SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2014
By Linc Leifeste | January 21, 2014
Director: Jeff Radice
Odds are that if you’re not a baseball fan, the name Dock Ellis won’t mean much to you. Hell, even if you are a baseball fan, the name might not mean that much to you. Despite winning a World Series and compiling a solid 138-119 record to go along with a 3.46 ERA, Ellis was a really good pitcher, not a great pitcher. His playing days came to an end in 1979, he received only one vote on the 1985 Hall of Fame ballot and he died in 2008. The truth of the matter is that Ellis is best known for a 1970 no-hitter that he threw, he later revealed, under the influence of LSD. Jeff Radice’s lovingly crafted documentary, No No: A Dockumentary, wisely uses that folkloric event as both a potent draw and as a jumping off point to illustrate that there was much more to the man’s life and career.
Ellis, consistently flashy and flamboyant, referred to himself as “the Muhammad Ali of baseball” (and the documentary reveals the hilarious time when the two men actually met in the Pirates clubhouse) and was well known for his stubborn streak and for butting heads with management. No No conveys a sense of Dock’s fashion-foward taste through countless photos and videos of him in various flashy outfits, posing with showy cars, getting his ear pierced (one of the first in baseball) and the famous “scandal” where he showed up on the field during a pre-game workout with curlers in his hair, at the time an egregious violation of team conduct.
What the film beautifully captures through an expertly edited treasure trove of photos, videos and audio of Dock and interviews with teammates, family, friends, etc, was the method behind the madness. Ellis was definitely a rebel but he was not motivated by a simplistic rebellious impulse. He was instead a thoughtful, complex individual. He knew that the antics meant added attention and that meant more money. Those curlers were more than an expression of his blackness, they also helped him to throw a more effective illegal spitball. But he also was intimately aware of the heavy burdens shouldered by a black man in pro baseball in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was intent on pushing against the racial constraints that had seen little disturbance since Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in 1947.
People don’t generally tend to talk about Ellis in the same breath as Robinson when discussing race and baseball but No No makes a case for him being a key figure in the journey from 1947 to where we are today. 1971 was a big year on that front, with Ellis having an All-Star-Game-starter-worthy first half of the season and pushing the envelope after Vida Blue was named the American League starting pitcher by saying to the press that he wouldn’t be named the NL starter because they’d “never start two brothers against each other.” Prior to that, a black pitcher had never started an All-Star Game. Blue and Ellis each got the nod. And later in 1971 the Pirates fielded an “all-minority” team for a game for the first time in MLB history, with Ellis on the mound. One of the most moving scenes in No No comes when Ellis chokes up while reading aloud a letter he had received from Robinson himself, commending him for his courage and honesty in pushing for progress.
But back to Ellis’ no-no on LSD. That wasn’t the only time Ellis took the mound “high as a Georgia pine.” Far from it. He’d already had a long-running relationship with booze, “greenies,” pot and a variety of other drugs. But it seems that with the untimely and tragic death of his teammate and mentor Roberto Clemente in 1972, Ellis’ drug abuse ramped up and his personal life started to unravel. There was a divorce and endless partying but Ellis was still a functioning addict and continued to play for a number of teams before retiring in 1980.
Following a shockingly ugly and evidently out of character act of domestic violence against his second wife, he went into rehab and gave up alcohol and drugs for good. It’s in the coverage of this final chapter of Eliss’ life, when he managed to claw his way back up from the depths of rock bottom to spend time as a prison drug counselor and try to help others escape the agonies of addiction he knew so well, during which No No stealthily reveals the deeper meaning of its chosen title. This isn’t a story about a man who threw a no-hitter on LSD. It’s not a story about baseball. It’s a story about life in America, a story of a man who refused to sit obediently inside the boxes into which outside forces tried to shove him. In the process of willfully exerting his right to pursue his own path, he became more than just a ballplayer. Hopefully No No: A Dockumentary, in its eloquent revelation of the grand, funky and powerful soul of Dock Ellis, flaws and all, will help elevate him to the deserved status of American folk hero.