No No: A Dockumentary Movie Review: Covers All the Bases

No No: A Dockumentary traces the colorful and complex career of MLB pitcher Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter (or No No) on LSD in 1971. The infamous “no-no” is revisited by Dock, his teammates and sportswriters in No No, but director Jeff Radice’s film doesn’t dwell on that dubious achievement. It gives viewers a complex portrait of Ellis, who became a successful major league pitcher despite his battles with drug and alcohol addiction.

Dock Ellis played in the major leagues from 1968 to 1979, most famously with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and later with the Mets and the Texas Rangers. His penchant for wearing hair curlers during batting practice and sometimes outlandish off-field behavior made him a punchline on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and a favorite subject of debate for sportswriters.

Major league baseball was a different animal in the 1960s/1970s. Players were still subject to spur-of-the-moment trades and had no say in the matter. Many of them had off-season jobs to make ends meet, as multi-million dollar contracts were a thing of the future. Ballplayers’ fashions and attitudes mirrored what was going on in music and pop culture at the time. No No features some still photos and contact sheets of the Pirates in their street clothes that are straight out of a Shaft movie.

In the 1970s, the players weren’t juiced up on steroids like they are today. “Greenies” (a slang term for the amphetamine dexamyl) were the drug of choice. Taking a greenie was “like drinking 15, maybe 20 cups of coffee,” says former Astros player Scipio Spinks, one of the players interviewed in the film.

Players routinely used recreational drugs after the game: pot, cocaine, LSD, etc. (Anybody remember Jim Bouton’s Ball Four?). In the 1970s, ballplayers had to maintain a squeaky clean image in the media. Any hint of drugs or alcohol use (and most unorthodox behavior) was shielded from the fans.

Dock sparred in the Pirates locker room with Muhammad Ali and collaborated on a book with a poet assigned to cover spring training, but there was a serious side to his outspoken demeanor. Dock stood up for players’ rights and African-American rights during a time when owners and MLB executives had absolute control over players. Although Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s racial barrier in 1947, black players still had a hard time in both the minor and major leagues (black and white minor league players had to stay in separate hotels in the South as late as the mid-1960s). In the film, Dock reads an eloquent letter Jackie Robinson sent him, urging him to keep fighting the good fight. But new barriers were breaking on their own. On July 1, 1971, the Pirates fielded the first all-black starting line-up, with Dock as the pitcher.

No No consists of interviews with people who knew Dock best, including his ex-wives, teammates, childhood friends, siblings and sportswriters.The film includes footage from various Pirates games, official MLB film clips and clips of archival interviews Dock gave about about the No-No and and other subjects. And the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz wrote the film’s original music (other music featured in the film includes a snippet of Hawkwind’s Silver Machine).

The interviews and footage are compelling on their own, but Radice throws a change-up by including clips from a 1981 anti-drug film “Dugout” aimed at kids. The film mirrors Dock’s own struggles – and the rampant alcohol and greenie use that was prevalent in the big leagues in the 1970s. As is the trend in documentaries these days, animation springs up in a few places to break up the interviews.

Roberto Clemente, fellow Pirate and a positive influence, died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972. Dock’s substance abuse took a turn for the worse after this, and he hit rock bottom when he threatened his second wife while in a drunken rage. He entered rehab shortly after that, and got clean and stayed clean until his death in 2008.

After he stopped drinking and taking drugs, Dock became a drug counselor, working with minor and major league baseball players and prisoners with addiction problems. The latter part of the film features a moving interview with one of the prisoners he counseled.

No No: A Dockumentary is a portrait of a man who was much more than an acid-laced blip in MLB history. Dock was a nonconformist who challenged the rigid MLB status quo and further paved the road that his teammate Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson and other black players had initiated. And his leadership abilities extended beyond the field, to the halfway houses and rehab programs. You don’t need to be a baseball fan to appreciate No No: A Dockumentary.

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Jade Blackmore

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