Afunny thing happened to former Giant and Cardinal outfield great Orlando ("Baby Bull") Cepeda on his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rounding first, he tripped over a two-kilo package of marijuana on the basepath and was called "out." Sent back to the bench, he languished there for 25 years before the veterans on the committee relented and gave him the nod, and the one-time "drug outlaw" took his rightful place among the game's elite in Cooperstown earlier this summer.
But star baseball players are hardly strangers to illegal drugs. In fact, these two American pastimes have often gone hand in hand (or powder to nose, joint to lips, paper to tongue), providing juicy scandal material for writers on the sports beat and their readers.
The LSD No-Hitter
When the subject of baseball and drugs comes up, the story of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis and his celebrated "LSD No-Hitter" stands out above all others. On June 12, 1970, the 25-year-old pitcher was between starts, so he stayed back in his Los Angeles hotel while his team flew on to San Diego to play the Padres. Ellis invited his girlfriend over, and they dropped hits of acid around noon.
As he tells it in his autobiography, In the Country of Baseball:
"I had taken LSD ... I thought it was an off day. That's how come I had it in me. I took the LSD at 12 noon. At one, my girlfriend looked in the paper and said 'Dock, you're pitching today'."
The original starting pitcher for the Pirates was a last-minute scratch due to an injury. Dock's girlfriend drove him to the airport for a 3 p.m. flight. With great difficulty, he managed to get to the ballpark on time. He was on the mound throwing the first pitch at 6 p.m. It was the first game of a two-night doubleheader against the Padres.
"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."
"The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes; sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn't."
He saw comet-tails on every pitch. He was wild that evening, walking eight batters, but pitched that rarity -- a no-hitter. For advocates of the mind-expanding properties of psychedelic drugs, this was the stuff of legend.
Ellis waited until 1984 to reveal that he was on acid the night he achieved baseball immortality. Back in 1970, it would have been damaging to his career to make that admission publicly. By 1984 he was out of baseball, working as a drug rehabilitation counselor, and he decided to set the record straight.
LSD wasn't his only drug. Ellis sometimes swallowed 10-15 amphetamines before a game. "I was going out there on the average of 75 milligrams," he says. "Some guys I pitched against, we would try to guess which one of us was higher."
Probably the most colorful and outspoken baseball player who is associated with drugs is Bill "Spaceman" Lee. Lee pitched for the Red Sox and the Expos from the late '60s to the early '80s. Toward the end of his career, he told reporters he smoked marijuana, which earned him both a strong admonition from the commissioner of baseball and a spot on the cover of High Times. A few years after he left the game, he wrote a memoir of his years in baseball (The Wrong Stuff, 1984) in which he blew the lid off drug use in the major leagues:
Reporter: "I was wondering if the Red Sox club had a problem with marijuana."
Lee: "Hell, no .... I've been using that stuff since 1968 and I've never had a problem with it."
The next day, the headlines across North America read: "LEE ADMITS TO SMOKING MARIJUANA."
Lee noted that getting high can bring the players and fans together: "Drugs also serve as tokens of appreciation. While coming off the field in Montreal after throwing a good game, I would often find my path littered with small packets of hash." He also wrote about doing mescaline and mushrooms, insisting that these substances did not harm a player's performance as long as the drug use was balanced out with a good training regimen.
Greenies and Nose Candy
Spaceman Lee on speed: "Amphetamines weren't being used for kicks, they were being used to sober up. A player did not gulp down 'greenies' with the expectation that it would enhance his performance. He did it to get his pulse going on the morning after the night before."
As with the rest of America, the 1980s was the Decade of Cocaine for baseball, with headline-grabbing arrests of a number of superstars. The most famous of these were Steve Howe (ace closer for the Dodgers and Yankees), strikeout king Dwight Gooden, and slugger Darryl Strawberry (both of whom started their careers with the Mets and went on to play for the Yankees, with stops elsewhere). A few more famous players with a penchant for nose candy were Lamar Hoyt, a repeat 20-game winner with the Chicago White Sox, and speedster Lonnie Smith of the Atlanta Braves.
Each of these players -- and a number of others -- were either caught with a small amount of cocaine in their possession or failed a drug test. Most were repeat offenders -- Howe was an 8-time loser, while Strawberry was re-arrested just last spring. Unquestionably, their fame and importance as athletes counted greatly; all were sent to expensive rehab centers, and none of them did jail time, unlike hundreds of thousands who committed the same sort of (victimless) "crime."
There is no evidence that these players on-field performances suffered from their cocaine use. But they did have to cope with legal problems and the hits their reputations took from baseball writers and fans who toed the national anti-drug line. It was, after all, the era of Nancy Reagan, and '80s anti-drug zealotry ensured that those who battled publicly with addiction earned instant pariah status.
In earlier eras baseball players, including some of its shining stars, were serious alcoholics. Babe Ruth was a prodigious drinker, and greats like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio lent themselves to cigarette advertisements that appeared in popular magazines like Life and Look during the '40s and '50s.
As Dock Ellis wrote: "If parents need athletes as role models, they're in trouble."
Michael Horowitz has been a drug historian for 30 years and has edited books by Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Fitz Hugh Ludlow, among others. He also sells first editions of books by such writers by mail order. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.