The Dock-tor is Out, Way Out

Today marks the 46th anniversary of the day when Dock Ellis, supposedly tripping on LSD, did what 90% of major league pitchers can only dream of: he threw a no-hitter.

That it came with eight walks seems appropriate. By definition, you’re going to be a little wild after dropping acid. Yet the Pittsburgh Pirates hurler survived all those free baserunners to become a lysergic legend. Not everyone believes it happened. That’s no surprise. It really shouldn’t be possible. If it did happen, Ellis demonstrated some remarkable focus, because he had a lot to deal with out there. In his own words:

I chewed my gum until it turned to powder. I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate.

It’s a funny story, but less humorous when one considers that drugs damaged if not destroyed Ellis’s career. There’s another tragedy, too. People dismiss Ellis now due to his excesses, but at the time he took real risks as an African American who pushed for player rights in the game and African American rights, period. He walked some walk, too. After getting clean he spent years as a drug counselor.

Ellis startCorzineF15ed in drugs in what you might say was an honest, or at least common, way: he abused amphetamines to play baseball, just like a lot of his peers. In the UIP release Team Chemistry, Nathan Michael Corzine puts Dock in some context:

The Reading scandal showed that amphetamine was deeply ingrained in baseball culture, but the Major Leagues were no stranger to recreational drug use either. Marijuana use was widespread throughout all levels of the sport, particularly in the minor leagues. As it was with alcohol, sometimes drug-related exploits were elevated into the game’s cult mythology. The most notorious example of such a story is that of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, who allegedly threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres while under the influence of LSD in 1970.

Ellis, an edgy and outspoken player in a baseball era of relative conformity, didn’t reveal his secret until almost a decade had passed. He quickly became something of a cult figure for people enamored with 1960s experimentation and radicalism. Ellis’s career, however, was derailed by drugs. Throughout the final years of his pro career he was an often injured pitcher drowning in a deluge of acid, speed, barbiturates, cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol (“I have never pitched a game without being high,” he later claimed).

Beyond the mythology of the no-hitter, Ellis’s career suggests the wide boundaries and quietly destructive nature of baseball’s drug culture. Dock Ellis was familiar with cocaine well before the drug became of symbol of 1980s celebrity excess. Former Texas Rangers owner Brad Corbett later acknowledged how dire the drug problem was in baseball at the end of the 1970s when he recalled the Ellis story. “Everybody loves to talk about that LSD no-hitter,” he said, “but come on. Stuff like that was happening all the time. Everybody was doing something. One relief pitcher we traded for, I went to meet him in New York at Studio 54. And I walk in and look over and say to myself, ‘Hmm. Is that sugar?’”

Oddly enough, it took a scandal in professional football to shed light on Major League Baseball’s cocaine problem.