It’s only fitting that Dock Ellis’ best pitch was a curveball, a variation on a slider that would confound opposing hitters during an 11-year career spent mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Of course, it’s not his stuff on the mound that’s best remembered now, but the stuff that was in his system at the time since legend spread that he pitched a no-hitter on LSD and the All-Star would confess later in life that he was high for his entire tenure in the big leagues. But in “No No: A Dockumentary,” which just premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Jeffrey Radice throws a curveball of his own in recasting Ellis as an unlikely pioneer, not only raising the awareness of the drug culture in baseball after his playing days were over, but as an African-American in the traditionally lily-white sport who helped engineered the first All-Star Game with two starting pitchers of color in 1971 with a few choice words to the press.
Ellis passed away in 2008 at the age of 63, just as Radice was gearing up to make the film with the pitcher’s blessing. Yet without Ellis as the primary source for his own story, “No No” stumbled into perhaps the most appropriate way to profile a man who meant so many different things to so many people. Speaking to his family, teammates, ex-wives, agents, sportswriters and more eclectic acquaintances such as Ron Howard, who cast the pitcher in the 1986 comedy “Gung Ho,” Radice conveys the impact Ellis had on both his immediate circle and the world at large with his outsized personality, which led him to spar with Muhammad Ali, and his far quieter yet no less effective means of getting things done during a time of great social change. Shortly before the film’s premiere in Park City, Radice spoke to me about how he first got interested in pitcher and the difficulty of conveying the richness of Ellis’ life onscreen, a balance of fun and thoughtful introspection he accomplished guided by his background in cultural anthropology.
I produced a short documentary that was at Sundance in 2004 titled “LSD A-Go-Go.” And what I found both at Sundance and at other festivals where I took was that people had a predilection to share their LSD experience stories. I’m not sure why. Some of them were fascinating, some of them were fairly mundane, but it caused me to think back about one of the most interesting stories I ever heard about Dock Ellis. It was this urban folklore [that he pitched a no-hitter on acid], so I did a little bit more research into whether it was true. Then I discovered he had a biography by Donald Paul, who was later poet laureate of the United States and that drew me in more. The more I learned about Dock, the more fascinated I became.
There’s some great personal insight from Ellis in the film, despite his death in 2008. How were you able to turn what must’ve seemed like a disadvantage into an advantage when it came to telling his story?
We licensed [the footage of Ellis] from HBO and they shot that in the early ’90s for the Bob Costas show. I initially envisioned it as a one-on-one interview with Dock in the style of what Errol Morris did on “The Fog of War.” We approached him [before he died] and began doing a lot of background research, but Dock got ill and was unavailable. He died in 2008 and I felt a lot of regret for not having pursued it while there was time. But talking with my father and various other people, they’re like, “Why don’t you reimagine it? Don’t live your life with this regret.” So I started to reenvision it more as an ensemble of people talking about Dock, people that knew and loved him and then interspersing that with what we could get of Dock because I think there needs to be a little bit of him in the film. What I had available to me was [the HBO footage and] some excellent audio footage from an interview that Peter Golenbock, a sportswriter who’s written many books, did and he shared his tapes with me.
I couldn’t help but notice you have a background in cultural anthropology. Did that play into your approach to the film, given that it’s as much about the cultural era Dock Ellis was a part of as it is about him?
Absolutely. If you see the movie, it’s pretty much a biographical portrait, but I look at a movie like “When We Were Kings” or “The Times of Harvey Milk” and I wanted to see this individual who went through this era in America as a window to America itself. One of the things I immediately latched onto was he threw his no-hitter in 1970 and that was pretty much the same year that Nixon declared the war on drugs, so I thought there was an interesting parallel there. Also, I thought some of Dock’s supposed militancy, especially the press labeling him as a militant, probably derived from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when John Carlos did the black power salute, so I felt like Dock was a good individual to explore some of these other cultural ideas.
Were there things going on in contemporary culture that affected the direction of the film as you were making it? The film describes a culture of drug use in Major League Baseball that sounds awfully familiar to anyone who’s been following the stories about steroids.
There was a gentleman that we interviewed, Scipio Spinks, who said “I believe that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had something to help them all along the way,” and the 1960s and ’70s [when Ellis played] was the greenie era, then you had the cocaine era, and then the steroids era and I honestly believe baseball has always had a drug problem and always will because the owners have some tacit complicity in allowing it. Steroids were very good for baseball until they weren’t. The home run race with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did more to put people in the seats than just about anything and there is a significant hypocrisy within ownership and the head office of Major League Baseball and drugs. You can take it forward to today with what’s happening with A-Rod now. I don’t know how guilty he is, but he’s got an excellent point that they’re making an example of him and what Dock would say is they never put together a proper treatment program and that they’re still dealing with issues that go back 50, 60, 70 years and had they handled it properly back then, they wouldn’t have all the problems they have today.
There’s also an incredible moment in the film, just as it was in history when you see the Pirates field an all-African-American team where the players were slow to even realize the significance. Strangely, at that moment, I felt the same way about the documentary since it’s so rare to see a film about Major League Baseball where the majority of interviewees are African-American. Given that most of the crew of the film was caucasian, was there a color barrier in making this or was it ever something you thought about?
I didn’t think about that too much. At one time, we did try to bring in some African-American filmmakers to help, but I think that gets back to my anthropology background where I had a fairly sympathetic understanding of other cultures. I don’t think you have to be black to tell a story about black Americans, but you have to approach them on their own terms and I don’t think that anyone, certainly in [Dock’s] family and Big Daddy, his best friend growing up who let us shoot interviews at their house for two days, had any problem with the fact we were white. I didn’t even really understand until we were editing the movie how much of a piece of African-American history we were creating.
Was it a challenge to get Dock’s ex-wives to talk? They have some pretty harrowing stories to share.
It proved not to be. In the end, it was a surprise. It was a challenge to get access to them, but once I was able to sit down with them in interviews, it was no challenge to get them to open up and reveal what had happened. They were both very willing and honest about their experiences, which is a testament to them. I just had the camera rolling, so maybe a little bit of my interview technique came into play because I like pregnant pauses. I like to allow people to fill that air and I get some of the best material when I do that, so some of this came out of that and some of it came out the fact that enough time had passed that they were willing to share it.
Because you gave a preview of the film while running a Kickstarter campaign to help finish the film, there were some tantalizing glimpses of directions you ultimately didn’t go in. Are there things now that you miss? I know there’s an interview Squiggy from “Laverne and Shirley,” who actually attended the no-hitter, that didn’t make the final cut.
With David Lander? Yeah, and believe me, I wanted to keep that. There were a lot of pieces of the film that just did not advance the story that we ended up with and as a filmmaker, I think I had to be faithful to the film that was being created. Unfortunately, there were earlier cuts where we had David Lander or the Timothy Leary side to the story that we lost. We joked at one time we could do the nine-part series like Ken Burns’ nine-part “Baseball” on Dock. One of the first interviews that I did was with a sports historian from the University of Texas who told me there was so much material that we would have to leave pieces out. [Ultimately that would be] including him. [laughs]
“No No: A Dockumentary” does not yet have distribution. It plays at the Sundance Film Festival four more times on January 22nd at 1 p.m. at the Redstone Cinema 2, January 23rd at the Tower Theatre at 9 p.m., January 24th at the Temple Theatre at noon, and on January 25th at the Egyptian Theatre at 3 p.m.