When he woke late that morning, he tried putting the details together from the night before, but in those days, for Dock Ellis, that wasn’t always easy. He knew the Pirates had landed in San Diego early Wednesday night after playing a noon game at Candlestick. He had permission from his manager, Danny Murtaugh, to drive to L.A., his hometown.
The rest … that was a little blurry. Anyway, he was eager to enjoy a full day off before getting back to the grind. He looked around the house to see if his host had anything … interesting; it was 1970. Of course she did. It was just before noon when he crushed the LSD tab, snorted it, waited for the show to kick in.
“What are you doing?!” his host exclaimed. “You have to pitch tonight!”
“Nah,” Ellis told her. “I don’t pitch till Friday.”
“It is Friday!” she said, opening the newspaper to the sports section and, sure enough, there was his name. Now he was really confused.
“What happened to Thursday?” he asked.
Fifty years ago, on June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis’ friend rushed him to LAX so he could make a 3:30 flight back to San Diego, floating him the $9.50 fee for the hourly shuttle. He arrived at San Diego Stadium at 4:30. First pitch was scheduled for 6:05, first game of a twi-night doubleheader.
He then authored what is surely among the most bizarre chapters in baseball history. He would walk eight Padres, hit another. He would throw around 150 pitches; Bob Moose, who was supposed to chart for him, gave up after a while because he was all over the place. Willie Stargell hit a couple of solo home runs.
And at 8:18 p.m., in front of fewer than 10,000 fans in that cavernous park, Ellis threw strike three past Ed Spiezio to complete one of the most unlikely no-hitters baseball has ever seen.
(It also is part of one of the great trivia questions — name the five pitchers who played for both the Yankees and Mets who threw no-hitters for teams OTHER than the Yankees and Mets. Answer below. You have a one-player head start.)
“I don’t think any of us in the Padres dugout had any clue he was throwing a no-hitter because we had runners on every inning,” says Dave Campbell, the former ESPN announcer who led off for the Padres that night. Ellis was 25, making just his 57th career start, but the league already knew him as a force.
“I’ve always been asked who the toughest guy I ever faced was,” Campbell says, “and I always say Dock. His fastball had such great late movement, always seemed to be in one place when I’d start my swing and then move in another direction. It could sink, move in on my hands, or sail away like Mariano Rivera’s cutter.”
Also, Ellis was seeing multiple home plates that night.
“I really didn’t see the hitters,” Ellis would admit years later. “All I could tell is if they were on the right side or the left side. The catcher had tape on his fingers to help me see signals. But I was high as a Georgia pine.”
Ellis’ was a vivid career anyway, start to finish, among the most quintessential 1970s stories imaginable. In 1971, he was 14-3 at the All-Star break, and when someone asked if he’d get the assignment opposite Vida Blue in the Midsummer Classic, Ellis said, “No way they start two brothers,” for which he received a handwritten note of praise from Jackie Robinson.
Sparky Anderson started him. Ellis pitched well for two innings. In the third, he hung a curveball to Reggie Jackson. The ball Jackson hit was last spotted circling Neptune (more on that in a paragraph or two).
On May 1, 1974, hopped up on greenies (his usual game-day drug of choice), Ellis took the mound in a fury against Cincinnati, angry at how chatty the Big Red Machine was. He greeted leadoff man Pete Rose with a fastball to his posterior. He hit Joe Morgan with his next pitch, Dan Driessen with the next. He tried to hit Tony Perez but Perez knew what was coming, tap-danced a four-pitch walk instead. When he went 2-and-0 on Johnny Bench, Murtaugh finally came to get him.
But Ellis was also periodically terrific. He won 19 games for the champion ’71 Pirates. That year, in September, the Bucs fielded the first all-black starting nine ever — Ellis always called that his proudest moment. In ’76, he was part of a steal of a trade, the Yankees swapping Doc Medich for Ellis and a kid second baseman named Willie Randolph; he won 17 games and Game 3 of the ALCS.
(And, as promised: Ellis reminded Reggie, five years later, that he hadn’t forgotten him admiring his All-Star Game moonshot, drilling him in the face one July night in Baltimore. When Ellis got back to the clubhouse, he found three $100 bills in his locker, courtesy of Billy Martin. “My teammates didn’t let me pay for a drink the rest of the season,” he reported.)
That was it, really. He toiled for the A’s, Rangers and Mets before returning to Pittsburgh at the tail end of ’79. The next year he sought counsel for a drug habit that had swollen to include cocaine, heroin, mescaline and crank, beat his addiction, spent the rest of his life as a drug counselor, including some years on the Yankees’ payroll. He died of cirrhosis in 2008, at 63.
“I realize I’ll always be known for that no-hitter, and how it happened,” he said in 2006. “I’m proud of the no-no. I wish it came with a story I could be prouder of.”
(Trivia answer: Ellis (Pirates, 1970); John Candelaria (Pirates, 1976); Al Leiter (Marlins, 1996); Scott Erickson (Twins, 1994); Kenny Rogers (Rangers, 1994).