Dock Ellis was an All-Star pitcher for the powerhouse Pittsburgh Pirates teams of the early 1970s, but he’s best known for a rather dubious athletic feat. On June 12, 1970, he pitched a no-hitter, one of only 286 in the history of the game. But most likely, his gem was the only one recorded while under the influence of LSD.
Ellis’s athletic accomplishments, his civil-rights activism, and post-baseball career—when he sobered up and counseled other addicts—are part of a new documentary that opens in theaters today, No-No: A Documentary. But there’s no getting around the LSD no-hitter. Ellis loved to tell the tale of his hallucinatory no-no, and after he died in 2008, his legend got a boost when Brooklyn-based filmmaker Christopher Isenberg and artist James Blagden posted a YouTube video that became viral hit.
Back in 2006, the two men collaborated on a Frank magazine feature, titled “An Illustrated History of Recreational Drug Use in Sports,” a hall of shame that included the exploits of Lawrence Taylor and Steve Howe. Readers responded particularly to Blagden’s trippy depiction of Ellis (click on above image), and the duo were eager to turn his tale into an animated short. “Of all those stories, his kind of captured the imagination in an exciting way that some of the other, more tragic, stories maybe didn’t,” says Blagden.
While doing research, they stumbled upon a public-radio interview Ellis gave not long before his death, and the short, Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No, used Blagden’s psychedelic animation as the perfect accompaniment to the pitcher’s own words. “He’s telling an amazing story that’s sort of funny and dangerous and kind of hard to believe, so for me, it’s some sort of expressionist painting where your imagination is kind of filling in the gaps,” says Blagden.
The video, which has been viewed more than 3.5 million times, certainly raised Ellis’s profile, but Isenberg is glad the new doc digs deeper. “I feel like as far as the no-no itself, it’s kind of hard to top what we did,” he says. “But in terms of providing a fuller portrait of Dock and the era that he played in and who he was after his career, I thought they did an incredible job.”