'Dockumentary' looks at Pirates' Ellis and no-hitter
Dock Ellis, who played for the Pirates from 1968-75, was one of the best pitchers in the history of the team. He was also one of the greatest characters in the history of professional baseball.
To say he marched to the beat of a different drummer understates his difference to an absurd degree. While the stodgy baseball world trudged in unison to a John Phillip Sousa march, Ellis' beat sounded like a feedback-drenched, psychedelic meltdown from Jimi Hendrix.
Ellis scowled menacingly from atop the mound, his eyes burning like a pharmaceutical factory on fire, radiating fear and rage, which obscured a ferocious intelligence. He was high. He says he never pitched sober. He says he was afraid. Opposing batters had to guess how high he was and whether he was going to arc a vicious curveball over the plate — or a wild fastball at their face.
He pitched a no-hitter while out of his mind on LSD — the fact for which he's most remembered today. This is where “No No: A Dockumentary,” opening Sept. 6 at the Harris Theater, Downtown, begins. But there was a lot more to his chaotic, one-of-a-kind life and career than just that one bizarre footnote.
Ellis' death in 2008 nearly scuttled the film, but director Jeffrey Radice felt it was too great a story to give up on. He weaves the story of Ellis into the story of a team and an era that was utterly unlike anything before it — often literally, as when he was penciled into the first all-black starting lineup in major league history in 1971, alongside the likes of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
“I became a Pirates fan while making this movie,” Radice says. “That '71 team was amazing. I was impressed how ahead of their time that team was.”
Ellis was the guy who kept everybody “loose” in the clubhouse, as interviews with Steve Blass, Al Oliver, Dave Cash and others attest. His brash, unapologetic personality invited conflict. But he always seemed to be thinking two steps ahead of the media, in particular. His constant small rebellions — like wearing curlers in his hair during warm-ups — drew attention, demanded respect for black culture and often served a purpose on the field.
“He was one of the smartest guys in the room, anywhere he went,” Tom Reich, Ellis' former agent, says.
In his own mercurial way, Ellis rebelled into the cultural vanguard of the times. The flashy clothes, the music and the politics — particularly the bold assertion of black power — seemed to fit his personality like a well-worn baseball glove. He was compared to Muhammad Ali. When Ali dropped into the Pirates' clubhouse one day, Ellis did a spot-on Ali impression, and challenged him to spar. It didn't go well for Ellis.
“The audience I wanted to connect with is a young audience,” Radice says. “I didn't want to make a PBS talking-heads-style documentary. It would have been a disservice to Dock, who had so much style.”
To that end, Radice enlisted Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys) to score the film. Given his long-standing interest in '70s soul, funk, style and general freakiness, it was a perfect match.
“Dock's tastes — he was a fan of Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly,” Radice says. “I asked Adam if we could get something more Sabbath-y. He sent us 30 tracks. It was like getting a private mix tape from Ad-Rock.”
Ellis understood that a pitcher's primary power was intimidation. When he sensed his team was cowed by Cincinnati's mighty Big Red Machine team, he responded by throwing directly at Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and everyone they sent to the plate, until he was pulled from the game.
When his close friend Clemente died suddenly in a plane crash, something seemed to change inside Ellis. The drinking and drugs got worse. His wife left him. He ended up being traded several times. He helped lead the Yankees to the World Series in 1976, but after that, his talents began to decline. He became abusive at home.
After hitting rock bottom — becoming abusive to his second wife, Pittsburgh-born Austine Ellis, who also left him — Ellis sought treatment. Remarkably, he was able to turn his life around, beginning a second career as a drug and alcohol counselor, which provides some of the documentary's most unexpectedly moving moments.
Radice and much of the crew of “No No: A Dock-umentary” are based in Austin, Texas. Pittsburgh's Steeltown Entertainment Project was a supporter.
At the end of his baseball career, Ellis wanted to come back to Pittsburgh so he could retire a Pirate.
“It was a matter of the flag,” says Mike Blizzard, one of the producers of “No No.” “Al Oliver (also) said he wished he could have stayed a Pirate. In retrospect, many of them see those as the best years of their lives.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.