To casual baseball fans, Dock Phillip Ellis Jr. was the idiosyncratic Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD. To Ellis’s friends and teammates, he was alternately enigmatic, intense and free-spirited, a sly provocateur possessed of steely self-determination. To at least two of Ellis’s four wives, he was a passionate man prone to both tender affection and hot-tempered violence. To those who went through Ellis’s drug counseling seminars, he was an inspiration and savior.
Jeff Radice’s candid, colorful No No: A Dockumentary attempts to reconcile the contradictory facets of one of baseball’s great characters. The legendary no-hitter, in which Ellis also plunked two batters and walked eight overall (he claims he didn’t see a single one), is the centerpiece of the film, but it is anticlimactic in the greater context of Ellis’s life. Ellis emerges as a complex, occasionally combative figure whose cultural impact resounded even more broadly outside of baseball.
With nearly a generation having come of age without the Pirates being relevant, it’s easy to forget the team’s rich history. Perennial underdogs who over the past couple seasons have regained their bite, the Bucs before 2013 suffered 20 consecutive losing seasons, the longest team losing streak in North American pro sports. Prior to a brief run of success in the early 1990s, the Pirates’ last great heyday was the 1970s, a decade in which the franchise fielded Major League Baseball’s first all-minority starting lineup, twice won the World Series, and was comprised of a cast that included Ellis, affable and hard-hitting Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, and the selfless Roberto Clemente.
A heavy drinker and dedicated drug user who relied in part on intimidation (he intentionally pelted more than a few hitters), Ellis was considered a wild card by some. But he was a student of the game with deep respect for trailblazers like Jackie Robinson and contemporaries like Clemente, star players who endured hatred with dignity and aspired to leave a better world for those who followed. He was also intensely attuned to the times.
Racism remains an ugly and stubborn wound, but in 1971, just seven years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and 24 years after Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier, it was a seeping, festering sore. Ellis, selected as a pitcher for the National League in that year’s All-Star Game and armed with ahead-of-his-time media savvy, proclaimed after Vida Blue was named starting pitcher for the American League that National League manager Sparky Anderson wouldn’t give him the nod because “they wouldn’t pitch two brothers against each other.” Ellis’s reverse psychology worked, and he got the start (though not the win). He was outspoken throughout his career about baseball’s lingering racial divide, and he was among the players who led the fight for free agency.
No No’s most powerful and revealing moment arrives when Ellis reads a letter written to him by Robinson, in which No. 42 praises Ellis’s “courage and honesty,” states that “progress for today’s players will only come from this kind of dedication,” and warns of the backlash that often haunts those who speak the truth: “Try not to be left alone. … You have made a real contribution.” Ellis’s voice cracks as he reaches the end; “I never read that like that,” he says, choking back sobs.
Ellis retired from baseball after the 1979 season and, confronting the role his lifestyle played in ruining multiple marriages and eroding his health, he checked himself into a drug rehabilitation program. After emerging from treatment, he dedicated his life to drug counseling; No No features some of the people whom he counseled, and they speak of Ellis with the same emotion and reverence Ellis felt for Robinson.
Ellis may have earned redemption, but some demons are indomitable. Ellis, seen and heard in No No via old interview clips, declares he never threw a game sober, and decades-worth of alcohol, amphetamines and other drugs ran up a high pitch count. Ellis died of complications related to cirrhosis in 2008 at age 63.
“When the legend becomes fact,” goes the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” Yes, Dock Ellis’s trippy no-hitter is the stuff of legend, but Radice understands, like Ellis did, that the truth is often more compelling.