High Times

How to throw a no-hitter on acid, and other lessons from the career of baseball legend Dock Ellis

"It's such an important aspect of the game," he says. "Like hitting batsmen. All hitters know they're gonna get hit. They just don't know when. The kicker for the truly good hitters is, you cannot hit me as many times as I'm gonna hit you. They take that hit to get six hits. But you gotta pop their ass so you can get an 0-for-4 on them one day. Don't get cocky now, motherfucker. The challenge is on. So let's get it on. Other guys might explain it differently, have different reasons, but that was mine.

"Right about the time I left, it changed. You can't throw at anyone without getting thrown out of the game. The announcers today say it ruins the game. They never talk about the fights that Cincinnati and St. Louis got into 30 years ago. Barry Bonds? I'd hit him at least once a game. 'Cause he's got all that shit on. Yeah, let's see that shit stop the ball from hurting him if I hit him on the motherfucking elbow or something. I'd hit him just to see, does it work?"

It was also that 1971 All-Star Game that first gained Ellis his reputation as a militant -- an image later etched in stone by the 1976 biography Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, which declared him "baseball's Muhammad Ali."

Life's change-up: Ellis, now clean and sober at age 60, is a prison drug counselor.
Gary Leonard
Life's change-up: Ellis, now clean and sober at age 60, is a prison drug counselor.
Life's change-up: Ellis, now clean and sober at age 60, 
is a prison drug counselor.
Gary Leonard
Life's change-up: Ellis, now clean and sober at age 60, is a prison drug counselor.

Before the game, Ellis let it be known that NL manager Sparky Anderson would never start him, because the announced AL starter, Vida Blue, was also black. This launched the inevitable national sportswriters' debate about how racism didn't exist in 1971, and how dare he and why would he and so on and whatnot. The flap had its intended effect: Anderson, grumblingly, started Ellis, and the pitcher soon became one of the most reviled players in the league, branded a troublemaker and a miscreant. Ellis was undisturbed by the affair; as with most things in which he believed, he openly declared he "didn't give a fuck what anybody thought." With possibly one exception: A few days after the All-Star Game, Ellis received a letter in the mail.

"I read your comments in our paper the last few days," it read, "and wanted you to know how much I appreciate your honesty. The news media, while knowing full well you are right and honest, will use every means to get back at you. Honors that should be yours will bypass you and the pressures will be great -- try not to be left alone. There will be times when you ask yourself if it's worth it all. I can only say, Dock, it is.

Sincerely,

Jackie Robinson"


What's weird is that sometimes it felt like a balloon. Sometimes it felt like a golf ball. But he could always get it to the plate. Getting it over the plate was another matter entirely. Sometimes he couldn't see the hitter. Sometimes he couldn't see the catcher. But if he could see the hitter, he'd guess where the catcher was. And he had a great catcher back there. Jerry May. You could make mistakes with him, and he would compensate. He'd know if he called for a curveball, he could look at the follow-through of your arm and see if you were gonna hang it. So he'd get ready to slide and block. Also, he had this reflective tape on his fingers that was by far the easiest thing to see.

Ellis had no idea what the score was, and he knew he'd been wild -- he ended with eight walks, one hit batsman and the bases loaded at least twice -- but here it was, bottom of the seventh, and he was still in the game.

The hardest part was between innings. He was sure his teammates knew something was up. They had all been acting strange since the game began. Solution: Do not look at teammates. Do not look at scoreboard. Do not make eye contact. His spikes -- that's what he concentrated on. Pick up tongue depressor, scrape mud, repeat. Must. Clean. Spikes.

Sometime in the fifth or sixth, he sensed someone next to him. Looking. He turned. It was rookie infielder Dave Cash.

"Dock," Cash said. "You've got a no-hitter going."

Cash, apparently unaware of the (insanely well known) superstition that a pitcher never talks about a no-hitter until it's complete for fear of jinxing it, was immediately piled upon by several outraged teammates. Ellis, meanwhile, looked at the scoreboard.

Huh.

Yeah.

After the eighth, during which he'd watched outfielder Matty Alou snag an almost certain base hit, Ellis walked off the field and looked Cash straight in the eye.

"Still got my no-no!" Ellis declared.


Ellis's last good year as a pitcher came in 1977, his first of two with the Rangers. In the interim, his reputation as a wildman had grown exponentially. There were the curlers (which inspired a spread in Ebonyabout his hairstyles), the biography, the beaning of the Cincinnati Reds. There was a July 1976 incident, after being traded to the Yankees before that season, in which Ellis decided to retaliate against Reggie Jackson for showboating after a brutal home run in the 1971 All-Star Game -- and hit him in the face with a fastball. Jackson was carried off the field on a stretcher; four years later, he'd tell reporters that his face was still numb. Ellis had been maced by security guards, threatened by his own managers and declared the most unpopular Pittsburgh Pirate ever.

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