In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the most hated or beloved team in baseball; it depends on who you asked. Roberto Clemente, beloved by his fellow Puerto Ricans even when he was up to bat against the home team, was the center of the hype. Behind him, a pirate crew of colorful, hard-nosed players like pitcher Dock Ellis.
When Ellis comes up, it’s usually to describe perhaps the weirdest feat in baseball history. He threw a no-hitter, one of the more difficult achievements in pitching — and he was tripping on LSD at the time. But there’s more to the history of these Pirates, and Ellis in particular, that deserves to be known.
How Dock Ellis contributed to the raucous reputation of the ’70s Pittsburgh Pirates
Ellis joined the Pirates in 1968. It was the right time for the right-hander and his five-pitch arsenal to join up, details the Society for American Baseball Research. He was a young black man at a time when many teams would’ve undervalued his talent.
The Pirates explicitly decided to go another direction and take on players purely based on skill. It led to a minority-heavy squad that ruffled not a few feathers among baseball fandom.
Ellis seemed wild on the mound, happy to play the role of the defiant Pirates starter. Off the field, he was meticulous. He kept detailed notes on his upcoming opponents. When he spoke with friends around the league, it was often to scout out particular batters.
The Pirates were a major force in MLB during this time. In 1971, the speedy Clemente, the crafty Ellis, and the rest of the squad took the World Series title in a memorable seven-game series.
Down to the final game, the Baltimore Orioles went down swinging, finally succumbing 2-1 to Pittsburgh. Ellis got his All-Star nod that year, making it the highlight of his career. Or at least, ’71 would’ve been, had it not later been revealed what happened on a strange day in 1970.
The Acid Trip No-No that made Ellis an instant legend
The date was Friday, June 12, 1970. Dock Ellis thought it was still Thursday. He dropped his second (or third, he wasn’t sure) hit of acid. Then someone reminded him: Aren’t you supposed to be pitching later today? Ellis lept into action, boarding a last-minute flight from LA to San Diego. He arrived an hour and a half before his start.
The pitcher walked up to the mound as the effects of the LSD peaked. He couldn’t feel the ball, details Sports Illustrated. He could barely see catcher Jerry May’s fingers.
Somehow, the ball went either where he intended or ended up in good spots nonetheless. He walked eight batters and struck out six. Pirates infielders scrambled to preserve the no-hitter when he did slip up. He finished the game, somehow, with a no-no against the San Diego Padres.
Dock Ellis’s sobriety and advocacy
The story didn’t break for many years, although rumors spread from the moment Ellis took the mound. It’s one of the defining stories of the era, in retrospect. It’s certainly synonymous with the name “Dock Ellis.” But for the pitcher himself, it was simply an experience he used as a springboard to something even dearer to him than baseball.
Ellis’s LSD experimentation was not the real drug scourge of MLB at the time. It was so-called “Greenies,” a rudimentary amphetamine that hundreds of players were hooked on to stay focused and energetic. Ellis was no exception. He also developed issues with alcohol and other recreational drugs.
Shortly after his career ended, he’d had enough. Ellis hadn’t played a single game sober, according to Rolling Stone. Now he would resolve to stay sober for the rest of his life. He became an outspoken advocate for disadvantaged people with substance abuse problems. His experience as a well-paid, yet personally miserable addict, including his bizarre LSD no-no, became the fuel for his counseling tactics.
Eventually, Ellis turned back to baseball, helping players struggling with addiction overcome their issues. Ellis should be remembered for his wild, wacky no-hitter. But said no-hitter should always be tied to the man he became: a powerful advocate for personal improvement.