Smizik: Dock Ellis ... Still shoots from the lips

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Dock Phillip Ellis Jr., a lanky right-hander of the Pirates' past, is a portly right-hander these days, but little else has changed about the man who served up one of the most famous home runs in All-Star Game history.

Ellis might have put inches on his waistline, but facially he has changed little and his personality not at all. He's the same old Dock, mischievous, talking in rhymes and riddles and laughing at a lot of the stuff he says like he's the only one who gets the joke. You're left never quite knowing what he meant or if the joke is on you.

Ellis is in town not to recount that very fat pitch Reggie Jackson drove into history in the 1971 All-Star Game, but to sign autographs.

Imagine that ... Pittsburghers lining up for two to three hours at the All-Star FanFest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to obtain the signature of Ellis, the flaky, funny, sometimes ace, sometimes dunce of the 1970s Pirates. Love him or hate him, and he was the kind of guy who elicited both emotions from the fans, Ellis almost always had something to say. He had a fine career, going 138-119 and started in two World Series with two different teams. But what he did off the field almost always eclipsed what he did on it.

His mouth, in fact, might have been instrumental in getting him the start in what was to be his only All-Star appearance and making him a footnote in home run history.

Although he was 14-3 at the break in 1971, the National League was awash in great pitchers, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Phil Niekro among them. Seaver, in particular, was having an outstanding season.

The American League starter, without question would be Vida Blue, on his way to a 24-win season and 16-3 at the end of June.

Ellis attempted to nudge his way into the starting role by proclaiming baseball would "never start two brothers against each other." Whether that pushed National League manager Sparky Anderson into starting Ellis is not known, but what is known is Ellis got his wish.

He started and shut out the American League in the first two innings. Luis Aparicio led off the third with a hit, and Jackson, not yet the superstar he was to become and a late addition to the team, was sent up to bat for Blue.

Ellis had two strikes on Jackson and threw a slider, which Jackson absolutely crushed. It was a breathtaking site as the ball rocketed toward right-center field and headed to who knows where until it crashed into a transformer on the right-center field light tower. The transformer was about 90 feet off the ground and some 400 feet from home plate.

Detroit Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, who played in the game, had never seen such a sight at Tigers Stadium.

"It was still going up when it hit the light tower. And the ring off the bat was devastating. It was a noise you don't hear often -- almost like an aluminum bat. There was a sound when he hit it, even in a noisy ballpark, that was unbelievable."

The distance the ball would have traveled originally was estimated at about 520 feet. Years later, professors at Wayne State University calculated the distance at 650 feet.

Ellis, with a grin, distanced himself from any blame. It was the fault, he suggested, of Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench

"He called a bad pitch," Ellis said. "I wasn't familiar with Reggie Jackson at the time. Reggie was a breaking-ball hitter, and that's what Bench called."

Nor did Ellis consider the clout anything special.

"A little guy in Double A [Rufus Brown] hit two that went farther than that off me," he claimed. "And I've seen [ex-Pirate] Bob Robertson hit one as far or farther."

Ellis was capable of doing anything.

On May 1, 1974, facing the Cincinnati Reds, he hit the first three batters, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen. He tried to hit Tony Perez, but couldn't. Instead Perez walked. He threw two pitches at Bench before being removed.

"They called our team dumb," said Ellis of the Reds. "I told Kurt Bevacqua in spring training I would drill all of them.

"Bevacqua said, 'I'll bet you a Chateaubriand.'

"I collected."

A year later at a team meeting where he was supposed to apologize for failing to accept a bullpen assignment, he ended up criticizing his teammates and manager Danny Murtaugh.

Murtaugh threw Ellis out of the clubhouse. General manager Joe L. Brown suspended Ellis before the game was over and, after the season, Ellis was traded to the New York Yankees.

Ellis pitched a no-hitter against San Diego in 1970 when he was strung out on drugs. He showed up in the bullpen at Wrigley Field wearing curlers in his hair and he famously complained about the quality of the beds when the Pirates were in the 1971 World Series.

Ellis works with troubled youths in Southern California these days.

With Dock it's no doubt a case of, "Don't do as I do, do as I say."


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.


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