One of Life’s Curveballs

On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who would go on to some success and much controversy, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. No-hitters are headline news but not usually career- or even season-defining.

If you are a baseball fan, you may know why Dock Ellis’ no-hitter is remembered, 45 years later. If you are not, please keep reading, as this is not a post that is about baseball.

Ellis pitched for 12 seasons and had what one would call a “pretty good” career: 138 wins and 119 losses and a World Series championship ring. He was controversial because he spoke his mind off the field, on the field, and whether reporters’ mics were near or not. He was a black man who entered the major leagues at a time when the sport was newly integrated; shockingly, that “time” was recent, the late 1960s. He was one of the first players to cultivate his hair into an afro, and that garnered a lot of attention, not all of it positive. He spoke his mind about off-field social issues at a time when people would call such behavior “uppity.” He was nicknamed the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball.” From white reporters that nickname was not a compliment.

And he did not care. He was done with being treated as a second-class citizen and he did not care if you were supportive of this or not. Baseball is a sport in which words like “bravery” are used easily about acts of physical bravery and moments that are really just successful guesses; rarely does the word refer to social bravery, which is the more important kind in the long run. Ellis had that.

But 45 years ago this June, he was a pitcher who had not yet shown that he could fulfill his promise. He had a 21-26 career record before this date, a 22 and 26 record after. And he had a drug and alcohol problem that he sometimes successfully masked and more often did not. Perhaps he really did care what people thought; perhaps every racist thing said in his direction truly did affect him, deep down. He was born in Los Angeles and he had not been exposed to racism until he was drafted into professional baseball and was sent to play in towns in the Deep South, where he witnessed the still-entrenched, even if illegal, the still-open racism that that region sometimes embraced. Or perhaps he had found for himself some of the thousand excuse-reasons to drink or use drugs that can populate an addict’s already overcrowded mind.

In June 1970, he was already something of a “garbage-head,” someone who will take just about any drug or drink any amount of alcohol that might displace him from his personality and give him a moment of relief. He claimed after his career was over that he never pitched sober in a game, that he was either drunk or on more “greenies,” amphetamines, than most of his teammates consumed. (As many as all of them combined, sometimes.) One of his teammates remembered, “If Dock is pitching, you know he’s high. But how high is he?”

In 1976, he collaborated on an autobiography, “Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball,” with Donald Hall, one of the nation’s most famous … poets. (!) With typical brashness, he volunteered himself to be the subject of Hall’s next book after he learned that the burly middle-aged man attending spring training was a writer. Hall learned about the drug use, but because Ellis’ baseball career was still ongoing, it was played down in the book.

One day, as he later told the story, Ellis misread his pitching schedule and took some LSD, thinking he had another day off. His girlfriend awakened him later that day and reminded/informed him that he was supposed to pitch that night. In a daze, he traveled to the ballpark, and he pitched a no-hitter while tripping on acid.

He did not admit to any of this at the time, so the truth is hard to know. Some statistics from the game kind of bear out his claim: he struck out six and walked eight. It was far from a perfect game, and truth to tell, some no-hitters happen not because the pitcher is pin-point in his accuracy or over-powering in his velocity, some no-hitters in fact happen because the pitcher can not find the strike zone and the hitters simply guess wrong for 27 outs. This may have been one of those, inebriated or not.

In an interview, Ellis described what he remembered of the game:

The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes, I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate. They say I had about three to four fielding chances. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn’t hit hard and never reached me.

He also said that he remembered hitting “a couple batters” but according to the box score, he only hit one. As I said above, the truth inside the truth may be hard to know.

After his career was over, Dock Ellis got sober, and told the story a few times. Quite a few times. For people in recovery, telling on ourselves is vitally important. He was consistent in the details in the telling. A short animated film was created that employed his voice from an NPR interview about the LSD no-hitter incident.

He spent the last three decades of his life sober and he spent his life as a substance abuse counselor, both for famous athletes and for many more utterly anonymous individuals, some of them in jails. He died of liver disease in December 2008.

A feature-length documentary called “No-No: A Dockumentary,” was released in 2014. It tells Ellis’ life story. The creators did not know in 2008 that they would be making the film, so Ellis’ own voice is limited to whatever interviews he gave through the years. Luckily, he gave many, and one is worth sharing here. It may be Dock Ellis’ “Rosebud” moment or provide us a missing ingredient in the travails-filled journey he took through life. The creators of an I-book called “Beyond Ellis D” interviewed him and asked that he read out loud a letter he had received from Jackie Robinson after one or another of Ellis’ controversies early in his career.

He had not read the letter in years:

I read your comments in our paper the last few days and wanted you to know how much I appreciate your courage and honesty. In my opinion, progress for today’s players will only come from this kind of dedication. I am sure also you know some of the possible consequences. The news media, while knowing full well you are right and honest, will use every means to get back at you: Blacks should not protest, as you are. When I met you, I was left with the feeling that self-respect was very important. There will be times when you will ask yourself is it worth it all? I can only say, Dock, it is, and even though you will want to yield in the long run, your own feeling about yourself will be most important. Try not to be left alone. Try to get more players to understand your views, and you will find great support. You have made a real contribution. I surely hope your great ability continues. That ability will determine the success of your dedication and honesty. I again appreciate what you are doing. Continued success, Jackie Robinson

The video below is the audio of Dock Ellis, many years removed from the baseball diamond, many years removed from drinking and drugging, hearing himself read the words, hearing his hero’s words of love and respect to his younger, sharper-edged self. “Aw man! I never read that like that!” he cries. The sobbing starts before half-way through, but he reads the short letter all the way. The Dock Ellis that probably would not cry, would never cry, did drugs and drank and searched for escape; the Dock Ellis that helped addicts recover, that Dock Ellis could cry.

It’s that “Aw, man!” that gets me every time I hear it.

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This column first appeared in June 2015.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 29 asks us to reflect on the word, “Curve.”

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