On June 12, 1970, a fiery, flamboyant pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates named Dock Ellis hurled a no-hitter. The no-hitter is a once-in-a-blue-moon event in baseball — an unlikely convergence of guile, precision, and dumb luck. But what made Ellis’ feat even more amazing? He was zonked on LSD at the time. In No No: A Dockumentary, Ellis and his former teammates unspool the stranger-than-fiction story of that night in San Diego: how he was so out of his gourd that he didn’t even know he was starting that day. How the catcher, Jerry May, had to wrap magnetic tape around his fingers so that Ellis could decipher his signals. How he thought he’d scored a touchdown after one deft play in the field (yes, you read that right). ”I was as high as a Georgia pine,” Ellis says in an archival interview (he died in 2008). Even years later, he still didn’t seem entirely convinced that it happened.
Ellis was a born raconteur who seemed to both regret and revel in his colorful past as a high-functioning addict and soul-power hepcat. But for better — and worse — No No strives for more than immortalizing his drug-fueled day of infamy. First-time director Jeffrey Radice uses the LSD anecdote as the hook for an awkward attempt to rehabilitate Ellis’ image, elevating him from space cadet to civil rights martyr — a junkie Jackie Robinson — as Ellis advocates for black ballplayers, free agency, and a more compassionate support system of drug counseling.
Some of these arguments are convincing, others less so — especially after Ellis’ ex-wives recount the abuse they suffered when their husband was loaded. The fact is, Dock Ellis was…complicated. Probably a lot more so than No No makes him out to be. In the end, maybe the most black-and-white thing in his life was the string of zeros he put up on the scoreboard, high as a Georgia pine, 44 years ago. (Also on iTunes and VOD) B