What a Trip! Remembering Dock Ellis

Dock was part of the Pirates World Series title before finding his way to Texas.
Dock was part of the Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 World Series title before finding his way to Texas.

By Steve Painter

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis was quite a character. He sported hair curlers in the dugout, took handfuls of amphetamines before games, and pitched a no-hitter on LSD.

He was, in the immortal words of Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield, “a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherf—ker.” His style was pure Youngblood Priest, a mélange of gold rings, colorful polyester suits, and hair-curlers, cruising in the front seat of a big, shiny Cadillac with a vanity plate that said, “DOCK.” His attitude was bold, intimidating batters with his menacing glare and violent gum chewing, and planting verbal dynamite in the belly of institutional racism. According to filmmaker David O. Russell, he even served as the inspiration for American Hustle’s hotheaded-yet-sartorially fresh FBI agent Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper.

Meet Dock Ellis.

The late, self-described “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” pitched in the major leagues from 1968-1979, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and had a career record of 138-119. He was an All-Star in 1971, and helped lead the Pirates to a World Series championship that year. He’d later compile a 17-8 record while pitching for the American League champion New York Yankees in 1976. But he’s probably best known for pitching a no-hitter while tripping on acid. Ellis is given the documentary treatment in director Jeffrey Radice’s No No: A Dockumentary, which made its world premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and will soon play SXSW. And Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, a.k.a. Ad-Rock, produced the film’s funky soundtrack.

No No opens on that fateful day: June 12, 1970.

“We flew in to San Diego and I asked the manager if I could go home because we had an off day,” explained Ellis in the film. “So I took some LSD at the airport when I took off with the car ’cause I knew where it would hit me, in L.A.”

He’d take LSD two or three more times on Thursday at his friend’s place in Los Angeles, and again the following day at around noon. At 2 p.m. on Friday, the house received a call from the Pirates’ manager asking where the heck Ellis was, since he was supposed to be at the ballpark. His friend’s girlfriend woke up a sleeping Ellis, screaming, “You have to pitch today!” to which Ellis replied, “What happened to yesterday?” Ellis rushed to the airport, and somehow made a 3 p.m. flight from Los Angeles to San Diego, arriving at the stadium at around 4:30 p.m. The first pitch was at 6:05 p.m.

“So there I was out there, high as a Georgia Pine, trippin’ on acid,” he said. “I really didn’t see the hitters. All I could tell was if they were on the right side, or the left side. As far as seeing the target, the catcher put tape on his fingers so I could see the signals. The opposing team and my teammates, they knew I was high. But they didn’t know what I was high on. They didn’t really see it, but I had the acid in me, and I didn’t know what I looked like with that acid. I had lost all concept of time.”

Nine innings, eight walks, six strikeouts, and two hit batsmen later, and Ellis had done the impossible: he’d pitched a no-hitter high on LSD.

“It was ugly but it was still a no no,” he said in the film, grinning. “It was easier to pitch with the LSD because I was so used to medicating myself,” added Ellis. “That’s the way that I was dealing with the fear of failure. You know that if Dock’s pitching, he’s high. But how high is he? I pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs.”

In addition to LSD, Ellis took loads of cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, mescaline, crank, and later, heroin. Before starts, he’d take as many “Greenies”—or amphetamines—as he could swallow to keep himself sharp.

“I would try to out-milligram any opponent,” said Ellis. “Before a game, I would take a maximum of 15-17 pills. Not to say that I didn’t have enough stuff to pitch in the major leagues, I just tried to get a little edge.”

Since Ellis didn’t have overpowering stuff—he was armed primarily with a curveball and a slider—the key to his game was intimidation. He’d stand tall on the mound, eyes bugging out of his head, violently smacking his chewing gum. He’d bean you just to get his message across, and if you crossed him, he’d bean you in the face. Just ask Reggie Jackson, who hit a towering, 600-plus ft. home run off Ellis in the 1971 All-Star game—one of the longest in history. The next time they met, in 1976, Ellis beaned him in the face. And the curlers in his hair weren’t just to be hip and slick, or to defy the stringent rules of management (Ellis was suspended once by the Pirates for 10 days for the curlers).

“I was throwing spitballs,” he said. “I was wearing a perm, so I just had to go to the back of my neck and I had a fist full of sweat.”

Ellis had his problems, and they were serious. He later redeemed himself by going through rehab in 1980 and becoming a drug and alcohol counselor for the Yankees and for those in prison. Although he did kick the habits he had, he passed away on December 19, 2008 from cirrhosis of the liver.