Dock Ellis’ journey helped him shine a light for others
In the years since that revelation, some skeptics have cast doubt on the validity of the story. Yet, the former Pittsburgh Pirates’ ace, one of the most vocal Black players of his era, never backtracked from any of his initial claims.
“I can only remember bits and pieces of the game,” Ellis told the Pittsburgh Press in ‘84 “I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the glove [of catcher Jerry May], but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and [that] the bases were loaded two or three times.”
In actuality, Ellis hit only one batter that night at San Diego Stadium, but he was certainly wild against the Padres – incredibly wild. Ellis walked eight Padres during his June 12, 1970, no-hitter, an unusual occurrence for a pitcher who usually featured more than decent control. Although it’s impossible to say with any certainty, Ellis’ lack of control that night may have stemmed from the effects of LSD.
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While there remains uncertainty over Ellis’ use of LSD immediately prior to that historic game, he did not romanticize his drug abuse and its alleged connection to the no-hitter. He was not proud of it. But there’s little doubt that his abuse of drugs and alcohol persisted throughout his major league career.
By the late 1960s, Ellis had added cocaine to his list of preferred drugs. And if we are to believe the story of his no-hitter, he would add the use of LSD to the list by the time that the 1970 season began. In a 1985 interview with USA Today, Ellis recounted his path of addiction. “I went from liquor to marijuana, from marijuana to cocaine, to amphetamines and everything else,” Ellis told writer Mark Celender. “Then something started going on inside of me. I cut back on drugs and started drinking. But then I found myself drinking stuff I didn’t like. It took me months before I realized how much I was drinking.”
As Ellis made more money in the major leagues, his abuse of drugs grew, gradually and steadily. “I was on drugs every time I took to the field,” Ellis revealed to Celender. “Quite frankly, I had a chance to injure a lot of lives… Thank God, I didn’t hurt anyone [on the field].”
But Ellis did hurt himself. The heavy consumption of drugs and alcohol affected Ellis’ health, both physically and mentally. It also took a damaging toll on his personal life, especially his various marriages. Ellis was married four times, with three of them ending in divorce. Two of those divorces occurred with Ellis in the throes of drug abuse.
In November of 1979, the Pirates released him, a move that essentially signaled the end of his career. Ellis took out his frustrations at home. He flew into a rage and reportedly brandished a gun. His loud and violent outburst so traumatized his wife, Austine, that she left the house and went to a local hospital. She would never return to Ellis.
With both his marriage and his playing career over, Ellis had reached rock bottom. He realized that he needed to make a substantial change to his life. In 1980, he sought help from former major league pitcher Don Newcombe, who had overcome his own problems with alcoholism. Newcombe arranged for Ellis to enter The Meadows, a famed rehabilitation center in Arizona. Ellis stayed at The Meadows for 40 days, beginning his commitment to end his use of drugs and alcohol.
Not long after his successful rehabilitation stint, Ellis decided to turn his experiences with drugs into a positive effort aimed at assisting others. He started working as a counselor through psychotherapy sessions and eventually became the director of the substance abuse program at the California Institute for Behavioral Medicine in Los Angeles. At times, he counseled major league ballplayers struggling with addiction.
As part of his work, Ellis became a motivational speaker who pushed forth his message to younger generations. Often becoming emotional during his talks at schools and with prison inmates, Ellis implored his audiences to stay away from drugs. He urged them not to repeat the mistakes that he had committed during his years in baseball. He pointed out how his constant abuse of drugs and alcohol had affected his behavior, created conflict with his managers and teammates, and ultimately cost him his marriage.
“What we need to educate our young about is the abuses of drugs and alcohol,” Ellis told USA Today in 1985. “When I say young, I mean starting with kindergarten. That’s the time when little bitty kids with little bitty eyes start watching and following adults.”
Ellis’ efforts undoubtedly helped many younger people that he met over the years. Unfortunately, his crusade against drugs never received the kind of publicity that had been generated by his many controversies in the 1970s. Little was reported about Ellis by the national media until 2007, when a national newspaper article brought news about the retired right-hander. The article detailed shocking revelations about Ellis’ health, which had deteriorated badly over the last six months. According to the article, Ellis was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, resulting in a loss of over 60 pounds. Doctors informed Ellis that if he were to survive long-term, he would need a liver transplant.
Sadly, the transplant never came. Later diagnosed with heart disease, Ellis was no longer regarded as a viable candidate for a liver transplant. In 2008, Ellis’ body gave out. He died on Dec. 19, at only 63 years of age.
Not only did liver disease take Ellis at a young age, but it served as a reminder of the damage that his use of alcohol had almost certainly caused to his body. As Ellis himself admitted many times, he had made more than his fair share of mistakes over the years, including his alleged use of LSD prior to a game, his attempts to injure several players on the Cincinnati Reds, and his repeated efforts at undermining his managers. Much of that behavior came about, either directly or indirectly, because of the haze created by alcohol and drug abuse.
But to Ellis’ credit, he did not allow that to become his legacy. Instead, he committed himself to making a change and did his best to make amends – by helping younger generations learn from his failures. He did that for roughly 25 years, or about 40 percent of his life.
Over those last 25 years, Dock Ellis found his way.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum