Sundance: 'No No: A Dockumentary' Revisits the Legend of Baseball's Acid-Trip No-Hitter
A drug-fueled 1970 game pitched by Dock Ellis prompted one filmmaker's quest into the life of the MLB legend.
On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s a feat that few have accomplished -- in 136 years of baseball, 276 no-hitters have been recorded -- but that day went from milestone to folk story when the pitcher later revealed his perfect game was thrown while high on LSD.
At the time, LSD, “greenies” (amphetamines), cocaine, and other drugs were running rampant through Major League Baseball -- a somewhat known but hush-hush epidemic. Thanks to his transcendent “no-no” with the Pirates, a career of eccentric on-field quirks, Civil Rights activism, and an anti-drug advocacy stance that dominated his post-baseball career, the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” was defined by his LSD trip.
Knowing there was more to the American athlete than nine psychedelic innings, director Jeffrey Radice, a security engineer at the communications company Polycom by day/documentarian by night, set out to uncover the expanded history of Dock Ellis. The result is No No: A Dockumentary, a film that chronicles the life of Ellis through talking heads, found footage, photos and snippets of interviews with the pitcher.
Here, we talk to Radice about reconstructing a portrait of the real Ellis, how drugs became an essential part of his life, and how he convinced Ellis’ family to finally tell their story:
What was your in for this topic? How did you stumble into Dock’s life?
Radice: I produced a short documentary that showed in Sundance in 2004. It was called LSD a Go Go. There’s something about LSD that people want to share their own personal experiences with it. So I was getting a lot of anecdotal tales, and I had heard about Dock Ellis, knew the folklore, and I thought, ‘Let me go back and read up on this guy.’ He was the most fascinating LSD story I had heard. I read his biography and I thought there was a lot of substance to him beyond the LSD. And initially, I was trying to investigate if he didn’t win [while on LSD], because it’s really clear that he was the one who perpetuated the story. There are detractors who believe he did that to self-aggrandize, create this mythology about himself. How can we figure out if he did or he didn’t? I hope I’ve established well that he did, that he didn’t make it up.
Why do you think Dock was so open about this incident and his past with drugs?
Radice: I think the reason he opened up about it was as part of his 12 steps. Coming clean about the things he had done that were wrong. What Ron Howard [who directed Dock in 1986’s Gung Ho] said is that Dock really regretted it. This is something Dock’s widow Hjordis says. Dock couldn’t remember much of that game and it was supposed to be the highlight of his career. Imagine, not remembering the highlight of your career; he had very conflicted emotions and he felt like he needed to open up and talk about it.
Having examined his career through this lens, do you feel Dock needed drugs to win games?
Radice: It’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the sure answer. One of the things he was asked in the HBO documentary that we excerpted from is, ‘Would you do it differently?’ And he said, ‘No. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it all over again because I wouldn’t be the person I am today.’ I think some of the guys, like Bob Watson, who is fairly straight edge, would say that Dock would have had a longer, better career if he wasn’t amphetamines and drinking so much, all the drugs he did. [People] begged him to try pitching without greenies. So in spring training he went out there without any speed and he said he didn’t feel comfortable gripping the ball, he didn’t know what to do. His catcher talked about it and said, ‘Dock needed his medicine.’ He was introduced to [drugs] early in his career, when they were predominate -- less than 5 percent [of players] were not taking them. So he got to the point where the greenies were part of his muscle memory and his control. He couldn’t pitch without them.
Along with directing No No, you have a day job working for the communications corporation Polycom. Does the job inform how you operate as a filmmaker?
Radice: I felt like the parent of a newborn making this movies. I would get by on two, four, six hours of sleep. I would go in, work, come home, take a nap, then work from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. on the film. It’s not an easy balance and if I had to do it again, I’m not sure I would. The thing was, making an independent film like this, me getting paid was a way to economize. I wanted to spend the money on our editor and on our DP and other professionals. I had other ways to support myself so it was a choice, but a difficult balancing act. My background in information technology was extremely helpful in keeping the information flow. There are terrabytes and terrabytes of data involved with making a film. So that all proved extremely productive. I’ve probably got a file of 1,000 photos and newspaper articles -- managing those files came easily. There are benefits there as well.