Five Questions about Dock Ellis - with Donnell Alexander
5 Questions About Dock Ellis
Each week, we will pose five questions about Dock to someone close to the story.
This week's featured subject is Donnell Alexander. With producing partner Neille Ilel, he conducted the interview and created the radio piece that led to a "driveway moment" for so many listeners. That same segment was used as the basis of No Mas' animated short Dock Ellis and the LSD No No, which has received over two million hits on YouTube.
An audio excerpt of Alexander's interview features Dock reading a letter from Jackie Robinson and is included at the bottom of this update.
Alexander has recently released a new iBook, Beyond Ellis D.
5 Questions about Dock Ellis – Donnell Alexander
In 2007, writer Donnell Alexander spoke with Dock Ellis for the first time. It was early in the evening, and the Pittsburgh Pirates legend was on the way home from his job as a drug counselor in a San Bernadino prison. Alexander was headed into the draft for his son's South Pasadena Little League team. Their brief conversation would lead to an amazing and unexpected third act of the Dock Ellis story.
An Ohio native, Alexander grew up following the Cleveland Indians and was familiar with Ellis as much from the pitcher's appearances in Jet and Ebony magazines as his many 1970s' Game of the Week appearances. Now 45, the San Francisco-based writer is best known for his memoir Ghetto Celebrity, the essay Cool Like Me: Are Black People Cooler than White People? and his mercurial stint at ESPN: The Magazine.
He spoke to us from the Portland apartment of his girlfriend, who designed the cover of his just-released iBook Beyond Ellis D.
As a storyteller, what is it about Dock's story that makes you want to climb over every barrier in your way and shout it to the world?
At the start, I was only interested in exploring Major League's Baseball's drug policy, which struck me as tortured. As a cultural critic, I'd been interested in sport as a microcosm of society. Like, what about our own attitudes toward drugs could we learn from looking at the national pastime’s regard for them?
I had worked for ESPN during the summer of the McGwire-Sosa home run chase and been blown away by the tolerance of such obvious performance enhancing drug usage. It played perfectly into an old adage of mine: There's a reason that, at workplaces all over America, we're granted time off to ingest coffee, as opposed to heroin, although if the latter were clean and regulated it wouldn't necessarily do our bodies worse. We'd certainly sleep better.
Same thing with meth. That scourge is minimally addressed, despite eating the nation up from within. 'Cuz while on this poor man's coke, folks will work mindless jobs for shitty pay without thinking through the ramifications.
I'd left a book project with Barry Bonds a few years before Dock and I connected. It was that obsession with drug policy that interested me at first. When I actually got to sit down with the guy, I discovered that drugs, while central to the man's narrative, were far from all that was compelling about him. He was most likely a super-soulful dude before he began to seriously experiment with drugs, although I'm guessing his explorations allowed him better access to all that heart.
You were quite familiar with Dock before you interviewed him. What surprised you about him?
Dock's last name is my middle name, so as a boy I was naturally drawn to him. But I didn't see him pitch much, growing up on Lake Erie. I was an Indians fan and Detroit Tigers games were the second baseball viewing option. My relationship to Dock was abstract, in the mode of baseball cards. I wish I had lived in range of a radio station that carried Pirates games. I'm told that his post-game interviews could be fantastic stream-of-consciousness performances.
That tangible experience of meeting him in person was just one overwhelming, unforgettable event. It's hard to bring forth just one thing. I guess the most surprising part of the 2008 interview at his home in Apple Valley was being really, really angry when I left.
He had such vivid and varied stories. One of the takeaways from my time at ESPN was that athletes, almost to a person, have physical expression as their most remarkable communication mode. They tend to be unremarkable in verbal expression. You get the occasional Ali or Bill Bradley or Kareem, but unless they are recounting their own exploits they tend not to be that deep. But Dock was so funny and expressive and rangy. That was remarkable.
Then, on the way out I had Dock read the Robinson letter aloud. Of course it shocked me to hear and feel the profound emotion with which he read the thing. But there was also the content, just the fact that Jackie Robinson -- a longtime Republican, people tend to forget -- could so incisively explain the white sport's media's way of character assassination in the age of COINTELPRO. That letter reading is among the two or three most mind-blowing experiences in a journalism career that's seen more than its share of wildness.
My producing partner Neille Ilel and I went to Ikea to pick up a few things after leaving Dock's home. I very specifically remember Neille placing a desk lamp into the cart I was pushing and becoming so enraged. Just incensed, silently smoldering, and focusing on that lamp, for some reason and wondering, Why have we been deprived of this guy?
I'm sure that, when the drugs eventually got on top of Dock, he did some awful shit. But he was so clearly that person who, if you're lucky, you meet two or three times in a lifetime and their presence alone screams out Exceptional Human Being.
Your audio creation was the basis for the animated video Dock Ellis & the LSD No No that has received over 2 million views. What about that surprised you?
If I'm going to be fully honest, I was surprised that I got so little credit and James Blagden, the guy who drew the pictures and added the sound effects got 98 percent of the credit. Dock Ellis is clearly story driven. But I get that my being diminished was a good, utilitarian development, ultimately. Blagden was young and sellable and based in New York, which is important if you want something to really blow up in the media world. Plus, he's a very good artist and a smart, seemingly good person. His work was invaluable in reviving interest in Dock.
I was working on one of my friend's spare computers, one I wasn't at all familiar with, when I played the video. I liked the thing a lot, but wasn't overwhelmed by it. Mostly because I'd become wedded to the idea of creating what the no-no was actually like behind one's own eyelids -- I thought the narrative shouldn't be one fixed thing. Determine your own adventure and all that good shit. But also there was some weird, unidentified music coming out of the computer and permeating the No-No soundtrack.
By the next day I'd figured out how special the No Mas thing was. Then it got 600,000 or so hits its first day on YouTube and Robin Williams bit it for his HBO special. And Sundance called to say the festival would wave its deadline restrictions to let us into the short films competition. I knew then that something unique was going down. The U.K.'s prestigious Cinema Eye Honors nominated my fucking story for its documentary shorts prize, one of (I think) only two from The States. I was insanely proud, even though my name was mentioned nowhere.
Tell us about the No Mas video being shut out of the YouTube Sundance Showcase due to “objectionable content”?
The showcase's sponsor -- Verizon, I believe -- booted Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No. I think that allowed for an element of surprise at the festival. Our short was such a late edition to the festival that it blindsided everyone. When debuted, before the exceptional Reggie Miller doc Winning Time, the audience reaction was out-fucking-rageous. Never seen anything like it. If Dock had been in the guide or that showcase, maybe the short wouldn't have hit so hard. (We got honorable mention, losing out to an installment of Will Ferrell's "Drunk History", although a couple of jurors confided in me that we only lost because HBO and Funny or Die had so much clout.)
Being censored though was the first solid message of how contraband objective discussion of LSD still was. This wasn't today, when Matt Weiner could build a storyline on Mad Men with acid as a plot device. No one was much talking about Steve Jobs using the stuff so that he could think different. Shit, dude, Dartmouth's student newspaper put up an eloquent endorsement of the No-No and LSD the following summer and within days that bad boy was torn out of the frame. Even in our relatively enlightened present, it happens. The Bleacher Report posted something in commemoration of 6.12? Inside of a day it was outta there.
Just like COINTELPRO, I tell ya.
What is your favorite Dock Ellis story?
So many. I wrote a screenplay about Dock and embroidered on the story of his USO tour of Vietnam, after his amazing 1971 season. Bob Hope took a shining to him and, at the same time, Dock's hunger for experience took him to the hooches, where the soldiers did their downtime thing. I know that some of them were doing smack and that Dock warned them off the stuff.
It is, for me, the most interesting and, in some ways, most emblematic. It's such a Dock Ellis thing that, as crazy as the story is on its surface, you know it gets still zanier if you have the wherewithal to drill down on its details.
Dock Ellis Reads a Letter from Jackie Robinson
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Jun 12, 2012 - Jul 17, 2012 (35 days)
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You want the world to know more about Dock Ellis and require nothing in return. Feel free to contribute $5 or more.Estimated delivery: Jul 2012
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A "Dock Ellis Has a Posse" sticker, in black and white. An original postcard for the film. A pair of vintage 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates color stickers.Estimated delivery: Aug 2012
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98 backers Limited (2 of 100 left)
THE POSSE -- Digital download of the film, after we have digital distribution in place (2013 or later). Limited edition, silk screened June 12, 1970 - June 12, 2010 event POSTER featuring the art of Lil Tuffy and designed & hand printed by Billy Bishop. Special Name RECOGNITION on the Dockumentary webpage as a funder. "Dock Ellis Has a Posse" sticker and a postcard for the film.Estimated delivery: Aug 2012
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14 backers Limited (26 of 40 left)
POSSE PLUS -- Digital download of the film, after we have digital distribution in place (2013 or later). Limited edition, silk screened June 12, 1970 - June 12, 2010 event POSTER featuring the art of Lil Tuffy and designed & hand printed by Billy Bishop. Special Name RECOGNITION on the Dockumentary webpage as a funder. "Dock Ellis Has a Posse" sticker, pair of vintage 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates color stickers, and a postcard for the film.Estimated delivery: Sep 2012
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59 backers Limited (11 of 70 left)
ALL BENEFITS OF THE POSSE, PLUS: 1978 Dock Ellis (Rangers) Topps baseball card. Vintage 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates cloth patch. ACCESS to a private mailing list with notification of special events in Austin and around the country as the film is completed and shown.Estimated delivery: Sep 2012
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DOCK ELLIS ZOMBIE HUNTER -- "I had to go ... We were in a jeep. We got to a certain area. I saw these people walking - four of them, ZOMBIES." (Hall, _Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball_ p.135) One color, hand-drawn, original 4x6 sketch card signed by Kevin-John ~ from an illustrated series inspired by Dock Ellis, Manny Sanguillen, Manny Mota, Tito Fuentes and Rico Carty. ALSO includes ALL BENEFITS OF THE POSSE & private mailing list.Estimated delivery: Oct 2012
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ALL BENEFITS OF THE POSSE, PLUS: Hand-drawn CONCEPT SKETCH by Kevin-John, celebrity sports artist and illustrator for the film. http://www.kevin-john.com. "Additional Funding By" end CREDIT (two column) in all versions of the film, theatrical and digital. 1978 Dock Ellis (Rangers) Topps baseball card. ACCESS to a private mailing list with notification of special events.Estimated delivery: Sep 2012
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6 backers Limited (4 of 10 left)
Hand-painted FINISHED SKETCH by Kevin-John, celebrity sports artist and illustrator for the film. PERSONAL invitation to EXCLUSIVE, behind the scenes events and dinners during the post-production and festival run of the film. "Additional Funding By" end CREDIT (topmost, single column) in all versions of the film, theatrical and digital. ANY or ALL perks available at lower reward levels.Estimated delivery: Sep 2012
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2 backers Limited (3 of 5 left)
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Optional opening credit in all versions of the film as an Associate Producer and in the film's IMDB entry. Two SEATS to any (and all) public (and private) screenings of the film, if arranged in advance (travel not included). ACCESS to the Producers and the Director, even if you ever just want to call and chat about Dock. Limited Edition, signed and numbered, framed canvas giclee featuring a full color portrait of Dock Ellis by Celebrity Sports Artist Kevin-John. One item of memorabilia SIGNED by Dock Ellis from the filmmaker's collection (choices vary based on availability). PERSONAL invitation to EXCLUSIVE, behind the scenes events and dinners during the post-production and screening run of the film. ANY or ALL perks available at lower reward levels.Estimated delivery: Sep 2012