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Pirates rebel Dock Ellis was much more than a no-no

On the long list of rebels in sports, you’d be hard pressed to find a greater one that Pittsburgh Pirates legend Dock Ellis.

MLB Photos Archive
There is perhaps no one more colorful in baseball history, than Dock Ellis.
Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

In sports there are several icons that come to mind for most people for the hard work and performances they gave their games. Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Tom Brady are all well respected as absolute legends. There is another group of athletes however that went against the grain and were mavericks (for better or for worse at times) and are remembered for antics maybe more than stats. Dennis Rodman, Tito Ortiz and Terrell Owens are undoubtedly game changers, and they did it in their own way unashamedly.

Pirates Dock Ellis
Dock Ellis was always a firm believer in the art of intimidation from the mound.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Perhaps the best example of these rebellious athletes could be former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Dock Ellis, who is of course remembered best for pitching a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD, a feat that later in life would embarrass the Pirate great. In his new found life of sobriety and counseling others with substance abuse issues, he knew he was much more than a pitcher who played a perfect game while high. In reality, Ellis is one of the underrated stars and revolutionaries of his era, and is certainly more than a guy who pitched a no no.

In 1968 when Ellis was first called up to Pittsburgh, America was slowly but surely starting to go through a culture shift as black culture was now effectively influencing mainstream music, fashion, media, and of course sports. Just as the likes of Jimi Hendrix was ripping through speakers with an electric guitar, Ellis was starting to rip through batters and instilling fear in his opponents.

Ellis was a “new” kind of ball player as the ‘60s came to a close, and the ‘70s were underway. He was bold, colorful, outspoken and unashamedly black. If Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell were the heart and backbone of those Pirates’ teams, then one could argue that Ellis was the soul, and very few players had more of it.

On June 12, 1970 Ellis was slated to start on the mound against the San Diego Padres. Not realizing it wasn’t his day off, Ellis woke up late in Los Angeles, dropped another tab of acid after coming down off of his previous high, and then raced to San Diego upon learning the news. Pitching a no-hitter in baseball is one of the hardest feats in sports, and that’s while being sober. No one else could fathom pulling off the performance while under the influence of Psychedelic drugs, and sadly enough, neither did Ellis, as he would state later on that he does not remember much of that game.

“I can only remember bits and pieces of the game. I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the [catcher’s] glove, but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters, and the bases were loaded two or three times.” - Dock Ellis

1971 saw Ellis and the Pirates compete in the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, in which Ellis pitched Game 1. The team would go onto win in seven games, with their maverick pitcher finishing fourth in the running for the Cy Young Award.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were a team of the future as they not only pulled off a World Series victory, but also a victory for the furthering of culture in baseball. On September 1, 1971, 24 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Pirates were the first team to field an all black and latino lineup, with Ellis on the mound. Robinson would go onto praise Ellis for his advocacy of black and minority players in baseball and continuing what Robinson started with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

After bouncing around between a couple of teams after Pittsburgh (one incredible year with the New York Yankees), Ellis would retire in the Spring of 1980 after rejoining the Pirates in late 1979. Following a mental breakdown and alcohol induced rage, Ellis instructed a family member to pick him up at the airport with a bottle of vodka. Ellis downed the bottle of vodka, and then admitted himself to a rehab facility where after getting sober, he would go onto a new career as a counselor for others struggling with substance abuse, often telling the story of his no-hitter to break the ice and relate to those struggling. He would go onto admit that he pitched every game of his career under the influence of drugs.

Dock Ellis #17 and Willie Stargell #8 of the Pittsburgh Pirates were two of the biggest stars for the team in the 1970’s.
Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

In 2008 at the age of 63, Ellis would pass away following complications stemming from a liver ailment. His stories of soul innovation, gutsy play, hair curlers and an affinity for brawls with the Cincinnati Reds are all things that make him one of a kind, and Ellis should be remembered as such.

The stats don't tell the whole story of the kind of player Ellis was, just as there’s so much more to Hendrix than Purple Haze. I believe he has a rightful place in the Pirates Hall of Fame, as he is often one of the most overlooked players from those great teams of the ‘70s. From what he did do on the field as a competitor and innovator, to what he did off the field as an activist and counselor shows that there will never be another player like Dock Ellis, and perhaps no better story of individuality at the highest level.