[THS] Dock Ellis and the LSD No-Hitter
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Wed Sep 8 12:46:28 CEST 2010
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For Ellis, a Long, Strange Trip to a No-Hitter
By BILLY WITZ
Published: September 4, 2010
When Rich Harden of the Texas Rangers came off the disabled list last month to
pitch six and two-thirds innings without allowing a hit, interrupted by his manager
rather than the Minnesota Twins, it was a further devaluation of one of baseballs
most hallowed currencies: the no-hitter.
Enlarge This Image
James Blagden/No Mas Productions
An illustration of Dock Ellis from the film Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No.
Ellis in August 1974. Ellis claimed he pitched a no-hitter on June 12, 1970, after
having taken LSD.
For those not named Nolan Ryan, the no-hitter is a rare and treasured event
consider that a Mets pitcher has never thrown one. This season, a perfect game
allowed Dallas Braden of the Oakland Athletics to make a name for himself, at least
for doing something other than shouting at Alex Rodriguez to get off his mound.
But this season, Braden is among five major league pitchers who have thrown no-
hitters, not including the one that was broken up by umpire Jim Joyce. Another four
potential no-hitters, including the one by Harden and three relievers, have been
broken up in the ninth inning.
With a month remaining, baseball has not had so many no-hitters since 1991, when
seven were thrown.
If it seems almost routine to throw a no-hitter now, then consider one that was not.
Forty years ago, Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates raised the degree of difficulty to
new, well, heights. He threw a no-hitter with Richard M. Nixon calling balls and
strikes and Jimi Hendrix, wielding a Fender Stratocaster instead of a Louisville
Slugger, digging in at home plate.
Or at least that is what he thought while pitching under the influence of LSD.
Ellis walked eight and hit a batter but beat the Padres, 2-0, before 9,303 fans who
turned up at San Diego Stadium on June 12, 1970, for the opener of a
I do think its a singularly majestic feat, said Chris Isenberg, who last year produced
Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No, an animated short film by James Blagden on Elliss
no-hitter. I have one experience on acid, and it involved staying up 72 hours
straight and nearly having a nervous breakdown. I cant imagine pitching a no-hitter
on it. Its like a perfect game times a million.
Ellis, who died of liver disease at 63 in 2008, was one of baseballs iconoclastic figures
during the 1970s, when he was a mainstay of the Pirates rotation when they won the
1971 World Series. He helped the Yankees to the 1976 World Series, earning the
American League comeback player of the year award, and also pitched briefly for the
Ellis, who grew up in Los Angeles in an era when inner-city baseball thrived, wore
curlers in his hair during batting practice, went into the stands and sat next to
hecklers, and described himself as a baseball militant, speaking out about injustices
in an era when players had much less power and money than they do today.
But it was Elliss claim, after he retired, that he threw his no-hitter while under the
influence of LSD that cemented his standing as an icon of the sports counterculture
era, making him an intriguing figure to artists, musicians, filmmakers and journalists
even after his death.
Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, a 1976 biography, was written with the poet
laureate Donald Hall. Robin Williams has riffed on the no-hitter in a stand-up routine,
and several musicians have written songs about it. Blagdens film was shown at the
Sundance Film Festival in January.
People respond to it because of the sheer disbelief, said Donnell Alexander, whose
2008 radio interview with Ellis for American Public Media was one of his last and is
working on a script about him. This story has been sitting there for 40 years, and
you havent heard of it. Heres this amazing out-of-body experience and nobody told
us about it.
Alexanders report, recorded with his colleague Neille Ilel as part of a two-and-a-half-
hour conversation at Elliss home in Apple Valley, Calif., was produced in the wake of
the Mitchell report and soon after Roger Clemens testified before Congress that he
had not used performance-enhancing drugs. Clemens was arraigned last Monday on
charges that he lied to Congress.
Although some might view LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) as the antisteroid a
performance-de-enhancing drug, Isenberg called it Alexander said he saw Elliss
use of it differently. While working in Chico, Calif., he had come across a high school
football team in which a majority of the offensive starters took acid. The team,
Alexander said, went undefeated.
Theres a forbidden aspect of it, Alexander said of the drug. Its exotic.
So, although David Wells said he was half-drunk from the night before when he
pitched his perfect game for the Yankees in 1998, and stimulants have long been a
part of baseball culture, just as marijuana has been in the N.B.A., the idea that
hallucinogenic drugs might find their way into sports interested Alexander.
The Beatles, Steve Jobs when he was stuck took acid; so many great works of
popular art were made under its influence, so the idea that it can extend to sports is
intriguing, Alexander said. Were led to believe theres no overlap between drug
culture and sports culture, but why wouldnt there be? I think theres a rooting
interest in LSD among a certain part of our culture.
The folksinger Todd Snider was a rabid baseball fan growing up in Portland, Ore. But
he did not know of Elliss no-hitter several years ago when he was backstage at a
summer festival, listening to members of another band say they had taken LSD
before going onstage.
Im pretty sure the boss heard them say that, and nobodys flinching at all, said
Snider, who lives in Nashville. I told my friend if we were in any other line of work,
theres no way that would happen. My friend said: Thats not true. Dock Ellis threw a
no-hitter on LSD. I had to find out about this guy.
As he did, Snider learned that in May 1974, Ellis purposely hit the first three
Cincinnati Reds he faced, afraid that the Pirates had become intimidated by Pete
Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and the rest of the Big Red Machine. And that in
1971, Ellis dared National League Manager Sparky Anderson to start two brothers
in the All-Star Game after Vida Blue, another African-American, had been selected to
start for the American League. Anderson started Ellis, who surrendered a mammoth
home run to Reggie Jackson.
I was just attracted to any non-jocky jock, said Snider, who wrote Americas
Favorite Pastime about Elliss no-hitter. I like Joe Namath, Dennis Rodman, Mike
Tyson. Dock had an artistic flair to his life. Sports people tend to forget that its not a
show they get serious. Like, its a TV show.
Elliss son, Dock Ellis III, a former college basketball player, said he remembered his
father as a rebel, a free spirit who never refrained from speaking his mind. That
served Ellis well in his years as a substance-abuse and prison counselor in the high
desert town of Victorville, outside Los Angeles. He gave up drugs and alcohol when
his son, now 30, was an infant, afraid he would otherwise harm him.
The loud voice, full of humor and wonderment, that the younger Ellis remembered is
the one that can be heard on Alexanders radio interview, which Blagden used to
narrate his film.
As soon as we heard that voice, we knew we had something, said Blagden, who
loved the way the word no-no bounced out of Elliss mouth. Hes a great
storyteller, and there was a great use of slang and his cadence was natural. The
editing was great, but hes got such a comedic sensibility hes such a
Over the years, questions have been raised about whether Ellis really was on LSD
when he pitched the no-hitter. Alexander said he had no doubts, pointing out that
Ellis was much less erratic in the final innings as the drug wore off.
Isenberg said any debate was beside the point.
It makes it more interesting that theres this element of doubt, he said. Its the old
unreliable narrator. In the end, its an article of faith.
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