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“What Happened to Yesterday?”: Sex, Drugs, and Baseball in Dock Ellis’s Surreal World

“What Happened to Yesterday?”: Sex, Drugs, and Baseball in Dock Ellis’s Surreal World: Photo credit: Rob Mrowlec

Photo credit: Rob Mrowlec

He wore two gold rings. One said his name, and the other said his Pirates had taken the 1971 World Series. He exuded a Shaft-like swagger—the jewels, the leather, the big Caddy with his name on the license plate. He wore red and yellow hair-curlers during team practice and used the sweat from his perm to hurl spitballs that glistened during day games. His slider dropped harder than any slider ever should. He was the first guy at a lot of things: the first on the team with an earring, the first major-league pitcher to lead an all-black lineup, the first to show up at the clubhouse with a t-shirt that said “Every Nigger Is a Star,” the first guy—and, sad to say, probably the last—to pitch a no-hitter on LSD.

If you’re young and you’ve heard of Dock Ellis (1945-2008), it’s probably that infamous “acid no-hitter” that you remember (and maybe you’ve seen the semi-viral web animation of the game, narrated by Ellis himself). But Jeffrey Radice’s new doc, though it banks on this chemical cachet, offers far more than “Fear and Loathing in the Major Leagues.” No-No: A Dockumentary is a sensitive and absorbing portrait of the man in full—Ellis’s social commitment and political articulacy, his keen sense for marketing and psychology, his rehabilitation from decades of drug use that made Keith Hernandez look like Nancy Reagan. “I pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs,” he tells us. “That’s how I was dealing with the fear of failure.”

In Radice’s version, Ellis embodied a specific American moment, a particular intersection of sports and counter-culture when you could rail against the mainstream while playing the national sport. The Ellis story is a time capsule, the portrait of an era when “performance-enhancing drugs” were psychotropic rather than anabolic, when a ballplayer with sufficient grit could treat the mound as a soapbox without worrying about losing a sponsorship. “He was a controlled crazy,“ a relative explains. "He wanted to be crazy.”

Ellis with Manny Sanguillen. Photo Credit: Les Banos

Ellis with Manny Sanguillen. Photo Credit: Les Banos

Indeed, “crazy” is a relative term in professional sports, and Ellis was shrewd in cultivating his major-league persona. It was important, Ellis says in the doc, that the other team keep asking, “What’s wrong with Dock?” If the opposing lineup was too busy wondering whether the Pirates ace was strung out, and on what, they’d be too distracted to hit the breaking ball. Ellis’s noted eagerness for plunking batters didn’t hurt (unless you were the batter). Meanwhile, the stimulant dexamyl—or “greenies,” as Ellis called them—helped lift him out of last night’s hangover.

“I would try to out-milligram any opponent,” Ellis tells us, estimating he would cap his dose at 16 or 17 dexamyls before a day-game.

If Ellis was unusually fond of uppers, he was far from alone. Openly distributed by trainers in the 1960s, greenies moved under the table after management banned amphetamines (with little success). “I would say over 90 percent of the major leagues were using dexamyl,” Ellis recalls, who started using in the minor leagues to allay his performance anxiety. As a baby-faced 23-year-old arriving on a Pirates roster that included Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, Ellis wanted badly to contribute, to keep up.

At the same time, and even as he began to fancy cocaine and psychedelics, Ellis was an unremitting political presence in the clubhouse, a “militant black” as some of his teammates put it, or an “angry black man,” as the pitcher was proud to call himself. Baseball in the early ‘70s was entering the adolescence of integration; Mark Armour at the Society of American Baseball Research estimates that the percentage of black players never broke 20 but accounted for “half the league’s stars.” (Just look at rosters from the period’s All-Star Games.) Even in the minority, black players were redefining the game. Ellis knew it, and he made his racial identity as much a part of his brand as his drug use.

This posture was very different from Clemente’s tendency to conciliation and self-identification as an ambassador for both Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. Politically, Ellis’s approach was more in line with baseball’s Richie Allen, who gave a voice to the simmering discontent of marginalized black ballplayers, and he imitated the posturings of Muhammad Ali, a loud detractor of the war in Vietnam (“no Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger'”). When it came to his image, Ellis flaunted his hair: Afro’d, braided, permed—there were few contemporary black styles that Ellis did not rock with ostentation.

With the press, Ellis was a virtuoso, snagging headlines and even manipulating managers. At the 1971 All-Star Game—the season after Ellis’s LSD no-hitter—the American League would be starting Vida Blue, another black ace; in the National League, the favorite to start was white. In an apparent offhand statement, Ellis told reporters: “There’s no way they’re gonna put a brother against a brother in the All-Star Game.” It was a gauntlet, an open challenge to the League, who capitulated and gave Ellis the spotlight. It was the first time two black pitchers had faced off in the Midsummer Classic, and it was Ellis’s canny sense for political provocation that made it possible

As for that LSD game? It remains one of baseball’s great legends, and one of the true ones. On a Thursday in June 1970, flying to Los Angeles for a weekend stand against the San Diego Padres, Ellis dropped his first tabs on the plane, timing the acid to kick in once he landed. Carousing all night—and losing his temporal bearings on the way—Dock took more acid the following noon, which he somehow thought was “still Thursday.” Two hours later, a lady-friend asked why he was still in L.A.

“You’re pitching today.”

“Hell no, baby. I ain’t pitching 'til tomorrow.”

A bug-eyed glance at the newspaper proved Ellis very wrong indeed.

“What happened to yesterday?!” Ellis asked, before hopping a flight to San Diego. Arriving just an hour and a half before first pitch, he gobbled his greenies and warmed up his arm.

What followed was the most awkward no-hitter in the history of the game. The Dock was walking Padres, plunking Padres, even flattening himself against the ground when a slow-roller came off a broken bat. (The catcher fielded that one.) At second base, Bill Mazeroski dove and sprinted, stopping several balls that might easily have been ruled hits.

“Man, I was high as a Georgia pine, tripping on acid,” Ellis recalls. “The opposing team and my teammates knew I was high but they didn’t know what I was high on.”

Jerry May, the catcher, put bright tape on his fingers so that Ellis could read (or at least guess) the signals from the mound. His throws would start to go wild, some of them looking more like cricket tosses than major-league pitches. “I didn’t see the hitters. All I could see was whether they were on the right side or the left side.” And then, without any discernible change in his demeanor, Ellis would send two fastballs and a deadly slider across the plate, one-two-three, and the batter would return to the dugout wondering what had happened to the laws of physics. By the fourth inning, Ellis says he “had lost all concept of time.” Twisted but euphoric, he continued to flummox every opposing batter with his lysergically disordered style of pitching. “I hit a couple guys; it was an ugly no-hitter,” Ellis says with a nod, before adding the diplomatic aside: “I got letters about it.”

The following year was Ellis’s best: 19-9 with a 3.06 ERA en route to the championship. These successes—and his high tolerance for racist hate-mail, cocaine, and greenies—made Ellis more aggressive both at home and on the field. He beat his girlfriends on at least two occasions (their testimony before Radice’s camera is heartwrenching). After splitting from his first wife, he would get drunk in the bullpen on days when he wasn’t starting. In 1974, Ellis mustered preemptive rage during a home-stand against the Cincinnati Reds (this was the era of the Big Red Machine), who he was convinced were all “laughing at” the Pirates. Ellis hurled fastballs at the Pittsburgh players who were fraternizing with Cincinnati, then took the mound during the Reds’ batting practice to issue a declaration.

“Tomorrow,” Ellis swore, pointing at Pete Rose and his men, “I am hitting each and every one of you suckers.” He took aim at the first five to step up to bat, and succeeded in hitting three. (“It’s hard to hit someone when they know you’re throwing at 'em.”) By the time manager Danny Murtaugh pulled him from the field, Ellis had tied an MLB record for plunks in a single inning.

Photo credit: Jane Kenyon

Photo credit: Jane Kenyon

Ellis observed in 1973 that the pitcher and the poet were “up to the same tricks”—the artful persona, the self-lacerating competitiveness, the drive for self-mastery. That persona, the unrepentant “angry black man,” was an ongoing political act, a rebellion renewed each day. Ellis could toy with the newspapers as easily as he toyed with the bottom half of the Padres lineup, and his more outré behavior sometimes obscured an early and enduring devotion to black charitable causes from sickle-cell research to freedom of speech—and eventually, after he got sober—to drug and alcohol recovery in the black community. His contemporary Willie Crawford puts it this way:

Dock is the same here as Richie Allen. Newspapers were trying to make them bad guys in the public’s eyes instead of making them heroes like Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson didn’t fight for blacks until he left baseball. Dock made his fight while he has been in baseball even though he put his job in jeopardy […] fighting for equality for us, for all black people, and the kids that come behind us. That they have the opportunity to express themselves freely. The whole key to success in anything is self-expression.

Ellis was a great pitcher, for a time, but his true art was self-expression, and Radice’s film is a rich and unsentimental portrait of a whip-smart and courageous ballplayer whom most people still remember as “that LSD dude.” After Ellis talked his way into starting the 1971 All-Star Game, Jackie Robinson wrote him a piece of fan mail that also strikes a note of caution; “The news media…will use every means to get back at you…. Try to get more players to share your views, and you will find their support. Continue what you are doing.”

Ellis weeps offscreen as he reads this letter to the camera. You can hear his humility, his contrition for the lost drug years, and you remember the little boy from Compton who found himself threatened with lynchings in North Carolina and whose response was to play at some exaggerated effigy of the angry black man.

“What happened to yesterday?” Ellis asked before his most famous outing. Revisiting this era before publicists dominated, when pop, politics, and personality intersected on the baseball diamond, we might well ask ourselves the same question.

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