Today in Baseball History: Dock Ellis tosses his LSD-fueled no-hitter

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On this date in 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates starter Dock Ellis tossed a no-hitter against the Padres at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. Famously, he did so while tripping on acid. At least if you believe Dock Ellis. Which not everyone does. But we’ll get the doubts in a moment. For now let’s give what was, more or less, Ellis’ account from the time he first told the story to reporters in 1984 until he died in 2008.

The Pirates played in San Francisco on Wednesday, June 10, after which they flew down to San Diego, where they had the day off on Thursday. Ellis, who was from Los Angeles, rented a car and drove north to visit his girlfriend Mitzi and a childhood friend of his named Al. The three of them stayed up late that Thursday night drinking and taking various drugs.

The next morning Ellis was still pretty messed up and in his mind it was still Thursday somehow. Thinking that he was not supposed to pitch until the next day, he took another hit of acid at around noon. At around 1PM his friend was reading the paper and asked Dock if he was aware he was scheduled to pitch the first game of a twi-night doubleheader starting at 6PM. Ellis bolted from the house, got on a plane and made it to Jack Murphy Stadium a little over an hour before first pitch. When he got to the park he grabbed some greenies in the clubhouse in an effort to pep himself up and to the mound he went.

“I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria,” Ellis said when finally telling the world about his LSD-fueled no-no in 1984:

I was zeroed in on the [catcher’s] glove, but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times. The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder. They say I had about three to four fielding chances. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn’t hit hard and never reached me.

In later tellings Ellis would say that he thought Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and at one point he hallucinated that he was pitching to Jimi Hendrix, who to him was holding a guitar instead of a bat.

Whatever he was seeing, he was right about not hitting the glove too much. Ellis walked eight Padres batters and hit another one. He struck out six. The middle innings were tough for him as he had runners in scoring position in the fourth, fifth and sixth when the game was 1-0. He also worked quickly, as the game was over in only two hours and thirteen minutes. The Pirates won 2-0 thanks to Ellis and thanks to two Willie Stargell solo homers, one in the second and one in the seventh.

The Pirates would go on to win 89 games that year which was enough to win the NL East. They’d lose the NLCS to the Reds but the following year Ellis and his mates would win it all, defeating the mighty Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Ellis would pitch in the bigs until 1979, remaining a colorful and sometimes controversial figure in the game, retiring with a career record of 138-119 and an ERA of 3.46. To our knowledge, he never took the mound while on LSD again.

Now let us get to those doubts.

Ellis first talked publicly about his LSD-fueled no-no to Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who wrote the story about it in 1984. The story got Smizik nominated for an award from the Associated Press. Smizik had gotten a tip about it from his friend, the Pirates fan and, later, Angels and Mariners scout David Lander, who some of you may know as the actor who played Squiggy on the show “Laverne and Shirley.” Lander was chatting with Smizik and said that Ellis had told him and some of their friends back in Los Angeles — where by then Ellis was working as anti-drug counselor — the tale of his trippin’ no-no. Smizik called up Ellis and got the story. He has stood by the story for the past 36 years.

Another Pittsburgh writer, however, doubts the story. Bill Christine, who was covering the no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Press at the time, told Deadspin several years ago that he thinks Ellis was lying to Smizik.

Part of it is subjective. Christine says he interviewed Ellis after the game and that Ellis was lucid and clear-eyed and gave off no suggestion that he was on anything. That may or may not mean anything of course, as by then it was more than eight hours after Ellis said he had ingested his last hit of LSD. The effects of the drug can last eight hours and much longer in fact. But they sometimes last only six hours. It’s also the case, though, that (a) a person can appear fairly normal and composed on it at times. Either way, some of you might know that people with no drug experience aren’t always the best observers of a drug’s effects.

Christine’s circumstantial reasons for doubting Ellis’ story are a bit more compelling. As he told Deadspin, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh was not the sort of guy who would’ve kept things quiet if his starting pitcher was late to the ballpark as Ellis said he was. The reporters would’ve known it and, at the time, no one said a thing.

Christine also notes that none of Ellis’ then-teammates corroborated the story after Smizik’s account was published. Ellis likely would not have told the media about tripping during a game. Indeed, in 1976 he told the New York Times that he was hungover during the no-hitter, later claiming that was a lie told so he wouldn’t get in trouble with the Yankees, for whom he was playing at the time. But would he not have told someone else on the Pirates at some point? To date, some of his surviving teammates have told the story as if it had happened, but they’re basically telling Ellis’ account. Others will say that it would not surprise them if Ellis pitched while on LSD, but none of them have said that, at the time, they observed him to be any different that night and none of them have said that they knew for certain Ellis was on acid during the game.

Finally, as Christine and many others have noted, Ellis had a rich and beloved history of being, well, a bullshitter.

As Patrick Hruby’s account of the tale at ESPN a fews years ago notes, at one time before he died Ellis told someone that he had actually gotten the LSD he took that night from the famous LSD-advocate Timothy Leary. Which would be an amazing angle to the story if it wasn’t for the fact that Leary was in prison in June of 1970. Ellis was just sort of like that. he’d embellish things. Tales would become taller with each telling. He liked to mess with people too. He’d call it “selling wolf tickets” to people, to see whether they’d buy what he was selling. Those who knew him said that he enjoyed the attention.

There is a middle ground here, of course: that Ellis took LSD on the Thursday night off or maybe in the wee hours of Friday morning, but did not take it when he woke up at noon before the game on Friday. If so, he could’ve still been feeling the final effects of a particularly potent trip as he got to the ballpark and as the game began, but they could’ve been less-than-impairing.

That’s what the author Donnell Alexander, who created a radio story that later became a short film and viral internet sensation Dock Ellis and the LSD No No believes, saying “He was on the downside of what could have been a 12-hour trip. In the last third of this game, I think he was basically just on speed. Same as the rest of his team.”

Alexander also marveled that the real accomplishment that night was not necessarily the no-hitter. It was the fact that Ellis simply showed up and pitched even if he wasn’t 100%:

“Some people won’t accept this as a baseball story. The truth is, it’s a pure baseball story. What impresses me most is that Dock didn’t call in sick. You’ve got guys who will sit out if they’re havin’ a f***in’ herpes outbreak. But this guy’s trippin’ hard on pure LSD from the labs at UCLA, and he’s like, ‘No. I’m going in.’ He was a gutty pitcher and it’s such a gutty performance.”

That’s always been my takeaway from it. The wonder and majesty of Ellis’ accomplishment — which, while we’ll likely never know it happened with 100% certainty, I have always chosen to believe — is not about how weird and crazy it is that a dude who was as high as a kite tossed a no-hitter. For me the big takeaway is the lesson it teaches about how to approach life when you’re really not prepared for it.

Ellis could’ve begged out that day. Said his arm was sore or that he was tired or claimed he had flu-like symptoms. Maybe if his mind was slightly more clear than it was he might’ve. If so, Danny Murtaugh could’ve had Luke Walker or Bruce Dal Canton or someone make a spot start. It probably would’ve been the most prudent course. But for whatever reason he didn’t. He hopped a flight and made it to the ballpark just in time, took the ball and did his best. It was far from the prettiest no-hitter ever, but he got the job done.

Ellis’ mind was obviously and understandably not completely on his task on June 12, 1970, but that happens to all of us sometimes too, right? We don’t get a pass for showing up impaired like Ellis did, of course, but for whatever reason, we all approach our day while at something less-than-our best from time to time. Unprepared. Distracted. Sick. Just off our game. And, yeah, most of the time when that happens, the results sort of suck.

But the universe isn’t fair and sometimes it smacks us down even when we deserve better. Dock Ellis went 11-17 the year before his LSD no-hitter. I bet on at least one of those days in 1969 he showed up to the park totally prepared. Got a great night’s sleep, ate a healthy breakfast and had a well thought-out game plan for the opposing lineup. And I bet he got crushed all the same. Same thing happens to us sometimes too: great preparation, awful results.

Which makes days like Dock Ellis’ day on June 12, 1970 so inspirational. It reminds us that, sometimes, we are able to fight through whatever is clouding our mind or inhibiting our body and sometimes things work out OK. Sometimes fate or chance allows us to prevail even when we probably shouldn’t. Sometimes, either randomly or by design, the cosmos balance out the scales a little bit. When we remember that, it allows us not to sweat it too much if we get smacked down despite our best efforts or to worry too much if we approach a day at something less than our best. Don’t despair: it may just work out.

Anyway, that’s what I think about when I think about Dock Ellis tossing a no-hitter on LSD. Which happened, probably, 50 years ago today.