dock ellis and the psychedelic no-hitter (or ellis in wonderland)

I GREW UP HEARING the re­frain “Base­ball and Bal­lan­tine” sung on end­less com­mer­cials while watching Phillies games on tele­vi­sion in North­eastern Penn­syl­vania in the early ’60s. Bal­lan­tine was a local brewery and its beer was very af­ford­able and very pop­ular. They spon­sored the broad­cast of the games be­cause and what goes better to­gether than beer and baseball?

Well, how about LSD and base­ball? And rather than an­swer that ques­tion, take a few min­utes out of your day and watch this brief, en­ter­taining, en­light­ening video about just that topic.

On June 12, 1970, Pitts­burgh Pi­rates pitcher Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. But not any no-hitter: Ellis claims to have been under the in­flu­ence of LSD when he did what rel­a­tively pitchers have ever done. The feat re­mains a bone of con­tention forty-five years later!

 

DockEllis card1

It was a Friday

Jour­nalist Patrick Hruby wrote “The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis” for ES­PN’s Out­side the Lines in Au­gust 2012. Hruby cooly and clev­erly refers to the game as an “Elec­tric Kool-Aid No-No.” This is an al­lu­sion to Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a non-fiction novel that chron­i­cles the do­ings of nov­elist Ken Kesey (au­thor of One Flew Over the Cuck­oo’s Nest) and his band of Merry Pranksters.

Hruby notes, “It was a Friday. That much is cer­tain.” And little else about the events of that day are cer­tain. Hruby states:

“For the psy­che­del­i­cally in­clined, the mere no­tion of [an] LSD no-no stands as the coun­ter­cul­ture an­swer to Babe Ruth’s called shot, the pin­nacle of mas­tering one’s high. For everyone else, the game is far out, man, a funky bit of sports folk­lore, ap­pro­pri­ated and em­bell­ished, passed around like an old base­ball card.”

Hruby quotes Pi­rates trainer and El­lis’s friend Tony Bar­tirome, as saying, “Dock only gave up one hard hit that night, on a ball fielded by Maze­roski. He might have said that just to jerk some­body off.”

 

The mere no­tion of an LSD no-hitter stands as the coun­ter­cul­ture an­swer to Babe Ruth’s called shot.

 

Hruby notes that the Ellis no-hitter has been used by co­me­dian Robin Williams during a stand-up rou­tine, an art gallery dis­played a base­ball coated with acid, and that it has been the sub­ject of paint­ings, T-shirts, and surf­board designs.

There was even a pe­ti­tion de­manding that Major League Base­ball re­lease footage of the game. “No such footage is be­lieved to exist, al­though a Pi­rates team pho­tog­ra­pher did record a few grainy, black-and-white min­utes of Ellis throwing and slip­ping on the mound, later broad­cast by HBO.”

This being 21st cen­tury America, the fact that MLB claims that there is no footage has led to var­ious non-sensical con­spiracy theories.

Hruby notes an ar­ticle in High Times mag­a­zine that re­ported that Ellis saw a comet tail be­hind his pitches and a mul­ti­col­ored path to catcher Jerry May. But, in the end, Hruby concluded:

“Fact is, Ellis didn’t re­member much: When sports­caster Curt Gowdy in­ter­viewed him the next day during a na­tion­ally tele­vised game, the pitcher was still blotted out, as high as a Georgia pine. This was by design.”

Hruby’s piece is lengthy: It will take you an hour to read it but it is worth it. Al­though it has an an­noying web­site de­sign (the too busy par­allax scrolling ef­fects), it has sev­eral fab­u­lous il­lus­tra­tions by Joe Ciardiello!

 

DockEllis Ciardiello drawing 1000

This is the opening il­lus­tra­tion by Joe Cia­rdiello for Patrick Hruby’s ar­ticle “The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis.”

A difficult game to play

The folks at Snopes.com took a far more skep­tical look at the sit­u­a­tion (and this is slightly edited for this blog):

“Only Dock Ellis knows whether or not he ac­tu­ally took LSD the day he pitched his no-hitter, and there­fore we have to take him at his word. Even if Ellis did in­gest LSD that day, how­ever, judging by the ex­tent to which the drug was af­fecting him by the time he took part in the evening’s game is problematic.

Base­ball is a dif­fi­cult game to play at the major league level, even for skilled pro­fes­sionals free from the ef­fects of mind-altering sub­stances, yet Ellis man­aged to pitch a com­plete game that evening; [he] ap­par­ently did not act so un­usu­ally that his team­mates or man­ager took no­tice; and [he] was quite lucid while con­ducting post-game in­ter­views with the press.

Al­though Ellis might cor­rectly be de­scribed as having ‘been under the in­flu­ence of LSD’ during his no-hitter, quite pos­sibly the drug’s pri­mary ef­fects had peaked and were wearing off by game time.”

 

Long Strange Trips

I have ex­pe­ri­enced (as in Jimi Hen­drix’s Are You Ex­pe­ri­enced?) more than a few long, strange trips in my life. I can verify that the view taken by the Snopes people makes sense: The ef­fects of LSD vary dra­mat­i­cally from trip to trip based on such things as the man­u­fac­turer and the dose. By 1970, the ma­jority of the acid on the street was being made by il­legal “bathtub chemists.”

While a well-connected in­di­vidual could easily find some pharmaceutical-grade LSD from Sandoz or Lilly, it was easier and far less ex­pen­sive to find some made by Owsley or the Broth­er­hood of Eternal Love. Street acid in 1970 was con­sid­er­ably more po­tent than the acid avail­able to most people in 2019. Hits of acid (pills and blotter were most common then) with 250 to 400 mi­cro­grams of LSD were not unusual.

When I did acid forty years ago, the only thing I knew about the dosage was what­ever the person selling me the acid told me. At the time, I usu­ally bought acid from people I knew and they al­ways sam­pled their wares be­fore selling them. But that was the ex­tent of the knowl­edge most of us had. We “dropped” the acid and hoped for the best—and most of the time, the best is what we got!

 

Street acid in 1970 was con­sid­er­ably more po­tent than the acid avail­able to most people in 2019. 

 

Ex­actly what I or anyone else was ca­pable of doing on any given trip varied: I have driven a car in busy traffic when I was so high that I couldn’t af­ford to look too long at the mag­ical red brake lights of the cars in front of me (it was an emer­gency that had me be­hind the wheel). I have also done acid where saying any­thing more in­tel­li­gible than, “Oh, wow!” was nigh on impossible!

It’s quite common to see tails (or trails) be­hind a moving ob­ject while trip­ping as Ellis claims he saw be­hind each ball he pitched. It’s pos­sible to have pin­point con­trol over those pitched balls, al­though that would seem to be a rare oc­ca­sion. It would be just as likely that Ellis would have been so en­tranced by the col­ored trails that he would throw the ball any­where, in­cluding straight up and play catch with himself!

(And I want to tell the non-experienced reader that no matter how high you have been on mar­i­juana, you ain’t never been re­motely close to what hap­pens on acid. And the only way you can ever know that I’m speaking the truth is to drop some acid.)

I can also verify any­thing Ellis claims did happen could have hap­pened but that any skep­ti­cism of those claims is jus­ti­fied. To re­peat Snopes: “Only Dock Ellis knows whether or not he ac­tu­ally took LSD the day he pitched his no-hitter, and there­fore we have to take him at his word.”

Still, had Ellis been ‘rushing’ (the first few hours of a trip) or ‘peaking’ (the middle of a trip) on any­thing re­sem­bling a de­cent dose of acid, it is dif­fi­cult to imagine that it was not ev­i­dent to his teammates.

Many trip­pers have a dif­fi­cult time forming a pair of back-to-back sen­tences that are both co­herent and re­lated to one an­other. That Ellis pitched nine in­nings and then gave a lucid post-game in­ter­view would argue that he was, at best, way past the peaking pe­riod and pos­sibly past the ‘coming down’ stage.

The truth of what­ever hap­pened that day, it went to the Void with Dock Ellis on De­cember 19, 2008, when he died at the age of 63 from a liver dis­order after a long ad­dic­tion to drugs and alcohol.

Still, Dock Ellis and his psy­che­deli­cized no-hitter are now a part of base­ball lore, Amer­ican lore, and psy­che­delic lore.

And a fine piece of lore it is.

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Here is a nice photo of Dock as he ap­peared to the bat­ters he faced every fifth day in 1970. Dock Ellis pitched 2,128 in­nings and gave up 2,067 hits, with an ERA of 3.46.  He fin­ished his ca­reer 138-119 for a Win­ning Per­centage of .537. Dock had a solid, re­spectable ca­reer that would have en­sured him a po­si­tion on any team’s rotation.

 

 

 

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