Dock Ellis' storied life as a baseball player in the '60s and '70s is the subject of Jeff Radice's riveting film, No No: A Dockumentary, which primarily focuses on his free-spirited approach to the national pastime, but also reminds us of the debilitating effects of drug and alcohol abuse.
The "No No" in the titles refers to the no-hitter Ellis tossed on June 12, 1970 under the influence of LSD.
Ellis, a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time, explains how it all went down:
"We flew into San Diego and I asked the manager if I could go home because we had a off day. He said yeah. So I took some LSD at the airport when I took off with the car because I knew where it was going to hit me - in L.A… The next thing I know I'm waking up and I go outside and remember her (his girlfriend) saying, You've got to pitch today. I said, What are you talking about? She said, San Diego, you've go to pitch. And I said, No, that's tomorrow. She said No, no, no, no. Look. And I said, What happened to yesterday? I had lost all concept of time…So there I was out there, high as a Georgia pine, tripping on acid… It was easier to pitch with the LSD because I was so used to medicating myself. That's the way I was dealing with the fear of failure… I hit a couple of guys. It was an ugly no-hitter. I got letters about it, but it was a no no."
Actually, Ellis hit one San Diego Padre batter that day and walked eight en route to a 2-0 victory, thanks in part to two home runs by Willie Stargell. It was the first game of a doubleheader played in a light rain in front just 9,903 fans.
Ellis, who was born in Los Angeles in 1945 (Dock was his actual name), played the bulk of his career with a Pirate team that included Hall of Famers Stargell and Roberto Clemente as well as many other black and Hispanic players. The film zeroes in on a particular game when the entire Pirate lineup was of color in their black and yellow uniforms, a first in Major League Baseball history.
Ellis didn't really excel until the 1971 season when he posted a 19-9 record, started the All-Star game for the National League (vs. Oakland's Vida Blue, who's also black, making that another first) and helping the Bucs win the World Series against the Orioles.
"I pitched every game in the major league under the influence of drugs," Ellis says, explaining that it all started with Dexamyl (a.k.a, Greenies).
"I didn't know that the stimulants would enhance your performance… I was breaking off curveballs that you'd never seen before… You were in the zone now… I would say over 90% of major leaguers were using Dexamyl when I was playing. It was all high… Before a game I'd take maximum of 15 to 17 pills. I was trying to get that little edge."
And then, high on amphetamine, he would party all night, drinking, smoking pot and snorting cocaine until the sun came up. "Anything that would get me high I was doing," he says.
Ellis was a radical in the conservative world of baseball. The day he showed up with curlers in his hair turned into a controversy. Another time he famously hit three Cincinnati Reds batters in a row to start a game to make a point that the Pirates couldn't be intimidated by the Big Red Machine. Ellis had a falling out with George Steinbrenner in 1977 when he played for the Yankees and was suspended by the A's for refusing to pitch out of the bullpen later that year.
The dark side of Dock Ellis was his abuse of his wives (he was married four times and has three children). "Drugs had really taken over him," his first wife Paula says.
After retiring in 1979 (he ended his career with a 138-119 record), Ellis went into rehab and AA and became a substance abuse counselor. "I was out to lunch, off the hook," he tells a group of troubled users.
"I should not have been allowed to play baseball for the things that I did. But they allowed it."
The damage from alcohol destroyed his liver and he passed away in 2008 at the age of 63.
No No is a cautionary tale, but a fun one, filled with terrific talking heads (many of his Pirate teammates, family members, old friends and even Ron Howard, who cast him in Gung Ho in 1986). The soundtrack captures the funky early '70s era, with R&B hits like "We're a Winner" and original music by Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz. First-time director Radice's pastiche of vintage clips, baseball cards, animation and interviews moves at a brisk pace, and his storytelling is spot on. Ellis receives the tribute he deserves, warts and all.
No No is a must-see for baseball purists, soul aficionados and drug-takers who push the limits of their abilities. It's currently playing in theaters around the country.
Extra: About his year with the Yankees in 1976, Ellis says, "We all got high together. That team drank, smoked dope, did cocaine, everything together… I was not sober when I played for the Yankees. I can only vaguely remember some of that."