By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
"I met Dock on the front porch of a lady friend's house in 1962," says Rambo. "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 six foot four, 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 a "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's 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, rookie teams heavily relied on such scouts to recruit players; 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 batboy.) 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.
Here's what Ellis remembers about the trip from Los Angeles to San Diego: not a goddamn thing. Apparently he got to the airport, boarded one of the San Diego shuttles that left every half-hour, flew for 22 minutes and landed. The first thing he recalls is sitting in a taxi, telling the driver to "get to the fucking stadium" and saying, "I got to play." Next thing, he's sitting in the locker room. 5 p.m. By that point, Ellis had enough experience with LSD to know that it wouldn't be wearing off anytime soon; as a "precautionary measure," he took somewhere between four and eight amphetamines and drank some water. He walked to the railing at Jack Murphy Stadium where, each time he played in San Diego, a female acquaintance would bring him a handful of Benzedrine. White Crosses. He took a handful of those and went to the bullpen to warm up.
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," he thought. At this point, the thing in his hand felt, more or less, like a very heavy volleyball.
Much like rock music or God, baseball is forever being declared dead. This scandal or that problem has tarnished the game forever; this strike or that contract has permanently alienated the fans; this player or that legend declares the sport has seen its best days. Ellis hates that shit. "When I played the game " "When I played the game " The ball is the same, isn't it? How about the bat? Still four bases? Okay then.
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's motion. There's no elaborate windup, 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.