Right Down the Middle
On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates started against the San Diego Padres. Ellis no-hit the Padres, walking eight including three hit batsmen. The Padres were only in their second season as a franchise, finished with an abysmal .389-win percentage. Still, Ellis wasn’t doing himself any favors that night. He pitched the no hitter on LSD.
I don’t blame people for wondering whether it’s true. There was this one sports reporter, Bill Christine, who wouldn’t let it go. “I practically lived with the team that year,” he said to anyone who’d listen. “I would have known. If a starting pitcher shows up just 90 minutes before game time, I would know about it!” That cracked me up. That sort of ego. He said, too, he didn’t see anything unusual about Ellis, like he’s the LSD authority. That cracked me up. I might not have believed it myself except that I was there when it happened. I’m the one who put the tab on his tongue.
The three of us, Ellis, Ricci, and me, were holed up in a shabby apartment in Santa Monica, one block from the beach. Montana Ave, that was the street. I remember, because I kept thinking over and over again, why the hell they named it that. Ricci was with me, and Ellis kept saying a girlfriend of his was gonna stop by, but she never showed. He said to go on without her, so we did just that. The first dose hit me hard. I could hear the waves crashing along the shore so loud I swore they were coming from the kitchen. The sun appeared like smoke, slowly creeping into the dark apartment, subsuming it in light. At some point, Ricci made grilled cheese. I remember because I tasted it again every time I passed through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. When I pissed, the stream sparkled with neon. The raw cheese, before all the food sorcery, I thought.
“So what it’s like,” Ricci asked. “Playing in front of all those people?”
“Spartacus,” Ellis said. “I’m Spartacus.”
We all took turns saying it.
I remember there was this great momentum to take the trip outside. “Should we go to the beach?” we asked one or a dozen times. But every time we went for the door, one of us would say, “I’m Spartacus,” and we would sit back down.
What people forget about Ellis is that as a Black player in the 70s, he wouldn’t keep his damn mouth shut. Some people call him the Muhammad Ali of baseball. Jackie Robinson himself commended Ellis for his insistence that players have the right to free agency. But it wasn’t always pretty for Ellis. In ‘72 Ellis and a few teammates missed the team bus to Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. When a security guard asked Ellis for ID and he tried to show his World Series ring instead, he got maced in response. The Reds Organization official response? Sue Ellis for assault. It made him hate better, Ellis said later of the incident. Two years later when the Reds AKA “The Big Red Machine,” were at the height of their dominance, Ellis attempted to hit every player in their lineup. He hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Dan Driessen, and walked Tony Perez, who managed to dodge a ball aimed at his head, before being pulled from the game.
It might seem short-sighted to go after the Reds players when it was the organization that sued him, but Ellis knew what we all knew, understood the inherent relationship between the owners and the workers. He understood that the players, especially the Black ones, were the property of the team, that by going after the heroes of the Reds organization, Ellis was jeopardizing their precious investment. Who’s gonna come see the Reds play if Pete Rose is on the bench? How are they gonna win games if Joe Morgan can’t play? Ellis saw the way the owners set the players up on the field like chess pieces and sat back, high in their sky box, to watch them have it out. I saw it, too, from where I was standing every morning, waiting in line at the mill to punch the clock. Yeah, I was a Pittsburgh boy.
We lost track of time in that apartment, to say the least. When the sun came back, we figured it just never left. It wasn’t until Ricci turned on the radio that we realized it was Friday now. I still don’t understand how Ellis made it to the game. As far as we could understand, he walked through the door and right into the television screen. Next we knew, Ricci and I were watching Ellis pitch, watching him struggle. I felt something then, a struggle of my own, one I’ve never quite been able to describe.
The Padres came to bat in long black cassocks tucked into their high socks. Richard Nixon, the home plate umpire, was wearing a collarette. When Ellis pitched, Nixon called the balls and strikes with one of his enormous pink tentacles, tentacles protruding out his ass, like he was trying to shit out an octopus. The tentacles, there must have been a dozen of them, were thick as thighs, and had these huge suckers running up and down them. Every time Ellis set at the mound and began his windup, those tentacles floated right above him, waiting to strike, waiting for him to fall out of line. See, the thing is, especially back then, baseball wanted Blacks to follow the rules, to stay in line, to keep the course. For a pitcher, that meant throwing strikes. Right down the middle of the plate. Strike after strike after strike. Every time Ellis threw a ball, I saw him squirm as one of those pink suckers struck him blind. It wasn’t just Nixon behind the plate, either. When the Pirates were at bat, it was Mr. Hornish, the foreman at the mill, who used to smack me upside the head with a rolled-up newspaper if I arrived a minute late, took eleven minutes instead of ten for my break. Nixon, Hornish, they wanted the same thing. They wanted Ellis to throw strikes, tip his hat, keep quiet. They wanted me to keep my mouth shut and keep the line moving. Don’t make a fuss. Don’t raise any objections. Don’t talk pay disputes, unequal treatment. Every time Ellis threw a ball, whip, shock. Every time I gave Hornish the eye, whip¸ shock.
After the no-hitter, Ellis won’t be the same player. He will brawl with his manager, Don Leppert, wear hair curlers on the field, call Commissioner Kuhn a racist, publicly criticize George Steinbrenner, and bean Pete Rose, again and again and again.
Next week when I go back to work, there will be an iron fence when there wasn’t before. The sky will be slate-grey, the color of unpolished steel. I’ll stand outside the fence, eyeing Mr. Hornish in his oily overalls, holding his megaphone and clipboard, calmly shouting about efficiency and order. Peeking through the hole in the fence, I’ll see everything in shades of black and white, almost like I was being filmed in somebody else’s old movie. What was that name again?
Eric Williams is a fiction writer from New Jersey. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and has been generously supported through residencies at Art Farm and the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. He lives in Texas and on Twitter @lowkeyric.
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