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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

SXSW: Hair curlers and LSD in Dock Ellis doc

Posted By on Wed, Mar 12, 2014 at 2:29 PM

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It's a trivia question that you'll probably never find on the back of a Topps card: Who's the only MLBer to throw a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD? The answer, Dock Ellis, is the subject of an ingratiating, vibrant and sometimes surprising documentary, No No: A Dockumentary, that premiered at Sundance in January, then made it back to SXSW Saturday for its debut before a hometown crowd (the director and much of the crew is Austin-based). And it starts out by revisiting that June 12, 1970 no-no, with Dock on the side of the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates, walking eight batters and hitting two Padres on the way to the record books.

Ellis, who died of liver disease in 2008 but was extensively interviewed for the film, said he couldn't see the batters during the game, and that his catcher had to wear reflective tape so he could see the signs. And if another interviewee, the friend with whom he reportedly dropped acid the day before the game, casts a bit of doubt of the veracity of Ellis's story, others seem to back it up, including director Ron Howard, who heard the story from Ellis in the '80s when Ellis was telling it not as evidence of his talent or bigger-than-lifeness, but as just another instance of how he lost some of his early years to drug abuse.

Director Jeffrey Radice first presented Ellis's story in a 2004 short film called LSD a Go Go, which consisted of funny anecdotes about what people got up to while under the influence. And while the no-hitter remains Ellis's claim to a historical footnote, there's plenty more to the story, including a good case for Ellis being a post-Jackie Robinson figure representing the Black Power movement and challenging white clubhouse paternalism. Indeed, Robinson wrote Ellis a letter during the '70s, praising his outspokenness and cautioning him that he may still find plenty of bigots along the way; Ellis tears up when reading the letter in one of the film's '00s-era interviews. And he pitched for a Pirates team that was the first to field an all-black starting lineup.

Ellis was an outlier even on a Pirates team known for its hard partying and sartorial excellence. He was suspended by the Pirates for a week for wearing hair curlers on the field during practice, which was evidently the equivalent of walking out of the clubhouse in drag in the '70s. And he impressed his teammates with his ability to down massive amounts of drugs and alcohol without appearing to act any differently. Ellis admits that he never pitched without the aid of drugs. It was par for the course for ballplayers, particularly pitchers, to take amphetamine (brand name: dexamyne; street name: greenies) to sharpen the senses. But Ellis sampled the panoply of the drug world both on and off the field, which led the documentary and his life into its darker moments.

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Director Radice says he didn't know about the extent of Ellis's domestic abuse until a second round of interviews, when Ellis's second wife reported a marriage-ending night that involved emotional and physical abuse including firearms. We aren't given an exact timeline for Ellis's sobering up process, but by the mid-'80s, he was speaking out about his abuse of alcohol and drugs, and by the close of the film, he's working as a drug abuse counselor at a boys correctional facility.

The film doesn't belabor Ellis's crimes, but it does offer them as an all-too-human counterpoint to his success as both a pitcher who burned bright until the inevitable arm trouble (which came by his late 20s) and as a gregarious, sometimes flamboyant, black and proud figure who would anticipate subsequent camera-friendly stars. And it also gives voice to praise for Ellis's work in giving back to the community by speaking his truth about the impact of drugs and alcohol on his life, including his work with troubled young adults who found themselves surprised that anyone liked them enough to, say, share a little soul food with them for lunch (even though it was against prison rules).

I'm neglecting to mention how funny and appealing the film is as a whole, in no small part thanks to a hard funky score by Adam Horovitz (of Beastie Boys fame). And I was also impressed by the tons of work the production team must've put into digging up '70s baseball footage, during a time when regular season televised games were the exception rather than the rule. To that point, Ellis's no-hitter can only be seen via black-and-white 16mm footage of the second half of the game (someone told the Padres' team photographer to get up to the press box and film every at bat when it looked like Ellis might go the distance).

I'll leave things on this point: Radice notes that one can draw a direct line from Dock Ellis to Robert Frost, if one goes through former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hall, who co-wrote Ellis's autobiography after meeting him during a George Plimpton-style trip by the poet to the Pirates' spring training camp. If that were the only remarkable thing about Ellis, it still might be good enough for a feature-length doc; good thing there's plenty more of note along the way, making this something like essential viewing for fans of baseball and/or acid.

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