“‘The team was down. I had to do something for the team’” (Hall and Ellis 40). What Dock Ellis did May 1, 1974, when the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing the Cincinnati Reds at Three Rivers Stadium, was set out to hit every Cincinnati batter who came to the plate. He got the first three—Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Dan Driessen—before Danny Murtaugh pulled Dock. “Pittsburgh was down, in last place, lethargic and limp and lifeless” (38).
I met Dock Ellis in March, 2001, at the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference at Indiana State University. I had been invited to read my literary nonfiction essay “How I Found Religion At A Baseball Game” and also a few of my baseball poems, but I mainly went because my friend Donald Hall wrote me to say that he and Dock would be at the conference, and we could visit.
In his 1989 book Dock Ellis: In The Country Of Baseball, Don describes the flamboyant pitcher as “pizzaz with dignity” (25). Dock’s personal mission when he took the mound that day in May was not to beat the Big Red Machine of Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, Pete Rose, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, and Ken Griffey Sr., but to apply Sandy Koufax’s definition of pitching—“‘Pitching is the art of instilling fear’” (31). Dock said, “My mission was to hit them. . . . I try now to relate back to the feeling I had when I was doing it. ‘Ooh, buddy! Let me try to get him!’ That’s all I was into—how could I get him, how could I get him’” (43).
The Reds were the machine mowing down all other teams in their Division. The Pirates were depressed. They had lost their aggression. “When aggression fails, depression deepens” (48). Aggression, “the craft and power of survival” (41), is human, and good when directed toward winning a ball game; going up against Goliath with a slingshot and a fistful of smooth, river stones; getting out of bed each morning pumped for the day. When aggression turns “inward on ourselves,” it becomes destructive (41).
Dock diagnosed the Pirates’ losing state of mind as a “team neurosis, an epidemic of fear and weakness” (42). He got everyone’s attention that Sunday. His first pitch was aimed at Pete Rose’s head— a message. Then he hit Rose in the side. He got Joe Morgan in the kidneys, Dan Driessen in the back. Three hit batters in a row, tying a major league record. The fourth batter, Tony Perez, could see what was coming. He knew better than to dig in. Perez was “running,” Dock said (37). Dock couldn’t hit him; then Perez “stepped in front of the ball” (37). Dock threw at Johnny Bench’s jaw. He threw at the back of Bench’s head. Murtaugh went to the mound.
Six weeks into the season, the Pirates were still in last place. Then Cincinnati returned to Three Rivers for a five-game series. The Pirates were tired of “undergoing humiliation. They were down, they were low, and they felt mean” (51). When Cincinnati pitcher Jack Billingham hit Bruce Kison (seemingly in the head), Kison went down, and as Dock, grinning, said, “‘All hell broke loose’” (53). Big Manny Sanguillen with his dangerous smile (53) came out body punching “everyone” (53). Guys were grabbed by the hair, heads pounded, thumbs bent back, fists flying and connecting. It was a brawl. It lasted twenty minutes. Dock loved it. The Pirates won 2-1. Aggression had returned. By August 27, Pittsburgh was in first place.
The team was down. I had to do something for the team.
Take the mound. Here’s the baseball.
Hall, Donald, with Dock Ellis. “The Country of Baseball.” Dock Ellis: In The Country Of Baseball. By
Donald Hall, with Dock Ellis. Simon & Schuster, 1989. pp. 9-54.