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No No: A Dockumentary

A new bio-doc looks at the colorful on- and off-field life of Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis

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Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis: outstanding on field and off
  • Photo courtesy of Jane Kenyon
  • Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis: outstanding on field and off

On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis pitched against San Diego while high on LSD. "I had the acid on me," Ellis recalls. "I lost all concept of time." But he kept his arm, racking up a no-hitter that would have been notable even if he hadn't been tripping.

This Great Moment in Baseball History is among the life and often-infamous times of Dock Ellis recounted in Jeffrey Radice's engaging bio-doc, No No: A Dockumentary. Radice draws extensively from archival footage, interviews with Ellis' teammates, friends and family, and reflections from Ellis recorded before his death in 2008.

Ellis' life as a professional ballplayer seems worthy of several films. There are his accomplishments on the field and his beloved "crazy" status in the close-knit Pirates locker room. At a time when spectators still wore suits in the stands, Ellis wore an earring and flashy clothes, and received a 10-day suspension (not served) for wearing hair curlers to practice. Like many players, he took drugs — from "greenies" (Dexamyl amphetamines) to just about anything else. "I pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs," Ellis explains, attributing much of his drug use to the pressure to stay on top.

And Ellis, a self-described "angry black man," fought myriad battles large and small to dispel baseball's lingering legacy of racism. His acts ranged from the seemingly trivial (the aforementioned curlers) to a brilliant bit of reverse-psychology floated in the national media that secured him a starting spot against Vida Blue in the 1971 All-Star game, the first such match-up of African-American pitchers in that annual event.

They say there's no crying in baseball, but there is in No No. Ellis breaks down reading a hand-written letter of encouragement he'd received from Jackie Robinson. And then there was the devastating death of his Pirates teammate and mentor Roberto Clemente. Even hard-bitten sports fans may find themselves blinking back a few tears in the film's last reel, which focuses on Ellis' off-field legacy: using his brash style and own struggles with substance abuse to help others get and stay sober.

Ellis will always be defined by the acid-fueled no-no he threw — it's simply too good a story. But Radice's film lets that wacky moment share just a corner of a large shelf filled with Ellis' vibrant life: his great on-field career, his commitment to advancing racial equality in baseball and his comeback second act as a drug counselor, in which he pitched hope instead of fastballs.

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