Dock Ellis was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees and other teams during baseball’s turbulent and flamboyant 1970s.
He won a World Series ring with the Pirates, famously served up an epic home run to Reggie Jackson at an All Star game and won “Comeback Player of the Year” in 1976.
And in 1970, he pitched a no hitter against the San Diego Padres while tripping on LSD. So yeah, he was a genuine character in an era of baseball characters.
“No No: A Dockumentary” captures the essence of this outspoken loud mouth, a self-styled Muhammad Ali of the Major Leagues, a free spirit who wondered, late in life, if he’d ever pitched a major league game stone cold sober. His theory? He hadn’t.
Jeff Radice’s documentary is built around interviews with teammates, his agents, relatives and ex-wives, as well as one late-life interview with Ellis himself. It tracks a baseball career that began in California and adventured through the South in the years not-far-removed from Jackie Robinson’s integration of the game, where minor league towns such as Kinston, N.C. or Salem, Va., had not quite dialed back the racism that Robinson had faced twenty years before. Ellis didn’t take that well.
“I was an angry black man,” he says.
When he got to Pittsburgh, he dressed like Superfly, the drug dealing pimp daddy of early ’70s cinema. He wore curlers to practice. And he took speed — “greenies” — before every pitching appearance. In those pre-drug testing days, “everybody” did it, everybody in the film says. “We were all hungover,” pitcher Steve Blass admits. It was a hard-drinking era where getting one’s focus back, once it was game time, was paramount.
But nobody took that as seriously as Ellis. A drinker and pot smoker since childhood, on game day he went out “high as a Georgia pine.” And he won.
The no hitter is the centerpiece of the film, detailing what he took and when, and how drugs played a role in securing his edge on the diamond. A winning pitcher is an intimidating one, and what could be more intimidating that a tall, hard-throwing pitcher with uncertain control?
“They knew I was high, but they didn’t know what I was high on!”
The amusing anecdotes pile up as Ellis took that intimidation to the next level. He once started a game against hated rivals, the strutting “Big Red Machine” Cincinnati Reds, by beaning every batter he faced. He didn’t win, didn’t finish the inning. But he sent a message.
Rival Reggie Jackson took a beanball to the face that knocked him out of a few games a few years later.
“He knew what he was doing,” one teammate says with a shrug.
We learn who Dock’s mentor was, Negro Leagues pitcher Chet Brewer, but we don’t hear a whisper about his relationship with the equally volatile New York Yankees manager Billy Martin after Dock was traded to them.
And while Ellis only made his LSD no hitter assertion after leaving the game, the footage of that outing, a sloppy (hit batsmen, etc.) “no no,” shows a guy hustling to cover first base on an infield ground ball and getting his sinker across the plate. Yes, Robin Williams is captured using the Ellis anecdote in his drug era stage age, but sportswriters at the game insisted Ellis was lying. None of them, if any are still living, were interviewed.
The third act of “A Dockumentary” sags under the weight of spousal abuse, rehab and his later years as a drug counselor and anti-drug public speaker. But Radice has delivered an engaging portrait of a loose cannon back when professional sports still produced such unfiltered creatures, a man who lived by his own rules, said what he thought and wore curlers to practice when he felt like it.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity, accounts of substance and spousal abuse
Cast: Dock Ellis, Al Oliver, Dave Cash, Donald Hall
Credits: Directed by Jeff Radice . An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:40
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