Dock Ellis really did pitch a no-hitter on acid, for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1970.
June 12 was a Friday, and the Pirates were on a west coast road trip. Ellis went to his home in Los Angeles, assuming his team had the day off, and took some LSD. His girl friend, who was with him – the sixties having taught the world that one should never take an acid trip without another person handy-opened the paper and discovered that, not only were the Pirates playing a twi-night doubleheader in San Diego, but that Dock was the starting pitcher in game one.
They got to the airport, and Dock made it to the ball park in time. He walked eight and hit a batter but allowed no hits, to an admittedly light-hitting lineup of Padres, an expansion team in its second season.
The LSD story had become a baseball urban legend. Barbara Manning, baseball fan, and singer and guitarist for the indie rock band The SF Seals, included a song about Dock Ellis on her 1986 Baseball Trilogyseven-inch EP.
Later, Ellis confirmed that he had, indeed, pulled it off.
“I was zeroed in on the (catcher’s) glove, but I didn’t hit the glove too much,” he said in a 1993 issue of Lysergic World. “The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t . . . 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.”
Dock Ellis was diagnosed with liver disease in May of 2008. He died on December 19 at age 63. After baseball, he had been a substance abuse counselor within the Pennsylvania State Correctional System, and in his native Los Angeles.
Nick Willhite shut out the Cubs in his major league debut; in the second game of a Sunday doubleheader at Dodger Stadium on June 16, 1963. The Dodgers sold him to the Washington Senators in October 1964, and re-acquired him the next May. He moved to the California Angels. He drank, and had a habit of staying out late and coming to the ball park late. The Mets traded for him on June 10, 1967, and released him two weeks later.
He coached in the Royals, Brewers, and Cardinals farm systems, and married and divorced three times. Each loss; marriage or coaching job, he later attributed to alcoholism. He bottomed out in 1989 while living on the streets of Salt Lake City, Utah, and sought help from his former Dodgers teammate Stan Williams. Williams put him in touch with the Baseball Assistance Team, a Major League Baseball charity that helps former players in need.
“I literally owe my life to BAT,” he later said.
Nick Willhite, a native of Denver who played high school ball there, died on December 14, 2008 in Alpine, Utah, after a five year battle with cancer, at the hole of his oldest son, Monty.
“He carried demons in his life,” Monty Willhite said in the Rocky Mountain News obituary of his father. “But he was a very spiritual man-loving, kind, charismatic.”
To the fan now in middle age, not a week passes, it seems, when a name he remembers from the Strat-O-Matic game, of a player whose new baseball cards he looked forward to each spring, turns up in the obituaries.
The fan also thinks of some whose names appeared in the Mitchell Report; unrepentants who point fingers and deny everything. Roger Clemens at yet another press conference, Rafael Palmeiro before Congress, Paul LoDuca The Dodger Connection, Mark McGwire who believes in letting the past stay in the past, and closure.
The deaths five days apart of Dock Ellis and Nick Willhite, two players from another era who beat their demons, and admitted they were flesh and blood human beings with flaws, remind the fan that, yes, the game has changed.