baseball players

How Dock Ellis Made Baseball History on LSD

The science, the theory, and the complicated unknowns of Dock Ellis’ acid- and amphetamine-fueled baseball achievement.

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Few can rival baseball player Dock Ellis, as one of the dopest, most interesting figures to live during a revolutionary time in America. There’s a lot to say about Dock, but we don’t have time for it all: Just keep in mind, he’s the kind of guy who had the confidence to wear this outfit and built a dungeon in his house specifically designed to listen to Jimi Hendrix. But what Doc is most famous for is pitching a no-hitter in baseball, one of the rarest achievements—and he did it while on LSD.

The details surrounding Ellis’ acid-fueled no-hitter are murky, but thanks to the 2014 No-No: A Dockumentary, along with an obsessive amount of digging, I’ve constructed a timeline of events, as well as the drugs he likely took, which all led to his extraordinary feat.

The morning of June 11, 1970, Dock Ellis flew into San Diego to be the starting pitcher for his Pittsburgh Pirates the next day. But once in California, he wanted to visit friends in Los Angeles, so he rented a car and dropped acid so it would hit by the time he arrived. According to a journalist that spoke with Ellis, he was in possession of ‘Purple Haze’ LSD, a particular batch that was created by Owsley Stanley and distributed at the Monterey Pop music festival in 1967.

When he arrived, Ellis and his friends roasted the day away with a toolbelt of amphetamines, cocaine, cannabis, and acid. According to Ellis’ friend Al Rambo, they crushed LSD pills, also known as microdots, and snorted them. (It’s worth noting that nowadays LSD in the form of pressed pills/microdots is just about extinct.) Eventually, he passed out—only to wake up the next day realizing he had only a few hours to get back to San Diego for the game.

 Having lost an entire day while partying in Los Angeles, he was rushed to the airport—but not before dropping another hit of LSD prior to boarding the plane. When he arrived at the field, Ellis grabbed a bag containing beanies (Benzedrine) from a supplier in the audience to add to the stash of greenies (Dexamyl) he would take every game. Both pills contain amphetamine, with Benzedrine containing pure amphetamine and with Dexamyl containing a proprietary blend of dextroamphetamine and the barbiturate sodium amobarbital. They were marketed to women for weight loss, but Ellis took them in order to, in his own words, “overcome [his] fear of failure.” (At this point in baseball history, pill-popping was tolerated and team managers would turn their heads when drugs were administered, mostly in locker rooms. This was an omnipresent practice in baseball.)

It was a weird time, those Seventies. Here’s a tally of substances Dock Ellis took in the 36 hours leading up to his extraordinary no-hitter:

  • 2-6 doses of ‘Purple Haze’ LSD, most pills were snorted, others orally administered
  • 5-8 ‘White Cross’ beanies, or Benzedrine (amphetamine sulfate)
  • 8-18 greenies, or Dexamyl (dextroamphetamine sulfate and sodium amobarbital)
  • Undisclosed amount of cocaine and alcohol

Any other person would be socially unrecognizable after this potpourri of serotonin and dopamine agonists floating in their body, yet Dock Ellis did the impossible while under the influence of such a cocktail. 

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Looking at the neurological underpinnings of his LSD-fueled no-hitter, I’ve boiled the possibilities down to four distinct theories as to how he was able to pitch what’s historically known as one of the greatest achievements in baseball history:

Absolute Uncontrolled Chaos Theory

This theory assumes that after an all-out assault on Ellis’ neural pathways within the span of 36 hours, the motor functions needed to pitch traditionally were in complete disarray. While the MLB has yet to release footage of this game, personal accounts from fellow Pirates note his movements were highly erratic and he seemed higher than usual (despite that he was notorious for partying and being visibly high during games). With Ellis pitching eight walks and one ball outright hitting a batter, this was undoubtedly one of the sloppiest no-hitters in baseball history. That accomplishment is undeniable.

From Ellis’ own account even he believed his actions were chaotic:

“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.”

The uncontrollable chaos theory rests on the fact that up until that point, Ellis never had never pitched a no-hitter. When he went into the game, he continued to pitch like he normally would but the typhoon of drugs within his body prevented him from doing so and resulted in a no-hitter. This theory also takes into account that by pitching chaotically, he unintentionally confused everyone—which also contributed to his extraordinary achievement that night.

Erratically Controlled Behavior Theory

When I reached out to sociologist Dimitrios Liokaftos, founder of Microdosing Research project funded by Wellcome, about the drug culture of sports, he stated that claims by Ellis of drugs giving him a social advantage over others “need to be analyzed in a sport-specific manner…and its culture at the time.”

Dock Ellis existed during the same historical moment that President Richard Nixon declared LSD evangelist Dr. Timothy Leary the “most dangerous man in America,” when he was encouraging people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Drugs were omnipresent, but especially in baseball. The players who lived it at the time reported that 90-95% of all MLB players were taking amphetamine, with Dexamyl and Benzedrine being a favorite among professional athletes. So in the era of omnipresent substance use in baseball, along with the 1970s drug revolution, a player like Dock Ellis may have created a sociological advantage solely based on his reputation of drug use. Ellis stated that he always tried to “out-milligram” other players (i.e. take more drugs than they did) not only to get “the edge” on his opponents, but as a means of intimidation (knowing that much of the league took substances for performance-enhancing purposes, knowing Doc could handle more drugs and still be functional could have been intimidating). When Dock came to pitch, all the players knew he was high, but they didn’t know what he was high on. As covered in the 2014 No No: Documentary, according to the players that competed with Ellis, they saw his actions on (and off) the field as “controlled chaos.”

Read: LSD: Everything You Should Know

Ellis’ action may have indeed been stranger than usual considering the amount of substances he was on. Neuropharmacologist and founder of Psychedelic Support Alli Feduccia states that multiple hits of LSD within a 24-hour period would lead to a longer trip with extended subjective effects.

However Ellis’s final dose of LSD occurred around noon in Los Angeles and the start of the game was 6:05 pm. Even with the lingering slushie of psychedelics in his body, Ellis would have been on the downhill after the peak of his trip. Perceiving he had the pharmacological advantage that he sought for each game, he used the residual behavioral and neurological effects of LSD (spatial/time alterations, color shifts, mild hallucinations) with intent and to his advantage.

Then there’s the issue of amphetamine use while on LSD. Dr. Alli Feduccia says that while amphetamine won’t extend the duration of a trip since it uses different neuroreceptors than LSD, it may make the trip weirder. She also states a person’s body can equilibrate to a steady amount of the same substance, which means it understands how to function while under the influence of a drug. A cup of coffee will give people that don’t drink coffee the jitters. However, with coffee drinkers, their bodies have equilibrated to the caffeine. Amphetamine was Dock Ellis’ coffee.

Default Mode Network Modulation Theory

Our brains are always in a state of activity, even when we’re not doing anything specific (just like how your phone is always doing something in the background, even when you’re not on an app). That Default Mode Network (DMN) defines that active state that the brain assumes when the input of the stimuli is limited or the brain is well-accustomed to it. A lack of stimulus input gives way to activation of the DMN, which gives way to introspection and daydreaming. These cognitive processes are functions of the DMN. If a person takes psychedelics, their DMN augments in interesting ways, like changing what’s called resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC). Basically, the RSFC is how neurons work and collaborate with other neurons while you’re just chilling. Finally, there’s “procedural memory,” and it may solve some pieces of the Dock Ellis LSD puzzle.

When you walk, you don’t consciously think about how to take each step. Your brain automatically makes those calculations. But it wasn’t always like this—you looked like a klutz when you first started walking. We all did. If you constantly achieve a motor task, like walking, it just comes natural to you because it resides in your procedural memory. It’s a form of long-term memory so repetitive that it becomes an unconscious action—sort of like pitching a baseball if you’ve been doing it your entire life.

Read: Ego Death: Everything You Should Know

Since we have evidence that psychedelics like LSD modulate the DMN by changing connections in the brain (RSFC), this may also lead to an augmentation in how procedural memory is obtained in the brain. Dock Ellis had pitched using relatively the same neurological mechanics his entire life. Under the influence of LSD, these neural pathways Ellis used to complete a procedural memory task like pitching may have been temporarily reconfigured to allow a different unconscious perspective.

This may hold a key to Dock Ellis’ no-hitter, but there have never been clinical trials to look at a person’s ability to repeat actions like pitching under the influence of psychedelics. We’re existing in a cloud of hypotheticals, which brings me to the final theory.

The Unknown Unknown Modulation Theory

Let’s point to the obvious: There’s a lot that we just don’t know about the brain. Those are the known unknowns. However there are even more unknown unknowns that exist, which are things that we don’t even know we don’t even know. The history of neuroscientific advancement over the past 200 years suggests this is probably the correct answer.

fMRI, the leading technique of neuroimaging psychedelic experiences, was just invented in 1990. The DMN was discovered in 2001, and humanity has gone this long not even knowing we had it in our brains. To believe the current state of psychedelic neuroscience is finalized is to take a completely naive stance on the ingenuity of human innovation. 

Notably, Doc mentioned he didn’t actually see the batters. He was only conscious of if they were on the left or right side. This could be the visual cortex taking some referential shortcut to only give the brain enough data to complete a task. Ellis also said he couldn’t actually see the catcher, but he only knew which balls to throw based on the brightly-colored tape on the catcher’s fingers. This may be an indicator of an undiscovered brain network optimizing itself to achieve a task.

spinning circle

For all the interest Dock Ellis received from his seismic presence in sports and culture, he doesn’t get enough attention for what he did after he retired. He knew his drug use may have been problematic at times, and he began to turn his fanfare into support groups for people who were dealing with substance addiction. The Yankees even hired him as a counselor to work with new players who struggled with their relationship to drugs.

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The story of Dock Ellis is far more complex than “that guy who took LSD and pitched a no-hitter.” With Ellis’ passing in 2008, all we have left are canons of epic tales, far too many to list here. The question still remains: How did Dock Ellis pitch a no-hitter while under LSD?

Well, he took LSD.

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