He was, in the immortal words of Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield, “a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherf—ker.” His style was pure Youngblood Priest, a mélange of gold rings, colorful polyester suits, and hair-curlers, cruising in the front seat of a big, shiny Cadillac with a vanity plate that said, “DOCK.” His attitude was bold, intimidating batters with his menacing glare and violent gum chewing, and planting verbal dynamite in the belly of institutional racism. According to filmmaker David O. Russell, he even served as the inspiration for American Hustle’s hotheaded-yet-sartorially fresh FBI agent Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper.
Meet Dock Ellis.
The late, self-described “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” pitched in the major leagues from 1968-1979, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and had a career record of 138-119. He was an All-Star in 1971, and helped lead the Pirates to a World Series championship that year. He’d later compile a 17-8 record while pitching for the American League champion New York Yankees in 1976. But he’s probably best known for pitching a no-hitter while tripping on acid. Ellis is given the documentary treatment in director Jeffrey Radice’s No No: A Dockumentary, which made its world premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and will soon play SXSW. And Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, a.k.a. Ad-Rock, produced the film’s funky soundtrack.
No No opens on that fateful day: June 12, 1970.
“We flew in to San Diego and I asked the manager if I could go home because we had an off day,” explained Ellis in the film. “So I took some LSD at the airport when I took off with the car ’cause I knew where it would hit me, in L.A.”
He’d take LSD two or three more times on Thursday at his friend’s place in Los Angeles, and again the following day at around noon. At 2 p.m. on Friday, the house received a call from the Pirates’ manager asking where the heck Ellis was, since he was supposed to be at the ballpark. His friend’s girlfriend woke up a sleeping Ellis, screaming, “You have to pitch today!” to which Ellis replied, “What happened to yesterday?” Ellis rushed to the airport, and somehow made a 3 p.m. flight from Los Angeles to San Diego, arriving at the stadium at around 4:30 p.m. The first pitch was at 6:05 p.m.
“So there I was out there, high as a Georgia Pine, trippin’ on acid,” he said. “I really didn’t see the hitters. All I could tell was if they were on the right side, or the left side. As far as seeing the target, the catcher put tape on his fingers so I could see the signals. The opposing team and my teammates, they knew I was high. But they didn’t know what I was high on. They didn’t really see it, but I had the acid in me, and I didn’t know what I looked like with that acid. I had lost all concept of time.”
Nine innings, eight walks, six strikeouts, and two hit batsmen later, and Ellis had done the impossible: he’d pitched a no-hitter high on LSD.
“It was ugly but it was still a no no,” he said in the film, grinning. “It was easier to pitch with the LSD because I was so used to medicating myself,” added Ellis. “That’s the way that I was dealing with the fear of failure. You know that if Dock’s pitching, he’s high. But how high is he? I pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs.”
In addition to LSD, Ellis took loads of cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, mescaline, crank, and later, heroin. Before starts, he’d take as many “Greenies”—or amphetamines—as he could swallow to keep himself sharp.
“I would try to out-milligram any opponent,” said Ellis. “Before a game, I would take a maximum of 15-17 pills. Not to say that I didn’t have enough stuff to pitch in the major leagues, I just tried to get a little edge.”
Since Ellis didn’t have overpowering stuff—he was armed primarily with a curveball and a slider—the key to his game was intimidation. He’d stand tall on the mound, eyes bugging out of his head, violently smacking his chewing gum. He’d bean you just to get his message across, and if you crossed him, he’d bean you in the face. Just ask Reggie Jackson, who hit a towering, 600-plus ft. home run off Ellis in the 1971 All-Star game—one of the longest in history. The next time they met, in 1976, Ellis beaned him in the face. And the curlers in his hair weren’t just to be hip and slick, or to defy the stringent rules of management (Ellis was suspended once by the Pirates for 10 days for the curlers).
“I was throwing spitballs,” he said. “I was wearing a perm, so I just had to go to the back of my neck and I had a fist full of sweat.”
Throughout the course of No No’s 1.5-hour running time, via interviews with friends, family, and fellow ballplayers—as well as the late Ellis himself—the film paints a picture of a rebellious man filled with contradictions.
Ellis grew up in Gardena, California. His family members came to nickname him “The Nut” as a child because, they say, he was “selectively crazy.” He came up in the minors in 1964, at a time when the players’ hotel rooms were segregated by race. When he finally joined the Pirates in 1968, his first roommate was Roberto Clemente, whom he looked up to. By the ’71 season, Ellis was a star. He led the National League in victories and ERA at the season’s halfway point with a 14-3 record and 2.10 ERA. Before the game, Ellis publicly called out National League manager Sparky Anderson, claiming he’d never start “two brothers” against one another in the All-Star game (him and Vida Blue). Ellis ended up starting. Due to his outrageous style and no-BS attitude, Ellis was the recipient of racist threats daily.
“They threatened to shoot me,” said Ellis. “If you stick your head over the dugout, we’re going to shoot you. So I’d have my head over the dugout the whole game.”
On Sept. 1, 1971, the Pirates started nine black and Latino players, the first all-minority starting lineup in MLB history. They were down by seven runs but came back and won the game 9-7, and later that year, they won the World Series. Sports writers called them “The Team that Changed Baseball,” and Ellis was the most outspoken of the bunch, fighting for African-American player’s rights by destroying cultural taboos.
But Ellis’ drug use escalated following the tragic death of Clemente in a 1973 plane crash. He choked his first wife, Paula, in a drug-fueled rampage, and she left him. After that, the drugs and partying got worse. There were attractive women everywhere. Teammates would get calls from Ellis out of his gourd at 3:30 a.m. on nights before games. During spring training, he’d sit around in the outfield, guzzle booze, and plant weed.
With the exception of the aforementioned 1976 season with the Yankees, and a resurgent 1977 season with the Texas Rangers, Ellis never reached the heights he achieved in ’71. When he retired in 1979, his drug usage got completely out of control, and that night, he attacked his second wife, Austine.
“From about 12 in the evening until five o’clock in the morning, he took it out on me with guns and rifles and shotguns, revolvers in my mouth,” she said in the film. “It was devastating. He had never done that before.”
After that horrific episode, Austine left Ellis in 1980, and the ex-pitcher went straight to rehab, kicking drugs and alcohol that year and never turning back. He eventually became a drug and alcohol abuse counselor for the Yankees, and later, got a job counseling prison inmates about the dangers of substance abuse. Ron Howard even cast him in a bit part in his 1986 movie Gung Ho. Ellis was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 2007, and passed away from the ailment on Dec. 19, 2008.
At one point in the film, Ellis tears up while reading a letter sent to him by Jackie Robinson.
“Try to get more players to understand your views and you will find great support,” wrote Robinson. “You have made a real contribution.”