EVERYBODY WHO REMEMBERS DOCK ELLIS remembers him for the no-hitter he threw against the Padres in June of 1970. They remember it because Ellis later revealed he’d accomplished the feat while on an acid trip. That explains the ugly nature of the no-no; he walked eight batters and hit another. The incident is to this day the single most widely known thing about Ellis; it was beautifully and hilariously illustrated, literally, by James Blagden in his short film “Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No.” The video pops up from time to time on blogs and in online articles about the craziest things ever done on a diamond; in this sense Blagden’s film is both a tip of the hat to the feat’s cult status, and a mechanism of extending the legend of it.
But there was more to Dock Ellis than lysergics and “weren’t the ‘70s freaky?” punchlines. Dock Ellis was one of the last dangerous men in baseball, emblematic of a time and a spirit that is gone now, and utterly, hopelessly uncapturable.
In May of 1972 Ellis was maced by security staff at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. They said he didn’t properly identify himself. He said he did. They said he raised his fist to them. He said he was showing them his World Series ring in order to properly identify himself. So they maced him. Ellis had his revenge two years later. Two years! He did so by attempting to bean every hitter in the Big Red Machine’s lineup. In the top of the first he hit Rose, Morgan and third baseman Dan Driessen. He then missed Tony Perez before grizzled old Bucs manager Danny Murtaugh pulled him.
It was his fourth start against the Reds in that two-year span, a fact which, to my mind, raises a very simple question: why in the hell did he wait four starts to take his revenge?
But that doesn’t even qualify as the most extreme example of Dock’s patience. For that you’d have to look to the 1971 All-Star Game, in which Reggie Jackson launched a screaming moonshot off Ellis that cleared the Tiger Stadium roof and bounced off a light standard. They said it traveled at least 520 feet, or roughly one-tenth of a mile. That didn’t sit well with Ellis, but he wasn’t quick to get even. He waited.
WHO’S THERE TO BE afraid of anymore? Who, on the vast and pocked sports-entertainment landscape, is scary? Dock Ellis was scary because he was somewhat dangerous. He was somewhat dangerous because he was completely unpredictable. He was also pretty good at his job: he managed a sub-4 ERA for his career, and won 138 games.
But if, as David Mariniss wrote, Roberto Clemente was “baseball’s last hero,” then Ellis was perhaps the game’s last dangerous man. In truth it’s hard to imagine two more different men than these two, who were teammates from 1968 through ‘72. Clemente was the patient, dignified and ultimately tragic man in the body of a graceful, lean, powerful right fielder from San Anton, Puerto Rico. Ellis was the confrontational, hot tempered figure, a hard-throwing, drug-taking, curlers-wearing Los Angeleno who would collaborate on a book with a US Poet Laureate and eventually become a drug counsellor in his native California. Somewhere in the juxtaposition of those two opposing biographies lies a decent encapsulation of the tumult of America in the 1970s.
The ‘70s represented for baseball, as for pretty much the rest of the world, something of a prolonged freakout. Music and movies aside, most of the Western World remained somewhat buttoned down right on up until Woodstock. Then things got weird. Vietnam was a farce. Johnson didn’t run but Nixon did. Everyone had loaded their systems with some real intense shit and humanity collectively dipped into a strange and violent comedown. In baseball the stadiums got plasticky and the uniforms became polyester and tight and buttonless, and in some cases very colourful. Enormous afros burst out from beneath caps, and facial hair went gonzo. Clevelanders went plum crazy over ten cent beer, the Bronx burned, and Chicagoans torched disco records, then rioted. It was a decade that would produce anomalies and quirks like the day-glo Swingin’ A’s (Reggie, Vida, Catfish, and Rollie), Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the Seattle Kingdome and, yes, Dock Ellis pitching a no-hitter while “high as a Georgia pine.”
But no player, no style, no strange sight (not even Oscar Gamble’s afro) better epitomizes the ‘70s for me than does Dock Ellis. Ellis pitched while high, while drunk, while both. Ellis wore curlers in his hair. Ellis said whatever the hell he felt like saying. And no single act, or event, or conflict sums up baseball in the 1970s quite so neatly as Dock vs. Reggie.
IN THE MIDDLE of the 1971 season, already selected for the All-Star team, Ellis stirred the pot by predicting he wouldn’t be allowed to start the Midsummer Classic because Oakland’s Vida Blue, who had already won 17 games (!) by the break, had already been selected to start for the American League. NL manager Sparky Anderson would “never start two brothers against each other,” said Dock. Jackie Robinson voiced his support. Dock started.
In the third inning, Reggie Jackson strode to the plate to hit in place of Blue. Jackson was himself a potent symbol of that potent era, a big-talking mountain of swagger and aggression, with the slugging skills to match. Not many human beings, before or since, could do to a baseball the things that Reggie could do to a baseball.
You know what happened, either because you already knew, or because my fifth paragraph contained spoilers. Jackson destroyed an Ellis pitch, knocking the ball into a light tower on the Tiger Stadium roof, a ball which otherwise might have been headed for the Upper Peninsula. It was a two-run shot (Luis Aparicio was on base), and Ellis would wind up taking the loss.
Later on, in a game between the Yankees, to whom Dock had been traded, and Baltimore, where Jackson had ended up, Ellis would put a ball squarely into Reggie’s face, breaking the slugger’s iconic glasses and sending him to hospital. The date? July 27, 1976.
THE TAIL-END of Dock Ellis’ career was mostly quiet. He bounced from the Yankees to Oakland to Texas, then the Mets for a brief spell before finishing his playing days in a Pirates uniform once again. He mostly avoided controversy, having perhaps said all he had to say. And after all of that, finally clean, he went to work as a drug counsellor in Los Angeles, seeking probably some small measure of normalcy and stability, some sense of having his feet planted on the ground after the rowdiness and instability of the big leaguer’s life. He gave infrequent interviews and spoke candidly about his wild years, about his drug use as a reaction to the enormous pressure he felt to perform in the Majors. He was careful, I think, not to paint his LSD exploits as anything heroic or commendable, but as just a thing he had done. A thing people did in the 1970s, on those ungoverned fields, in that that unbuttoned era. A thing which would not be done now.
Dock Ellis died in 2008. James Blagden made the “LSD No-No” short animation soon thereafter, using a recording of a radio interview Ellis had done, and the film cemented Dock’s status as a subversive hero for a generation of baseball-loving hipsters who view Ellis’ achievement as a self-conscious middle finger extended in the direction of the baseball establishment. When I think of Ellis, however, though these things do come to mind — his drug use, his brashness, his outlandish behaviour, and the political and cultural currents he represented — I am struck most by his absurd patience. How, I wonder to myself, could he have waited five long years? Could I wait that long for anything, let alone revenge?