Last Thursday marked what would have been the 65th birthday of baseball great Dock Ellis, who died from liver disease in December 2008 while awaiting a transplant. Ellis, along with teammates Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass, Vic Davalillo et al., claimed the World Series crown as part of the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates (a team that today is firmly locked in a 17-season losing streak).
Though he was an accomplished all-star pitcher, Ellis had a reputation on and off the field as a shit-talker who thrived on the adversarial relationship between pitcher and batter. As a result, his reputation preceded him — often playing out in vivid drama each time he took the mound. Exploits such as hitting batters like Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose (among many others) with intentionally misguided pitches, wearing curlers in his hair during warm-ups to produce sweat so he could throw spitballs, and speaking out to the press about racism at a time when baseball had become a pressure cooker for race relations in America are just some of the highlights that marked Ellis’ brilliantly absurd career. For better or worse, however, one exploit forever defined his legacy in sports.
On June 12, 1970, Ellis threw an LSD-fueled no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. Ellis himself didn’t publicly reveal his acid trip no-no until 1984. But when he did, the story instantly became legend:
I can only remember bits and pieces of the game. I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria. 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. 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. 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.” -Dock Ellis quoted in Lysergic World (1993).
Ellis’ no-hitter, however strangely fascinating, is a thorny issue among baseball purists. There are those who enthusiastically followed his career and balk at the idea that Ellis became a psychedelic footnote in the annals of offbeat sports history. And then there are those who vehemently condemn Ellis’ admissions of the LSD no-hitter, not to mention his battles with drug and alcohol abuse. Read the comments section in Jerry Krasnick’s ESPN news story about Ellis’ death — Former major league pitcher Dock Ellis dies at 63 — and you’ll find a bubbling cauldron of love and hate.
For example, commenter jackp16 writes: “Ellis was worse than an average pitcher and even less as a human being. He did nothing for pro sports. Those of you who idolize this dope head are idiots and need to find someone else to be your hero.”
And in contrast, there’s this type of reaction (via TerryRohan7): “A true measure of a man is not the mistakes he has made, but what he does to correct those mistakes and how he touches other’s lives. Dock might have made some mistakes in his life… but Dock Ellis made a difference with his actions in the community in his post baseball “celebrity” life. God has a special place for these souls. RIP Dock and ask Jimi to laydown some Purple Haze for all of us.”
In a 2008 interview with the Los Angeles Times, less than a year before his death, Ellis admitted he had battled drug and alcohol abuse since high school. In fact, it was a topic he never shied away from. And while his post-retirement work as a drug and alcohol counselor was a move his critics labeled as strange, perhaps even redemptive, Ellis’ actions spoke for themselves. Lifelong alcohol abuse no doubt contributed to the deterioration of his liver and the cirrhosis that led to his death. When he died, Ellis had no health insurance and reportedly little money to his name.
By comparison, today’s athletes are boring. Fueled by obese egos drunk off astronomical paydays, an essential love of sport seems to be missing. And given the meatheaded behavior of so many of today’s professional athletes, it’s easy to long for sports legends from a bygone era. After all, nostalgia has a powerful pull. Though times were by no means simpler when players like Ellis reigned supreme, athletes did seem to carry themselves differently. Ellis was obviously no saint. But he orbited in a solar system uniquely his own and made the game that he played more interesting, more entertaining as a result. And as for redemption? Ask any of the countless troubled teenagers he counseled through addiction what they view as the legacy of Dock Ellis. I imagine not a single one will bring up the LSD no-hitter.
[Originally published on True/Slant]