Take a visit to the local high school baseball field. Step onto the mound and imagine yourself throwing a baseball to a batter 60 feet 60 inches away. Now imagine what it would feel like to be under the influence of an illegal substance while on the mound and trying to throw strikes for nine innings against the best hitters in the world. Do this, and you will just about scratch the surface of what Dock Ellis experienced on June 12, 1970, when he threw a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD.
As the story goes, Ellis, who was pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time, was with the team in San Diego to play the Padres. The Pirates arrived in San Diego on an off day, with Ellis scheduled to pitch the first game of a doubleheader the following night. So, Ellis decided to fly to his hometown of Los Angeles to spend the off day.
Before boarding the plane to L.A., Ellis took LSD, knowing it wouldn’t hit him until he arrived at his friend’s place in L.A. Once there, he continued to use until he passed out. Ellis awoke the next day, and not realizing it was the day of the game, he took more LSD. It was only after he took the drug again that his friend’s girlfriend showed him a newspaper indicating that he was that night’s starting pitcher.
Ellis, still very much under the influence, hopped on a plane back to San Diego and arrived at the stadium an hour and a half before game time. He got a couple stimulants (or what players called “greenies”) from a woman in the stands known for supplying players with “uppers.” Ellis then took the mound on an unusually overcast day in San Diego and proceeded to pitch a no-hitter.
On that day, you could best describe Ellis as effectively wild. He walked eight batters and had to pitch with runners in scoring position on multiple occasions. But thanks to six strikeouts and some excellent fielding behind him, he yielded no hits in a 2-0 win.
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.
But despite being one of the greatest accomplishments of his life, Ellis didn’t have a clear recollection of the game. He claims he didn’t see batters, only blobs that he noticed on either the left or right side of the plate. His only area of focus was tape on his catcher’s fingers so he could read the pitch signs he was receiving. Ellis also reports that he would at times jump out of the way when the ball was hit in his vicinity, believing it was traveling faster than it actually was.
Of course, the fact that Ellis pitched a no-hitter under the influence of LSD didn’t become public knowledge until 1984. Ellis did an interview with a Pittsburgh sportswriter for a story about his efforts counseling drug addicts. But in the midst of the interview, Ellis detailed the story of June 12, 1970.
In 1976, a book about Ellis was published in which he admitted to pitching that particular game drunk, using “coffee” to sober up. At the time, he was still pitching in the big leagues and worried about backlash from his current team, the Yankees (owner George Steinbrenner in particular), and so author Donald Hall lied. In 1989, when the book was republished, Hall changed the story to reflect the truth that Ellis had pitched the game under the influence of LSD and speed.
For years after the revelation that Ellis pitched that game on LSD, there was a debate about whether the story was actually true. Pittsburgh sportswriter Bob Smizik, who broke the story in 1984, maintained the story’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, Bill Christine, who was working as the team’s beat writer in 1970 and saw the game with his own two eyes, has his suspicions and maintains that nothing was amiss with Ellis that day. Obviously, no teammate can confirm that Ellis took LSD that day, but many of his friends in baseball who knew his habits don’t doubt that Ellis is telling the truth.
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 (expletive) 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.
Donnell Alexander, Author
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Ellis was likely coming down from an LSD high, but it probably wasn’t until the final few innings of the game that the stimulant he took prior to the game began to overpower the effects of the LSD.
Sadly, Ellis is remembered mostly for one drug-infused outing and not everything else he did in his life. He had his crazy moments and had a substance abuse problem throughout his life. But he also started an All-Star Game and won a World Series with the Pirates in 1971. He helped fight for the rights of African-American players and the right to free agency for all players. After retiring from baseball, he counseled drug addicts, and as someone with sickle cell trait, he helped raise money for research on sickle cell.
But in the end, he’s best known for pitching perhaps the most unlikely no-hitter in baseball history. It’s a game that perhaps unfairly defines his life and career. Of course, there are players whose claim to fame is far worse.