In 1970, Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, threw a no-hitter. Years later, he would claim that during the game, he was tripping on LSD.
The revelation, made by a somewhat sheepish Ellis, turned him into a minor counterculture star, spawning predictable articles in magazines like High Times and Lysergic World. Robin Williams joked about the feat in his stand-up.
It’s an easy thing to take lightly.
But when looked at from an athletic standpoint, the feat is actually phenomenal.
Ellis was a pitcher, and pitching is, as they say, a game of inches.
The difference between a great pitch and a terrible one is not very far. The best pitchers command pinpoint accuracy, and to throw a no-hitter takes a combination of pitching talent, solid defense and luck. To do so while experiencing LSD-induced hallucinations is absolutely outrageous, completely unfathomable.
Since 1876, there have been more than 200,000 professional baseball games played in the United States.
Only 282 (depending on how you count) were no-hitters. It’s extremely rare. Ellis’ no-hitter wasn’t pretty — his control was all over the place — but at the end of the day, he had made history. He had pitched the 174th no-hitter in Major League Baseball history.
It’d be easy to dismiss Ellis as a goofy sideshow. But the man was far more complex than that. A self-described “angry black man” who idolized Muhammad Ali and who had to sleep in separate hotels from white players while playing in the minor leagues, Ellis was brash, outspoken, stylish and unapologetic for who he was.
As a player, Ellis had drug problems that ranged beyond LSD, and in his later years he became an outspoken advocate calling for MLB to address drug use among players. He died in 2008 of chronic liver failure at the age of 63.
Director Jeffrey Radice explores the circumstances that molded Ellis into the type of man who would play professional baseball on acid in No No: A Dockumentary, which is playing at the Boulder International Film Festival fresh from Sundance.
This isn’t Radice’s first rodeo. He’s made several short documentaries, including “The Collegians Are Go!!” and “LSD A Go Go.” It was during the production cycle of the latter that he first heard about Ellis’ lysergic no-no.
“[‘LSD A Go Go’] was about kind of the secret history of LSD with the CIA, and something about LSD in particular, I think, causes some people to want to share their experiences,” Radice says. “So I was getting a lot, not a lot, but I was getting a certain amount of anecdotal sharing from people in the audience during festivals, and it kind of made me think about what was the craziest story that I had ever heard.”
The novelty drew his eye, but when he looked deeper he became fascinated with his character — an effect, Radice would come to realize, Ellis has on many people. One person drawn into the orbit of Dock was Donald Hall, a college professor who would become the U.S. poet laureate in 2006. Hall and Dock became friends while Hall was researching a magazine article on baseball, and he eventually wrote a biography about Ellis in 1976, three years before Ellis retired.
“The thing that intrigues me about [Ellis] was that he was able to move into different circles,” Radice says. “His appeal follows him. He can interact with people in the African American community, and he can appeal to a college professor poet.”
“Dock resonates pretty well with audience,” Radice continues. “There’s something about his style and his outspokenness. People who remember him from that time remember him fondly.”
Ellis’ first year in the minor leagues was in 1964. A little context: That was the year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the year the states ratified the 24th Amendment, which outlawed poll taxes, a tactic Southern states employed to impede black people from voting. Congress would pass the Voting Rights
Act in 1965, and the Fair Housing Act became law in 1968. By the time Ellis played in his first Major League Baseball game in 1968, the Supreme Court had stricken down most Jim Crow laws, and the Black Panther party was 2 years old and approaching its peak membership. Baseball players were still shackled by contracts containing a “reserve clause,” which stopped them from signing with other teams after their contracts expired, essentially locking them into indentured servitude for the duration of their playing careers. In 1969, St. Louis Cardinals player Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause, setting off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the Seitz Decision in 1975, which struck down the reserve clause for good.
So Ellis played his career during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, and also during a time of great change in baseball. Teams expected players to shut up and play the game, some enacting strict codes regulating their behavior, but Ellis would have none of it. When he wore curlers in his hair during a practice, the MLB commissioner ordered him to stop. Ellis refused, leading to a suspension.
Amphetamine use was allegedly rampant in the major leagues in those days, and Ellis was a frequent abuser. “Greenies” were the drug of choice, and Ellis admitted to taking a dozen or more pills every time he pitched. He, like most other players, felt the drugs would give them an edge. Again, baseball is a game of inches.
“You’re playing 162 games in that 180-day period,” says former catcher Jim Sundberg, who says he never partook, in No No: A Dockumentary. “… All it takes is just a little bit of a lack of concentration in a major league game to make a big difference.”
For many players, the question was simple.
“I took greenies, everybody did,” former infielder Enos Cabell frankly tells the filmmakers in No No. “If you didn’t take it, you were going to get released and sent home. I wasn’t going back to my ’hood, so I took it, yeah. Everybody did.”
Ellis was a drinker too, and two ex-wives appear on camera to tell how his alcohol-fueled rages ended the marriages. After his playing career ended, Ellis got clean and became an outspoken advocate for the need for drug awareness in professional baseball, as well as becoming a counselor at a prison. The documentary interviews former inmates he counseled, and how much it meant for them to see a guy who was so incredibly successful be brought down by the same problems they faced.
Drug use has haunted major league baseball in various shapes for decades now, and it almost seems that there’s something intrinsic about baseball, with its demanding 162-game season, that invites drug use. Spliced into various parts of the documentary is a 1981 after-school special starring pitcher Bo Belinsky cautioning kids about drugs.
“Belinsky threw a no hitter in ’62 and was out of baseball by ’71 and had a serious problem with drugs,”
Radice says. “This was a story that baseball was trying to tell in ’81 … and nothing’s changed. That’s the point I’m trying to make with that. Major League Baseball hasn’t really changed. The greenies era, the cocaine era, and the steroids era. … It just moves on to the next crisis. [Now], baseball players are just being prescribed Adderall and Ritalin. … They just replaced one drug with another drug. If [amphetamines are] not performance enhancing, [they] definitely keep your attention.”
For the baseball fans out there, Ellis finished his 12-year career as a one-time All Star with a 138-119 record, more than 2,000 innings pitched, a career WHIP of 1.28 and an ERA of 104. For non-seamheads, that means Ellis was a pretty good player — perhaps one of the finer pitchers of the early- and mid-’70s. But as with most good-but-not-great players, Ellis would most likely be all-but-forgotten today had he not copped to the LSD-aided no-hitter.
(And it’s unlikely that Ellis revealed that in a moment of braggadocio. In a 1990 interview, Ellis said that he first mentioned the feat to a reporter as part of his fresh rehabilitation — recovered addicts tend to have no qualms discussing their drug use, and Ellis said that when he was asked if he did drugs while playing baseball, that was the first story that came to his still-boisterous mind.)
As is, though, Ellis’ story holds a strange novelty that appeals beyond baseball fans. In 2009, animator James Blagden turned a 2008 interview Ellis gave to NPR into an animated short video, and it has since garnered more than 3 million views.
But the story of Ellis is more complicated and fascinating and that, and No No: A Dockumentary paints a complete picture of a talented ballplayer whose intellect, charisma and outspokenness hid a troubled, drug-addled dark side.
“I think he was definitely a trailblazer,” Radice says. “It depends on where you want to draw the line. I think within the civil rights of baseball players, there’s no question he was out in front. He wasn’t Jesse Jackson or anything. He wasn’t marching in the streets … he was playing baseball.”