No No: A Dockumentary justifies its existence (and price of admission) within its opening moments, providing actual footage of professional baseball player Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching an erratic no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on June 12, 1970. It is the central incident of the film (out now in theaters and VOD) and one of the great modern folktales: the guy who threw a no-hitter on LSD. Already the subject of a massively viral and perfect Internet short animating Ellis’ telling, filmmaker Jeff Radice’s new 100-minute film presents a rich portrait of a subject worthy of a feature-length documentary whether he achieved one of the greatest feats in sports while tripping on acid or not.
Because it is quite possible that Ellis wasn’t tripping on acid so much as not-insignificantly loaded on amphetamines. This is a Snopes-like question that the filmmakers mostly ignore. In the most widely circulated telling, from an American Public Media interview from 2008, Ellis says he ate some acid on the morning of what he thought was his day off (a sequence not explored in Dockumentary), discovered that he was scheduled for a 6:05 start in a twi-night doubleheader, flew to San Diego from Los Angeles, gobbled some uppers from a local connection in the front row of the stands, and pitched. Like many, Patrick Hruby — who wrote an excellent piece examining the no-no in 2012 — seemingly concludes that it’s more worthwhile to believe Ellis. “Sometimes the ball looked small,” the former pitcher said in 2008. Another argument in Ellis’ favor, ignored by the lysergic reconstructors to date, is known wisdom among psychonauts: even as LSD wears off, further drug use will often re-amplify a trip during its tail end. So there’s that.
“I pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs,” Ellis says in the film. That fact does not make him unusual, however. Ellis and others have estimated that as many as 90 percent of professional ballplayers in the early ’70s consumed some form of speed every day, creating baseball’s first and still most widespread drug subculture. It is the LSD that sets Ellis apart. No one else has even been accused of it. Psychedelics and professional sports is simply a chalk line not often crossed. Recently, ultimate fighter Kyle Kingsbury tried ayahuasca and subsequently announced his retirement from ultimate fighting. Ellis remains the sole professional athlete on record who claims that he even played for his team under the influence of an ego-crushing drug, let alone helped that team to victory in the process.
Radice’s film will do nothing but bolster Dock Ellis’ reputation as a genuinely likable folk hero. No No: A Dockumentary achieves this all handily, a fine and enjoyable contribution to the canon of scrappy baseball docs, and a good double feature with the recently released Battered Bastards of Baseball. But it could have been something more. Though it’s consistently compelling, with deep cuts peppering the soundtrack and an original score by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, the film never quite reconciles the baseball, the acid, and Dock Ellis.
Like many compelling baseball narratives, Ellis’ story interweaves an iconoclastic personality, charisma, genuine talent, human frailty, insular folk-cultural practices of athletes, and the race and management relations of the era during which he played. Radice and his producers turn up incredible archival footage for the cause, though they aren’t above recycling some of the groovy bits. The primary charm of No No is Ellis-comma-D himself, and if the film has a central flaw it’s that there’s not enough of him. Ellis, who died in 2008, struggled seriously with substance abuse, went to rehab after his 1980 retirement, and eventually became a drug counselor and motivational speaker. He was no psychedelic warrior, but a serial drug user who happened to one day accidentally mix LSD with baseball. By most measures, acid use in the United States peaked in 1970 and 1971. Sooner or later, a professional baseball player was going to dose. In some ways, it was merely chance. But in other, more important ways, it wasn’t chance at all, because he was Dock Ellis.
Ellis’ acid-fueled no-hitter is played with a good deal of humor in No No, much like Ellis’ latter-day spinnings of the yarn. The retired right-hander would primarily employ it as a tool in his motivational lectures, urging young ballplayers and prisoners to keep their noses clean, the LSD story perhaps containing a bit of purposeful tall tale-dom to it. “I was high as a Georgia pine,” Ellis was fond of saying. And it is that quality that makes the story remarkable, as well, a versatile and unprovable baseball legend on par with Babe Ruth calling his shot or the 1962 New York Mets shouting “yo la tengo” as they misplayed a fly ball.
The filmmakers touch on the strands of Ellis’ story, but never pull on any of them tight enough for sustained emotional impact. The film also muddles the chronology of Ellis’ career, saving the titular no-no to serve as the proverbial middle relief even though it falls earlier in Ellis’ real-life timeline. One wishes they had more faith in the rest of Ellis’ story, which finds poignancy as he befriends Pirates teammate Roberto Clemente, and its emotional center as Ellis recounts a letter he received from Jackie Robinson in the wake of the second-most-famous story about his career, told with relish in the film.
In 1973, Ellis became embroiled in a controversy when he decided to wear hair curlers as he pitched. Ordered to take them out, he accused the management of racism. Jackie Robinson wrote a letter in righteous support of Ellis, then in the midst of a 12-14 season. It is a fair bet that Robinson, a professional baseball player through and through, damn well knew the real reason why Ellis wore the hair curlers, and it wasn’t merely flamboyance. It is part of Ellis’ legacy, a legacy which makes room for the LSD no-no and, for example, the time that Ellis knocked down one Cincinnati Red after another in 1974. The curlers, Ellis said, generated enough sweat on his neck to throw a special kind of spitball. Dock Ellis was clever. Dock Ellis was Dock Ellis.
One of the great enjoyments of baseball, a reward for all the long innings of stillness and routine plays and idle chatter by sportscasters, is to witness some combination of events that’s never happened on a professional baseball field before. For fans of perpetually losing teams — like the Mets, who Ellis pitched for during their 63-99 sixth-place 1979 season — these novel moments can be astonishing, joyful in a way that transcends winning or losing. Dock Ellis was seemingly put in the major leagues with the sole purpose of making those moments, which ranged from intentionally hitting all of the Cincinnati Reds with pitches (May 1, 1974) to pitching for the first all-minority starting lineup in history (September 1, 1971). Though the film briefly examines Ellis’ pitching technique, the Dockumentary gives short shrift to Dock Ellis the pro pitcher — the individualized and specific skill set that allowed him to pitch his no-hitter, employing a pitching arsenal that included hair curlers, what Ellis labeled a “sliding fastball,” and a notebook filled with his annotations on his various opponents.
There is footage of the LSD no-no, but never enough. It is mostly from a far-off camera angle, deployed in too-fast-to-process excerpts, and the film as a whole feels similar, removed from Dock himself. It’s a tall order to want intimacy from a subject who passed away before the documentary was made, about the kind of drug experience most people can’t explain anyway, and the filmmakers absolutely make do with what they have. But the story of Dock Ellis remains open, a trickster’s tale with seemingly more to teach. Perhaps the answer is as close as Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, the 1976 memoir Ellis wrote with future poet laureate Donald Hall, whose earliest editions had “screwdrivers” in place of acid and “coffee” in place of benzedrine. Perhaps there is no answer. Dock Ellis was only a pitcher, after all.