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If there’s a segment of sports history that appears to be gathering a fair amount of audience interest these days, it’s Baseball during the 1970’s. The seeds were planted a couple years back with the advent of writer Josh Wilker’s “Cardboard Gods,” a wistful look at growing up during the decade through the lens of TOPPS baseball card wrappers, too many Pete LaCock doubles and powdery bubble gum. Shortly thereafter, came music and pop culture historian Dan Epstein’s “Big Hair and Plastic Grass,” a cult favorite with a strong enough following to merit a paperback printing this past month, no small feat in 2012. Even a well-known author like John Grisham has dipped his toe into the water, with an out-of-his wheelhouse fictional take of Baseball on the north side of Chicago, circa 1973, “Calico Joe.” In the last 18 months, there’s been a groundswell of interest in Dock Ellis, a better-than average hurler for the Pittsburgh Pirates, mostly during the early-to-mid 1970’s. The Ellis aura has grown as more stories have seeped out regarding his infamous no-hitter he pitched while under the influence of LSD during the 1970 season. There’s a documentary in the works on Ellis’ life with a focus on the game using the working title “No No: A Dockumentary (about Dock Ellis).
Last summer, Deadspin (now Gawker) editor A.J. Daulerio took a rather entertaining stab at replicating Ellis’ feat on a much smaller scale. This month, author Donnell Alexander has released his take on the man and the story, in “Beyond Ellis D: Baseball, Drugs and the Extra-Inning American Dream." Alexander delivers a unique multi-media platform, assembling elements of non-fiction and animation as a post-modern, sophisticated, grown-up type of Scholastic book-and-record you might have bought at the 2nd grade magazine fair in 1977. Each of the four short films included in Alexander’s ibook bring you to this visually stirring destination, this place where you might find the early, classic Schoolhouse Rock animators on an acid-fueled quest at creating a live-action, urban-athletic version of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Beyond the visuals, you will hear the voice of Dock himself, telling stories of learning how to cheat (with both pitching and batting examples), teammates who taught him how to stay in the game, and innovative workout techniques and “supplements” that ironically (in his mind) enhanced his wind sprints. Alexander also connects the extended regular-season schedule to the rise of performance (energy?) enhancers in the 1960's, a notion sure to stir debate among fans of the game.
INSTREAM spoke with Donnell Alexander to hear his thoughts on the concept behind the ibook, the drug culture and the man, this ultimate ‘70’s baseball icon who most fittingly, never made it onto a major league pitching mound during the 1980s.
INSTREAM: What was the driving force behind creating “Beyond Ellis D?” When did you make the decision "I am writing about Dock Ellis?"
DONNELL ALEXANDER: On a conscious level, I started writing about Dock in 2007. The subject of drugs in sports has interested me since I was, literally, a child. Way too young, I started with the reefer, growing up in Ohio. By high school, I knew of athletes who used stuff in performance.
Drug culture, in my opinion, is one of the least examined facets of American life. And yet so influential. Ya know?
The LSD no-hitter was something I'd come to know about when I left Ohio for California. But the real catalyst was working on Barry Bonds' autobiography, which never came to fruition, obviously. Regardless, following the baseball and steroids story led me directly to Dock, five years ago. The man hit me on my mobile, and he had a lot to say about methamphetamine, which was much bigger in the game than I had known.
I haven't really stopped writing about Dock since. His personality made it clear, from the first time we spoke on the phone, that his life was more than a drug story. Drugs are certainly part of it, but the tale just keeps growing. Dock's life is the stuff of cinematic plotlines and themes, so I'll probably not stop writing Dock in the near future.
INSTREAM: When did you decide the material would be best served by a multi-media platform, an ibook rather than a straight publication or perhaps even a longread magazine piece?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: Well, there's already a book. "Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball," by Donald Hall. I can't do any better than that. What's more, in terms of present-day interest in Dock, its origins are as audio. Before the animation, so many people first saw (Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No) in 2009, the audio of the new Dock Ellis narrative had lived on through public radio, Audiodocumentary.org and the like.
The psychedelic aspect alone all but mandates the story be told in a futuristic form. The iBook certainly fulfills that requirement, so much so that this week we're taking a step back and re-introducing Beyond Ellis D as a traditional Kindle download.
The publisher of Beyond Ellis D is my company, Alexander / Swift. In the first quarter of this year, we were wrapping our first iBook—a piece of crude genius B2B on how to have better meetings—for a ID8, a digital prototyping company. Soon as my partner Thor Swift and I shipped that download, we went after the Dock project. I knew I wanted to get at the Dock that didn't make the cut of An LSD No-No.
INSTREAM: You had said to me on Twitter the other night, "There's a relationship between the two narratives." Can you elaborate on this somewhat?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: I think you're referring to the relationship between my iBook's print narrative, which focuses on Dock the misunderstood rebel, and the surprisingly universal drugs and cheating tale told in the animated shorts.
One thing I've learned in producing two interactive books that there's no way of controlling how people read. Yet I still try to guide, and then I hope. Beyond Ellis D is constructed so that readers can broadly ping between my prose and the film. The cinematic narrative, which I wrote prior to the prose, is designed as a counter balance to my often-discursive prose.
The prose is a bit riff-y, definitely supplemental. I re-wrote the thing for Kindle.
INSTREAM: The Jackie Robinson letter to Dock Ellis and Dock's emotional response to sharing it out loud with you. How and why did you decide to record that?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: We were walking out the door, completely finished with the proper interview. Neille had put her headphones and microphone away, I think. Then Dock motioned toward his office and mentioned having that letter from Robinson. He put on his glasses, paged through Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, in which the correspondence is replicated. When he got to the right page, he pushed the book toward me. I asked him to read it. Neille was good enough to have gotten the sound set-up together, fast.
INSTREAM:"Try not to be left alone." This seems to be the moment where Dock begins to get upset. What do you think was the trigger that caused Dock to lose his composure in reading Robinson's letter?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: That's a great question. I've thought about the meaning of that letter and that exchange ever since the visit to Dock's crib. It changes over time.
To me, at this exact moment in time, I hear regret in Dock's cry. There's no real way to confirm it, of course. It's complicated, obviously. As good as Dock did, he could have done better. He's someone I think of as not wanting to let folks down. And he did. Everybody does. The letter is durable, durable journalism.
INSTREAM: Jackie Robinson passed away two days after the end of the 1972 World Series at the relatively young age of 53. Robinson actually threw out the first ball before Game 2 of the Fall Classic. He was in ill health but his death was not completely expected. Did Dock mention anything about how Robinson's sudden death affected him?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: We didn't talk about that. My sense is that they didn't have an enormously personal relationship. Dock and Jackie had indeed met, I think in Harlem. Naturally, when the subject is Jackie Robinson, an association is automatically serious. That Robinson had taken such a personal interest and given rare witness to the righteousness of Ellis being outspoken, that loss of Robinson had to resonate like crazy. But it's not like no one saw it coming. It wasn't like Clemente, out of nowhere.
People forget that Robinson was both a Party-of-Lincoln Republican and someone who didn't even salute the American flag at his life's end. The letter went out to Dock in the days after his famous All-Star Game declaration. He was disappointed, and seemed to think little of the strategy of patience that had been his approach to integration. It's interesting that the two meant something to each other, their approaches were so different.
INSTREAM: I am very curious about the on-the-field "what ifs" surrounding the 1973 Pittsburgh Pirates had Roberto Clemente not passed away, the outfield logjams, emerging players such as Richie Zisk and of course Dave Parker. What about the off-the-field "what ifs?" What impact did Clemente's death have on Dock emotionally?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: Clemente was huge for Dock. Important because Clemente connected with Chet Brewer, the Negro Leagues star and Pirates scout working out of LA. Chet Brewer nursed Dock into the game. The kids nickname was "Nut", and Dock certainly behaved like one. The specter of Clemente just had to settle Dock down through the early years, as much as he did indeed settle down.
Dock didn't talk to me about Momen. I have heard the same from others. But I do see the lack of discipline that revealed itself in the years following Clemente's death as a direct influence on the Pirates' long stretch of underperforming. Dock turned into, sometimes, a caricature of leadership. To my way of thinking, the Roberto Clemente presence in the clubhouse——even in the organization—could have lifted the 1970s Pirates into the elite of the sport.
INSTREAM: Father Figures. This appears to be a recurring theme/narrative in Dock's life. You imply that the death of Dock's father when Ellis was in his teens opened him to the suggestion of drug use, if not outright triggered. Dock's performance (if you look from a "counting stats" perspective or a sabermetric view), suffered and slid after Clemente died. He enjoyed a resurgence of sorts with the New York Yankees, but he was awesome that first season with Texas. You imply he enjoyed a nice relationship with Texas Rangers' owner Brad Corbett. Talk more about father figures and Dock Ellis.
DONNELL ALEXANDER: I do know that Ellis had messed around with intoxicants and such his entire life. In a book on substance abuse whose name presently eludes me, Ellis said he first tasted alcohol before he started school. Intoxication for a person like that is a matter of degree.
He's a strong personality and gravitated toward them. But, yes, Chet Brewer became a kind of father figure. And he was just the right kind. He threw a spitter, was a crafty, gutty guy. If it wasn't for Brewer, Ellis would have been in hoops. He was pursuing that at Los Angeles City College. But Brewer saw the ability and mind in the kid and kept pushing Ellis toward the game.
And of course Brewer leads to Clemente. Even the fights with Danny Murtaugh were leavened by good times, a real authority figure tough of war. By this time Ellis is dealing with people like Corbett and even Billy Martin, that dynamic isn't such a force. Dock's a grown man. A sovereign nation.
INSTREAM: Dock enjoyed a nice comeback season with the Yanks after the Pirates traded him, Ken Brett and a minor-leaguer named Willie Randolph for George "Doc" Medich. The Yankees PR director during that time, Marty Appel, says Dock was a "fun, terrific personality, very well liked in the clubhouse. He was a playful distraction, an advocate for player rights but he had a deft touch in making his points and having you see his POV." What did Dock think of his tour through the Bronx Zoo?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: He told me that he took a big bite out of it. The city is a natural for him. And Martin told him outright to do no press. Billy felt it important for a manager to absorb that kind of controversial figure, especially in that town.
As did most National Leaguers of his era, Ellis found A.L. ball to be inferior. Even so, he had to be surprised to do so well after struggling for years in Pittsburgh. The pitcher and his catcher Thurman Munson had a solid rapport. I can only wonder what other outside interests they shared.
INSTREAM: A sabermetric baseball analyst would (and could) argue that Dock's best run in his career was 1977, rather than say 1971 or '72. Yet, just two years later, his numbers would indicate his skills eroded in extremely rapid fashion and he was out of baseball by 1980. How much of this do you think was due to simple ability regression and how much was substance abuse?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: Some of this is simply beyond my kent. I could not begin to speculate about his arm, but Dock's weight fluctuated a lot. It's possible to look across the span of his career and see whether the player is leaning toward alcohol, if he's training seriously or whether he's on a cocaine diet. Again, I don't know a lot on this topic. But Dock looked good in '77. He could be pretty heavy, and then he was no good.
INSTREAM: Jed Weisberger, one of INSTREAM'S baseball writers, covered the Pirates spanning the mid/late '70's and '80s. He wrote a notes column about the Pirates re-acquiring Dock in 1979. From your conversations, tell me how excited Dock was to return to Pittsburgh and join "The Family."
DONNELL ALEXANDER: I know that Pops Stargell was instrumental in making it happen.
INSTREAM: Was Dock aware of Cortez' documentary? How did he feel about all the attention toward the end of his life?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: The documentary by Baseball Iconoclasts was around in a very early form. I'm pretty sure the doc contains audio from Dock. But that project was not the juggernaut it's become. But, overall, there was no attention. Put it this way, I wasn't led to Dock Ellis by a publicist; a guy from a San Bernardino prison linked me with the guy.
"An LSD No-No" with Neille Ilel ran on a Minnesota Public Radio program in 2008. It was a minor hit, a cult favorite. Just a bit after that, the Los Angeles Times did something on Dock's worsening health. Make no mistake, I never had an idea that reporters and fan club presidents were sniffing around that house in Apple Valley either before or after our interview. He died in December of that year. The animated short, which really made the Dock Ellis a ringing name again, came in November of 2009. I've been in touch with his family, through Facebook. They all seem pretty into it.
INSTREAM: Ultimately, besides the counter-culture attraction to Dock Ellis being the dude that threw the no-hitter on LSD, what in your mind is the legacy of Ellis, not just to baseball fans specifically but to everyone that knew him. What will become his lasting effect on lives?
DONNELL ALEXANDER: What's fun is that Dock's legacy is still evolving. Right now we're having an LSD moment, and that's important. We should address this blind spot in our culture. You see it in pop culture, as in Mad Men. The therapeutic nature of hallucinogens seems to be getting play in the New York Times.
I personally understand the story as being about heart. The heart to go out there and pitch on acid. The over-the-top emotion of hitting batters, boiling the game down to its rare essence. As mentioned earlier, drugs are so much a part of Western Living. And drugs, imo, can be a corrupting influence. I think we need more stories of drug users showing heart, because it happens. All the culture has now is images of stoner couch potatoes eating pizza. The Recoveries of Dock Ellis are all very fraught with social relevance.
If that was all of the Ellis legacy, it would be a lot. The guy contained multitudes. His legacy can be anything. It could be bringing black Americans back to baseball. Maybe there will be a Dock Ellis Center for Amphetamine Addiction one day. Or the USO will eventually be able to attract hipper talent. Who knows? I think he represents potential and emotion and storytelling, and where in the world is there not a need for these things? Could be anything. Or all of the above.
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