Donald Hall died on Saturday. Best known as a poet, he was also a baseball nut who wrote two books about the sport—Fathers Playing Catch With Sons, a book of essays; and Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, an illuminating portrait of one of the most charismatic and enigmatic ballplayers of his time.
From Country of Baseball:
“In the country of baseball, time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward and forward, until we seem so reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same.”
“The old first baseman, making the final out of the inning, in the last year he will play, underhands the ball casually toward the mound, as he has done ten thousand times. The ball bounces over the lip of the grass, climbs the crushed red brick of the mound for a foot or two, and then rolls back until it catches in the green verge. The ball has done this ten thousand times.”
The book is best known for breaking the story about Ellis pitching a no-hitter on LSD—a detail so taboo that in the original pressing Hall wrote that the pitcher had merely been drunk. (“I wrote ‘we made some screwdrivers’ instead of ‘we took some tabs,’ ” Hall later clarified. “I substituted ‘about noon the next day, I realized I was pitching,’ for the more astonishing ‘I might have slept maybe an hour. I got up maybe about nine or ten in the morning. Took another half tab.’ When he arrived at the clubhouse, my bowdlerized story had Dock drink a lot of coffee. Instead he swallowed Dexamyl and Benzedrine. ‘When I took those greenies,’ he had told me, ‘that knocked that acid out of there. Had a couple of bennies, too.’ ”)
There are many, many other worthy stories:
When [Pete Rose Jr.] was three, Pete asked Dock under the stands to pitch to the boy. “He’s just like his father,” Dock says with admiration. “He stands just like him.” Dock asked him where he’d like the pitch. “Get your shit over the plate,” the boy said. “Get that damned shit over.”
In the lobby of the San Francisco Hilton, as we head out for dinner after a game, we see a Pittsburgh Pirate sitting alone in a large, pretentious chair. This ballplayer is white, mustachioed, elegantly dressed, and he sits upright, cool, handsome, and dignified. “What’s happening?” says Dock.
“Oh,” says the ballplayer, sophisticated and detached, “I’m waiting for someone to pick me up for dinner.” He pauses minutely, and just as Dock is about to speak, he continues, “I don’t know who she is yet, but she’ll be along.” Then he squints down the dark hallway at a young woman registering. The squint is theatrical and exact. “No,” he sighs. “Not her. I’m too beautiful.”
Less poetic but just as interesting is Ellis detailing his reason for wearing hair curlers in the early 1970s, a fashion statement that elicited derision from fellow players but which came with a purpose:
I find myself curious about the curlers . . . Although I spend a good deal of time with Dock, I never see him wearing curlers around the house. I wonder why he wore them just before games. I ask him.
“That’s when I was throwing spitballs. When I had the curlers, my hair would be straight. Down the back. On the ends would be nothing but balls of sweat.”
“Spitballs!” I say. . . . “So you wore curlers for the sake of pitching?”
“Oh, yes! Just one touch at a time. It was something I experimented with. I do well with them.”
“Do you still throw them?”
“No. Every once in awhile, I want to load up. I don’t fool with it. I throw it sometimes to left-handed hitters, when I get two strikes on them, if a man’s on first, to get them to hit into a double play.”
“When did you start throwing spitters?”
“In nineteen seventy-two, at the end of the year. I threw it four consecutive games. Natural sweat. When it gets wet, at the end of my hair there are balls of water. Before every pitch, I would get it.” Dock would reach to the back of his head, and load up his fingertips. “Then I pick up the resin like this.” He looks as if he wipes his fingers on the resin, but really he keeps his fingertips from touching the bag, then he appears to wipe his hand across his shirt. “I go across my chest like this. I wipe my hat. I get my thumb dry—but I would have it. I threw ninety-nine percent spitballs when I was throwing spitballs, July and August, nineteen seventy three.”
“What makes a spitball drop? How do you throw it?”
“One of the real heavy spitball dudes broke it down for me. You drop the ball on the mound, get a rough side on it. You get the spit or sweat or Vaseline—whatever you use—on the balls of your fingers, and put your fingers on the fat part of the ball, the rough side for more traction. Then you release it from the balls of your fingers, and it’ll slow, it’s got to go down, it’s the only place it can go.”
Hall was 89 years old. Baseball has lost a longtime supporter.