People that start thinking the voice on the radio is talking directly to them are people we worry about. I’m worried about myself, as of 7 p.m. on Sunday.
The car radio was turned to Outlaw Country, as is frequently the case, and Todd Snider came on and I swear, he said, “Hey, Patrick, listen to this,’’ and then jumped into his 2009 classic:
“America’s Favorite Pastime,’’ a wonderful sendup of Dock Ellis’ pitching a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 12, 1970, while dealing with the remnants of an LSD trip.
Dock’s accounts of this were varied before his death in 2008 at age 63. As a great songwriter must, Snider incorporated the best of Dock’s exaggerations into this tune, such as:
“Taking the mound, the ground turned into; The icing on a birthday cake
“The leadoff man came up and turned into; A dancing rattlesnake.”
As those three minutes of tribute to Dock’s zany no-no wound up, I realized Snider was saying to me, “This carries with it what’s going on in baseball right now, with a dose of what’s going on in America.’’
A year after the no-hitter, Ellis was the National League’s starter in the All-Star Game vs. the American League’s Vida Blue. It was the first time two African-Americans had started the game.
There were four African-American starters among the NL’s eight, and nine of the 18 position players for that league. The American League, always the trailer in great African-American talent since Jackie Robinson broke the barrier in 1947, had one position starter – Frank Robinson – and five African-Americans on its All-Star roster.
Two years later, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was so in-tune with the changing black culture that he went nuts when Ellis occasionally started appearing in large hair curlers to shag balls in pregame batting practice.
Kuhn threatened a suspension if Ellis continued to appear on the sanctity of a baseball field – even if it was pegame – with hair curlers.
“No one complained about Joe Pepitone’s long hairpiece,’’ said Ellis, even though he did stop the practice rather than not get paid during a suspension.
Dock was in big leagues from 1968 through 1979, through the nastiest early days of the battles between the players union led by the genius Marvin Miller, and the owners, led by a series of buffoons.
Ellis would throw in observations on baseball’s various forms of racism to add spice to the dialogue. And in 2019, 46 years after Dock’s pregame efforts to maintain his “Superfly’’ hairdo that had been featured in Ebony magazine, it remained clear that MLB and black America had reached this accommodation:
We’ll ignore each other.
A year ago, when teams actually played major league baseball, 7.7 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters were African-Americans. In mid-summer, four of 61 players on the All-Star rosters were African-Americans.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, the descendants of Brooklyn’s barrier breakers, did not have an African-American player appear in a game.
Baseball watched African-Americans turn to the NFL and the NBA, and found its “diversity’’ and best athletes in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and with Cuban defectors.
The products of those lands have saved the game from a talent level, but I’ve been thinking this for a while, and again when being spoken to directly by Todd Snider on Sunday:
“What if major league baseball still was landing enough of the great African-American athletes – enough Byron Buxtons – to make up 15 percent of its workforce, not 7-something?’’
Conclusion: The talent level would be mind-blowing and considerably more difficult for younger generations to ignore.
Dock, by the way, was always a trip -- even when he wasn’t trippin’. I had a good talk with him in the ‘90s, when he was speaking to teams about the sobriety he had found years earlier. He was a crusader against baseball’s racism, more with unfiltered thoughts than hair curlers, and he also became a crusader to help people troubled by drugs, alcohol and, presumably, hallucinogens.
“I used to come up to Minnesota for a few days in the winter for a visit,’’ said Dock, with a grin. “They had those little houses out on frozen lakes. You could take all the drugs you wanted out there and no one would bother you.’’
I’m sure that Dock would not be surprised to find America in its greatest racial unrest since his youth. And I’m sure Dock would not be surprised to see the players and the owners once again at one another’s throats, even with the battle now being how to divide billions rather than millions.
There’s never been a worse look for a sport, much less for baseball, than the players and owners exchanging insults in midst of this dual misery:
A pandemic unseen in a century, now topped in this country by the death of a black civilian under the knee of a Minneapolis cop leading to unrelenting protest. It’s a different America than it was in February, and a much different America than it was three weeks ago.
The ability to ignore this and not reach an amicable deal to play a semi-legitimate baseball season is mind-numbing – with Tony Clark still chasing the icing on the birthday cake, and Rob Manfred dancing like a rattlesnake.