Dock Ellis and Baseball's Pre-Steroid Drug Era
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Being out of your mind is not always a bad thing in sports.
By Sean Braswell
Major League Baseball’s ongoing war on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) leaves many of us fans pining for the good ol’ days. For an era before BALCO, Biogenesis or Barry Bonds; a time when players indulged in the tamer vices of rampant womanizing, heavy drinking and abusing substances not exactly guaranteed to bolster performance on the diamond. Former Commissioner Bud Selig claimed a couple of years ago that pro baseball is “cleaner than it’s ever been”— but that’s not saying all that much when you consider what used to course through baseball players’ veins.
Of course, back then, if the abused substance in question did happen to serve as a performance-enhancer, it was probably a freak occurrence. Who can forget when Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while high on LSD? Well, who besides Ellis himself?
“Get to the fucking stadium. I got to play,” the colorful Pittsburgh Pirates’ right-hander, who died in 2008, hollered to a cab driver at the San Diego airport on the evening of June 12, 1970. That’s all he remembered about getting to San Diego, he later told the Dallas Observer. Just eight hours before he took the mound that night against the Padres — while “high as a Georgia pine” — Ellis had been kicking back with friends in his hometown of Los Angeles on what he thought was his day off. At least until someone showed him a newspaper saying he was slated to pitch that night in San Diego.
“Ellis was a shit-stirrer extraordinaire, a smart, fiery and extremely outspoken individual…and a brilliantly intense competitor,” says Dan Epstein, author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s. “It would have been easy enough for him to tell his manager that he was sick and couldn’t pitch, but Dock wanted the ball.”
So, after arriving late to the ballpark that evening, Ellis proceeded with his usual pre-game ritual, including downing a far more common drug of choice among professional ballplayers: Dexamyl speed pills, better known as “greenies.”
It was the high point of Ellis’ career …
That same year, baseball’s longtime love affair with amphetamines — which research suggests do not in fact enhance performance — would be exposed in pitcher Jim Bouton’s best-selling book Ball Four, along with various other unsavory pastimes. Bouton’s chronicle of the Seattle Pilots’ first season shocked readers with stories of late-night carousing, drinking and drug use, including the greenies that players popped like candy. (Baseball finally got around to banning them last decade).
The book blew the lid off legendary carousers like Mickey Mantle, whose performance-diminishing exploits off the field had been largely shielded from public view by a complicit sports media. Bowie Kuhn, then-commissioner of baseball, considered Bouton’s book a threat to the sport and tried to force the player-turned-writer to admit that it was completely fictional. Bouton refused and was treated as a pariah by other players for the rest of his career. Cincinnati legend Pete Rose — no stranger to scandal himself — took to hollering “Fuck you, Shakespeare!” from the steps of the dugout whenever Bouton pitched against the Reds.
As for Ellis — one of baseball’s most outspoken clubhouse characters and the subject of the recent No No: A Dockumentary — he turned in a remarkable performance that June night: a wild, eight-walk, 2-0, no-hit victory. It was the high point of Ellis’ career, but it was also pretty much a blur. For much of the game, Ellis had trouble holding on baserunners or making out his catcher’s signs, nor was he aware of the score, much less of the fact that he was throwing a no-hitter. Amazingly, as Epstein tells OZY, Ellis also managed to make contact in his final plate appearance, eking out a groundout to shortstop despite the psychedelic haze.
It would take more than a decade for him to confirm his “trip” to a Pittsburgh reporter working off a tip from a die-hard Pirates fan named David Lander — or “Squiggy” from Laverne & Shirley, as most of us know him. And it gets weirder: Ellis would even claim that the LSD fueling his no-no came from none other than psychedelic guru Timothy Leary himself.
Oh, to go back to those simpler days …