By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I met Dock on the front porch of a lady friend's house in 1962," says Al Rambo, Ellis' cohort the night before the LSD incident. "He drove up in a 1959 four-door Chevy Impala with 'The Nut' written on the rear windshield. He walked up and told me he was a singer. I asked him to sing, and he said he only did it for money.
"He's still the person you call if you want to find somebody from the old Neighborhood. Later, he liked to create this image that he was a gangbanger or something, but Dock never got into much trouble. Except with the ladies."
Ellis and Rambo soon began running around with a couple of other neighborhood athletes, calling themselves "The Sons." At 6-foot-4, Ellis originally gained notice as a basketball player; he once had 21 assists in a Gardena High game. He refused to play for the baseball team--one of the white players had called him "spearchucker"--until, during his senior year, he was caught drinking wine in the bathroom. Play baseball, he was told, or we'll suspend you.
He played in four games and was named all-league.
Ellis' true initiation to baseball took place under the tutelage of legendary pitcher Chet Brewer, a 20-year veteran of the old Negro and Mexican leagues, a man who had played alongside Satchel Paige on the Kansas City Monarchs. Brewer was a scout for the Pirates and the manager of L.A.'s Pittsburgh Pirate Rookies squad. (In the days before the draft, such scouts were heavily relied upon to recruit players for rookie teams; at one point, the talent on Brewer's team was so impressive that Ellis wasn't even their No. 1 pitcher--and future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray was the bat boy.) Almost immediately, several teams tried to sign Ellis to a proper minor league contract, but he and his friends had heard of rookie players signing with the Pirates for $60,000, so he held out. Then, a year out of high school, Ellis got arrested for stealing a car. (Long story.) After he got off with probation and a fine, Chet Brewer suggested that, at this point, he might consider signing anything with a dotted line. And so, in 1964, Ellis signed a one-year minor-league contract with the Pirates for $500 a month, plus a $2,500 signing bonus. The Nut was going to The Show.
After that, it's impressions, mostly. The bullpen. Throwing. No idea how that felt, but he can remember being there. Next: the dugout. Sitting. Looking up and seeing drizzle. Not really how it looked or felt or any of that; just hoping to shit the game would be canceled. Just before 6:05 p.m., the umpire emerged, wiped off home plate and did a quick and basically ceremonial examination of the drizzle situation and signaled to the Pirates' bench. The national anthem began. "Damn. Looks like I'm gonna have to pitch." At this point, the thing in his hand felt, more or less, like a very heavy volleyball.
Looking at tape of Ellis in his prime, what's most immediately striking is how much bigger--as in taller, naturally wider, fatter--the players appear to be; by contrast, a baseball game in today's steroid era looks like a carnival of bloated red midgets. The second-most striking thing is the economy of Ellis' motion. There's no elaborate wind-up, no huge leg kick or head move. He hides the ball until the last possible moment, then nonchalantly throws a brutal breaking ball. After a few pitches, it's easy to see how, even without the best pure stuff in the league, he became one of its premier pitchers.
In 1968, after being called up from the minors in June, Ellis went 6-5 with a 2.51 ERA; as quickly as the 1971 season, he was 19-9 with a 3.06 ERA and starting for the National League in the All-Star game. He had the arm speed and leg strength, but he also relied heavily on strategy--which consisted almost entirely of intimidation.