, up close, sometime. If he’s not as fast as Gibson, he’s pretty close.”
Ellis maintained his spot in the rotation all summer, logging 218 innings, but struggled with his control and command. He also lacked run support, dropping 17 decisions against 11 wins.
Ellis took a step up in 1970. That’s when he entered the national consciousness. He pitched a no-hit game against the expansion Padres, who were in just their second season of existence. Ellis took advantage of a particularly weak lineup, which featured only two power hitters—Nate Colbert and “Downtown” Ollie Brown—who resembled any kind of offensive threat.
Aside from the relative ineptitude of the Padres’ lineup, this was not your typical no-hitter. Ellis issued nine walks;he worked himself into and out of trouble throughout the night. The wildness may have been the by-product of Ellis’ physical and mental state that night in San Diego. Years after the fact, Ellis revealed that he had pitched the no-hitter while under the influence of considerable amounts of LSD. Ellis had also taken amphetamines Benzedrine and Dexamyl shortly before facing the Padres. Ellis claimed that he did not realize he was scheduled to pitch that night; otherwise, he would not have taken the mix of drugs within hours of game time.
Ellis pitched especially well during the first half of the 1969 season, but he broke down under another 200-inning workload. The owner of a fragile right arm, Ellis missed six weeks in August and September with elbow soreness. Ellis blamed Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh and his coaching staff, criticizing them for failing to detect an unnatural change in his pitching motion, which apparently caused his arm pain.
Off the field, a combative Ellis feuded off and on with Pittsburgh-area writers.
In spite of these red flags, scouts regarded Ellis as the Pirates’ most talented pitcher. He possessed an excellent repertoire of pitches: a fastball that ran away from right-handed hitters, a sinking fastball, and an effective but sparingly used breaking ball.
In the spring of 1971, Ellis bestet hitters throughout the Grapefruit League and appeared fully recovered from his previous elbow problems. His spring performance foreshadowed what would be his best season. Dominating National League batters over the first half, Ellis placed himself in contention to start the All-Star Game. He then questioned whether Sparky Anderson would start him in the game, for reasons having nothing to do with his performance. With Vida Blue set to start for the American League, Ellis publicly wondered whether Anderson would allow two African Americans to face each other for the first time in All-Star Game history.
Anderson did start Ellis, but Dock did not pitch well. He surrendered a monstrous home run to Reggie Jackson, the one that banged off the light transformer near the top of Tiger Stadium. In three innings, Ellis gave up four runs and took the loss for the National League.
All-Star Game pratfalls aside, Ellis strung together 13 consecutive victories in 1971 before elbow woes derailed him in September and October. By season’s end, he had won a career-high 19 games.
Ellis entered the postseason as the Pirates’ ace, at least until the elbow pain cut short a playoff start against the Giants and rendered him ineffective against the Orioles. He also made news by complaining repeatedly about the Pirates’ hotel accommodations. The first complaint came in San Francisco. “The hotel we were in originally was terrible,” Ellis told Wells Twombly of the San Francisco Examiner. “It’s typical of the way the Pirates’ management treats its players. It’s nothing new. This club will always go second-class unless it can figure a way to go third-class.”
Then came Baltimore during the World Series. “I can’t believe it. This time management has me in a broom closet,” Ellis told Twombly. “I don’t know if they did it on purpose or not.”
Ellis’ complaints seem to have little effect on his team. Thanks to the work of teammates like Steve Blass and Roberto Clemente, Ellis earned the first of his two world championship rings.
Ellis was healthy enough to start the 1972 season on the active roster, but additional problems caused him to miss a couple of starts in late April. He bounced back to make a total of 25 starts on the season, while actually lowering his ERA to 2.70, the best of his career. Improved control was a major factor in his success: He walked only 33 batters in 163 innings.
Still, Ellis didn't escape controversy in 1972. In May, he faced charges that he carried a wine bottle while intoxicated into Riverfront Stadium. A security guard claimed that Ellis argued with him and acted disorderly, prompting him to spray the pitcher with Mace. Ellis and the security guard eventually settled their dispute out of court.
Ellis again found himself in the headlines in 1973. In one of the most publicized and amusing incidents of his career, Ellis walked out onto the field before a 1973 game at Wrigley Field wearing a head full of hair curlers. The incident shocked several of his Pirates teammates, along with his manager, Bill Virdon. More significantly, Ellis' antics caught the attention of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The commissioner, not a fan of anything that endangered the game’s image, threatened to fine and suspend Ellis if he continued to make pre-game appearances while sporting the latest in curling accessories.
Ellis eventually backed off on wearing curlers and restricted them to the clubhouse—and presumably his home—for the balance of his career. Unfortunately, no one from Topps was at Wrigley Field that memorable afternoon to take a photograph of Ellis in his offbeat look. Now that would have made for an interesting Topps card in 1974.
While the hair curler episode was humorous but harmless, an uglier side to Ellis showed itself in 1974. Prior to a series with the Reds, several Cincinnati players made condescending remarks about the Pirates. The Reds, starting with their 1972 playoff comeback against the Pirates, had a recent history of beating the Bucs.
Ellis felt that the Reds needed to be punished for their pre-series words. In the first inning, Ellis hit each of the first three Reds batters—Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen. With three of his first five pitches having hit his intended targets, Ellis continued his assault on Cincinnati’s lineup. He threw two pitches behind Tony Perez's head before eventually walking him.
Even with one run already forced in, Ellis refused to let up on his game plan. He threw two pitches at Johnny Bench that barely missed making contact. Amazingly, the home plate umpire allowed Ellis to remain in the game. But manager Murtaugh had seen enough. He removed Ellis from the game before he could do any more damage, either to the Reds or himself.
The 1975 season would continue to put Ellis in a spotlight for reasons other than his pitching. In July, Ellis admitted to how difficult he had been for the Pirates to deal with over the years. “Nobody else in the world would have me but Pittsburgh,” he told The Sporting News. “I’ll die a Pirate. This is the only place where they take my guff.”
Ellis’ words would not prove prophetic. In August, he angered Murtaugh when he refused to warm up in the bullpen during a game against Cincinnati. After the manager admonished him for his refusal, Ellis unleashed a brutal clubhouse diatribe against Murtaugh, which all of his teammates could hear. Among others, Pirates outfielder Richie Zisk took exception to Ellis’ vitriol. “If he said those things about me,” Zisk told a reporter, “I’d have punched him in the nose. He was way out of line.”
Pirates general manager Joe Brown agreed. He suspended Ellis for 30 days, without pay. After the season, Ellis expressed his desire to play for Yankees manager Billy Martin. Brown must have listened to his unhappy pitcher; that winter, Brown dealt Ellis to the Yankees as part of the Willie Randolph-for-Doc Medich trade. Ellis pitched extremely well for New York, forging a record of 17-8 in 1976 while helping the Yankees to their first postseason berth since 1964.
The honeymoon in New York lasted exactly one season. In the spring of 1977, Ellis became upset when the Yankees did not give him the long-term contract he wanted. He also grew tired of George Steinbrenner’s frequent criticisms of the team’s play. When a reporter told him that Steinbrenner was flying in to watch the team firsthand, Ellis expressed his pleasure, saying that the more often Steinbrenner flew, the more likely that his plane would crash.
Ellis’ words likely sealed his fate in New York. Within weeks, the Yankees sent him to the A’s for fellow right-hander Mike Torrez. That marked the start of a whirlwind of activity in 1977. After his ERA soared to 9.69, Charlie Finley sold him to the Rangers at the trading deadline.
In moving from New York to Oakland to Texas, Ellis set a record of sorts. During a span of two and a half months, he played for seven different managers, including Jack McKeon and Bobby Winkles in Oakland and four in Texas (Frank Luchessi, Eddie Stanky, Connie Ryan and Billy Hunter).
In particular, Ellis had major problems with Hunter, who objected to his drinking. As the players rode on the team bus to a Minneapolis hotel one day, Ellis announced that he had started drinking for the day and planned to continue once he reached the hotel bar. In the midst of his speech, one of his teammates dropped a bottle, the sound of the breaking glass setting off Hunter. “Shut up and sit down!” an exasperated Hunter shouted at Ellis.
After a stable 1978, the 1979 season returned Ellis to a frenetic state. Ellis pitched terribly for the Rangers, who sent him to the Mets for two middle-of-the-road pitching prospects. And then in late September, the Mets sent him back to Pittsburgh, where he finished out the regular season with the eventual world champions. After the World Series, he became a free agent, but when no one showed interest, he called it a career at the age of 34.
Once his pitching career ended, I didn’t hear much about Ellis until 2007. I picked up a copy of the New York Post and read about Ellis and his health, which had deteriorated badly over the last six months. According to the article, Ellis had lost 60 pounds since being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Doctors told Ellis that he needed a liver transplant soon.
Sadly, Ellis never received that transplant. He died in 2008, the victim of severe liver disease, at the age of 63.
Ellis certainly made more than his fair share of mistakes over the years, including his ill-advised usage of LSD prior to a game, his attempt to turn the Reds into human pin cushions, and his repeated efforts at undermining his managers. Sadly, the “LSD no-hitter” has been glorified in recent years, even though it was not something of which Ellis was particularly proud. Almost all of his other indiscretions also occurred while he was trapped in a haze of alcohol and drug abuse.
After his retirement in 1980, Ellis successfully went through drug rehabilitation. In overcoming his addiction, he used his experiences to become a counselor against drugs and alcohol. An emotional public speaker, Ellis worked diligently to advise youngsters not to repeat his own mistakes. This was Ellis at his best. It was reminiscent of something that he had done early in his Pirates career, when he tried to help prisoners in the Pennsylvania penal system, soliciting their input in making suggestions for prison reform. It was also reminiscent of the way that he spoke out about racism, both inside and outside of the game, during the turbulence of the 1970s.
Ellis’ abuse of drugs and alcohol certainly took a toll on his body. But over the last 25 years of his life, he found the way—the right way—to live. In trying to teach others about the dead ends of drug and alcohol abuse, he did his best to make up for lost time. In so doing, he became one of the game’s good guys.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.