Dock Ellis died in 2008 from cirrhosis of the liver. He was 63. In the years since his death, with a new generation of baseball fans (and drug fans) discovering the tale of the 1970 no-hitter he pitched with a head full of acid, his popularity has only grown. That story was woven into the fabric of internet lore after No Mas's brilliant comic book recreation video went viral. There's just one lingering question: Did it actually happen?
Like most stories that sound too fantastical to maintain any shards of truth, it depends on whom you let tell it. Bob Smizik, who covered the Pirates from 1972-77 for the Pittsburgh Press (which eventually folded, after which Smizik wrote for the Post-Gazette), believes Dock's version. He didn't cover the game and was nowhere near overcast San Diego that day to watch it in person, but he says he was the first writer to break the story about the mythical acid no-no. Smizik's piece was published on April 8, 1984, on the front of the sports section, under the tabloidy headline, "Ellis: I Pitched No-Hitter On LSD." Smizik's interview focused more on Dock's work as a California drug and alcohol counselor, but the revelation about his psychedelic escapades was what anchored it and was where the tale first took flight.
"I have no doubt that Dock was on acid that day," Smizik tells me. "Yeah, Dock liked to talk a lot but he also did a lot of stuff [booze, drugs] back then that makes me believe it." In this early iteration, Dock's quotes are brief, for he can only remember "bits and pieces" of the game.
I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the glove but I didn't hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times.
In the story, Smizik also included a quote from a Pittsburgh-area psychologist, Dr. Maurice Cerul, to lend the story a dash of plausibility:
If he had a good trip, he could have done his task without problems. As a matter of fact, he could have performed even better. It's within the realm of possibility. [B]ut LSD should not be used to enhance one's athletic ability.
And how's this for another level of absurdity: Smizik says he was first tipped off about Dock's acid-drop from actor David Lander, a long-time Pirates fan, best remembered for his role as "Squiggy" on Laverne & Shirley. "I saw Lander [Squiggy] at spring training that year," Smizik says. "So [Squiggy] and I were talking and [Squiggy] says to me, 'Hey, Dock told us that he threw that no-hitter on acid, did you ever hear about that?'"
From Squiggy's tip, Smizik tracked down Dock in Los Angeles, got the interview, and even scored himself an Associated Press sportswriting honor for that story.
"I think I won third place," he says.
But since neither he nor Squiggy were at the game, and television footage appears to be lost to history, visual evidence of Dock behaving more erratically than usual on the mound that day is relegated to No Mas's imagination. Unless someone who was at the game can offer more insight.
Meet Bill Christine, another former Pittsburgh Press sportswriter and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times for 24 years. He was at the supposed LSD game. In fact, Christine was the Pirates beat writer in 1970 and practically lived with the team that year. To this day, he doesn't believe Dock's story for one shimmery instant. He recalled a conversation he had with Charley Feeney, the former longtime Pirates beat guy for the Post-Gazette, soon after Ellis died.
Says Christine: "I asked him 'If you had any inkling what was going on that night wouldn't you have written it?' Of course he would have. So would I! We took pride in our reporting, and we had no indication that Dock was acting any different that day than any other day."
Even after 41 years, Christine sounds deeply annoyed by what he referred to as "Dock's embellishments." If a starting pitcher under dictatorial manager Danny Murtaugh had been flaking right before a start, he says, the paper would have known about it. In one of Dock's retellings, he said he hopped on a 3:30 plane from L.A. and got to the clubhouse at 4:30, then went to the dugout to go see his greenies gal in the stands in an effort to straighten himself out. Sure, this could have happened, but if Dock was as addled as he later claimed to have been, even on the downside of his acid trip, Christine and his colleagues would have noticed if something was off.
"Between the two of us [Christine and Feeney], don't you think we would have at least heard a rumor that Dock wasn't there an hour and a half before he was scheduled to start?" he says. "Murtaugh would have said, 'Has anybody seen Dock?' But nothing was out of the ordinary."
Dock always had control problems, Christine says, so even the eight walks weren't that surprising — plus. he was right in Dock's face immediately after the game for a clubhouse interview, battling a three-hour time difference to squeeze the no-hitter story into the night edition.
"I dunno, maybe it would have worn off by then?" Christine says. "But there was no reason for us to think anything funny was going on," Christine exhales and then grumbles some more about the contradictory details of Dock's varying accounts. I tell him that Smizik says that it's all true: "Yeah, well, he's probably saying that because he wrote a story about it and doesn't want it to not be true. Well, I'm the same way, but opposite — I definitely don't want to think that I blew that story!"
For even more doubt-casting, let's go to John Mehno, author and lifetime western-Pennsylvania-based newspaperman, who had extensive interactions with Dock and his teammates throughout his career. He's not only skeptical about the LSD story, but about lots of Dock's yarns spun during his career and especially after his retirement.
Says Mehno: "He used to [have this expression]: 'wolf tickets' — somebody's always buying and somebody's always selling. And what he meant by that was that people would put out stories or rumors or whatever, and there were people who believed them and you would just sit back and see what happens. He loved attention."
Mehno, like seemingly many people who've covered the Pirates over the years, never found a teammate who would corroborate that Dock was noticeably whacked-out during his no-hitter. Not one. Considering how much traction the story's gained in recent years, you'd think there would be plenty of teammates to step forward.
"I don't doubt for a second that somewhere along the line he took LSD because those were the times and that was his M.O. — he would do just about anything," Mehno says. "There's a difference between if you pitched a game on a hangover, and if you pitched a game drunk. This idea that he's out there hallucinating on the mound and he can throw nine innings — it's really far-fetched."
Well, not according to good Dr. Cerul, but why quibble? And about that hangover: In the 1976 book, Dock Ellis: In The Country Of Baseball, written by Ellis and the poet Donald Hall, Dock said he pitched the no-hitter while while drunk on vodka and sobered himself up with "coffee." When the book was republished in 1989, the substances were acid and speed. Hall explained that he had lied in the original edition because Ellis, then a New York Yankee, was fearful of possible repercussions from George Steinbrenner if the acid-and-Dexamyl version made print.
So it was acid. That's what Dock said. That's what Donald Hall said. That's what Squiggy said. That's most likely what the documentary will say, perhaps with added corroboration from some of his 1970 teammates. And that's what most of us choose to believe. Even if the box score doesn't reveal the dilation of Dock's pupils, it's still best way to show how messed up he was during the game, says author Donnell Alexander. Alexander interviewed Ellis for American Public Media just months before he died. The interview became the sampled audio clip used in the No Mas bit. Here's what he says you can glean from the box score:
"He's unhittable, and it's an extremely uneven performance," Alexander says. "The middle innings were tough. He has runners in scoring position in the fourth, fifth and sixth. In a 1-0 game. It's important to remember also, that he's playing for his career here, a 25-year-old .500 pitcher who lost 17 the previous season. Insane pressure. Dock gives up a walk in the last three, but is otherwise flawless."
Alexander, who's putting the finishing touches on the Dock life-story screenplay, is adamant Ellis felt the residual effects of high-grade acid that day, but most likely not to the degree most of us envision.
"He was on the downside of what could have been a 12-hour trip," Alexander says. "In the last third of this game, I think he was basically just on speed. Same as the rest of his team."
But just because Dock was probably not fending off nine innings' worth of disorienting LSD visual trauma, full of pink elephants and Richard Nixon heads, it shouldn't lessen how impressively he pitched that day, Alexander says.
"Some people won't accept this as a baseball story," Alexander says. "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 fuckin' 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."
I say we stick with that notion. Who wants to live in a world where Dock Ellis's no-no was anything less than what we believe it to be? Where the story is just another wolf ticket?
Oh, and check out the working title of Alexander's screenplay. It's at first glance a simple one, pulled directly from the box score: "Ellis, D."
Now, read it again out loud. Slower this time. You'll get it if you want to.
Additional reporting by Dom Cosentino