Director Jeffrey Radice's documentary pitches Dock Ellis as part Jackie Robinson, part Muhammad Ali, part Timothy Leary
In first-time director Jeffrey Radice’s “No No: A Dockumentary,” the story of Dock Ellis, who famously threw a no-hitter on LSD for the Pittsburgh Pirates, begins as a celebration of the wild times that were the early ’70s, and ends with the reckoning of the years that came after he left baseball. In between, Radice pitches Ellis as part Jackie Robinson, part Muhammad Ali, part Timothy Leary, while stopping to pay homage to the 1971 Pirates, who took baseball integration to its color-blind limit, and won a World Series. While the film’s sense of chronology is at times strained and its tale of redemption hardly unique, its subject is certainly one of a kind. History buffs, particularly those of the era, will want a seat in the ballpark; for Pittsburgh fans, this is a collectible.
Starting with footage of Ellis on the mound during his no-hitter, the docu soon segues to his next most memorable dust-up with baseball authorities, when he wore his hair in curlers to practice at Wrigley Field. Using icons of the era – jokes by Robin Williams and Johnny Carson, the latter noting Ellis’ best pitches as “a fastball, a slider and a spit-curl,” as well as a Black Panthers training film – the docu makes its case that baseball and culture were colliding, and Ellis was at the center of that impact. Teammates including Steve Blass and Al Oliver call Ellis a good influence in the clubhouse, but Blass wishes Ellis hadn’t pulled the curlers stunt on a day game when players were hungover and trying to avoid their manager.
Ellis said he never played a game in the Major Leagues in which he wasn’t high, a condition he attributed to fear of failure and his need, as a pitcher, to intimidate the opposition. His drug of choice was “greenies” or amphetamines, and he liked it when batters considered him generally unhinged. The film helpfully includes other major leagues who note that almost every player was on greenies at the time. For his part, Ellis said he would take as many as 17 pills before a game. “I would try to out-milligram any opponent,” he said.
Friends in South Los Angeles remember Ellis being flashy, funny and prone to getting into trouble, though the film doesn’t mention his arrest for grand theft just before the Pirates signed him, with the young pitcher released into the team’s custody. Ellis worked his way up through the Pirates’ farm system in the South in the ’60s, still segregated in many places, and broke into the bigs in the ’60s.
By 1971, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, and had developed a reputation as the game’s black conscience. At the All Star Game that year, Vida Blue was scheduled to start for the American League, and Ellis challenged the sport to match up two blacks – including him – in the midseason classic. The gambit earned him an appreciative letter from the iconic Robinson, and Ellis’ reading of that missive years later is the highlight of the film, as Robinson’s words sink in, and Ellis becomes more and more emotional, finally unable to control himself when he comes to a part where Robinson advises him not to stand alone but to convince others to join him. “Oh, man, I never read that like that,” Ellis exclaims. “Oh, shit!”
Ellis was part of a Pirates lineup that year which, for the first time in MLB history, fielded an all-minority team, and he also started the first game of the 1971 World Series. But in general, his actions were as often divisive as inclusive. Demoted to the bullpen in 1975, he refused to pitch, and was soon traded, first to the Yankees, where his career regenerated, and he helped the team to the World Series; then to Oakland, Texas, the Mets and finally Pittsburgh. When his second wife left him because of a violent drink-and-drugs-fueled outburst, he checked himself into rehab and, according to his sister, stayed sober the rest of his life.
The docu briefly discusses Ellis’ mid-’70s tell-all book with Donald Hall, “Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball,” sanitized by Ellis’ agent before it could be released, but misses an opportunity to make comparisons to Jose Canseco’s “Juiced,” the unexpurgated slice of baseball’s latest performance-enhancing drug era – and the lost chance of the Ellis-Hall book having the same effect in that earlier era.
The final innings feature a reformed Ellis as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor, helping inmates and others deal with their problems. Ellis again becomes emotional when talking about the appreciation of those whose lives he changed – including Texas Rangers owner Brad Corbett — who also had a drinking problem. His own friends shed a tear when they remember Ellis, who died in 2008 of liver disease.
Radice denatures and colorizes some of the footage of the no-hitter to try to mirror Ellis’ mental state at the time, and uses quick cuts among archival images to approximate how he got there – during a two-day bender in L.A. in 1970, during which he lost track of the day when the Pirates expected him to rejoin the team in San Diego to pitch.
A trove of clubhouse and spring training photos are entertainingly assembled, though use of a single film clip during the no-no is overused. Pirate fans particularly will appreciate interviews with Blass, Bruce Kison, Manny Sanguillen, Al Oliver, Dave Cash, Bill Robertson and other members of the ’71 champs. The funk soundtrack, featuring songs by the Impressions and Mickey & the Soul Generation conjure the era well. Not as successful are interstitials with a Little League team being told the dangers of drugs by former Major Leaguer Bo Belinsky.