From Getting High to High Art: The Strange Journey of Dock Ellis

By KingMe · Jun 30, 2010 · ·
  1. KingMe
    The mythical story of Dock Ellis and the no-hitter he pitched in 1970 while on LSD is one giant matryoshka doll. There's layer upon exquisite layer to be uncovered: The black power movement, the war on drugs, Major League Baseball's free-agency era. And that's just the first couple of layers.

    In the last year, the story of Ellis, who died in 2008, has been resurrected in song -- it's the sixth time -- with folkie Todd Snider's "America's Favorite Pastime." That was followed by artist James Blagden's psychedelic animated short, "Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No." Now there's a movie, "No No: A Dockumentary," in production.

    Austin filmmakers Jeffrey Radice and Mike Blizzard, "No No"'s writer/director and producer, respectively, took the occasion of June 12th, the 40th anniversary of Ellis' no-hitter with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to debut a seven-minute trailer of their forthcoming documentary. The location was The Highball, the new lounge/bowling alley operated by Austin's homegrown movie theater chain, Alamo Drafthouse.

    The trailer opens with a frame of text: "I pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs." Whether or not Ellis pitched his no-hitter on LSD, four years after the drug became illegal, is beside the point (Ellis was equally infamous for beaning hitters). LSD was just a metaphor for doing things your own way, being your own man.

    "You draw people in with the LSD," Radice says, "so you can start to address much bigger issues. What is it to be a role model as an athlete? What is heroic behavior? I mean, Dock was certainly flawed, but he was human and he was honest about his flaws. And that's the story to me: how his honesty about himself and his own flaws become as much a part of the story as the drugs he was taking."

    Through archival footage and interviews, we meet a man in Ellis who is funny and charismatic, and who likes to tell it like it is -- part Richard Pryor, part Eldridge Cleaver. "I would try to out-milligram any opponent," Ellis said in the trailer. This played well with the radical times, but it really ticked off Major League Baseball, who didn't appreciate Ellis being so vocal about rampant amphetamine use among its players.

    We also begin to see a glimpse of the man behind the legend -- a Zelig whose influence ranged from the at-risk males he counseled about drugs for roughly a quarter century after baseball, to Glen E. Friedman, the acclaimed photographer of the '80s punk rock and skate counterculture, who as a boy got a signed baseball from Ellis that read, "You can do anything you want," to the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, whom it's said Ellis got high with before bunkering down with them in the trenches while on a USO tour.

    "There's this story about Jackie Robinson writing Dock this letter," Blizzard says, upon qualifying Ellis' place in baseball's first all-non-Caucasian lineup, with the '71 Pirates, "basically saying, what you're doing is good. Keep doing it. But it's gonna be a hard road to tell the truth."

    Radice adds, "The two times I've heard him recite that letter he's broke down crying."

    Radice already has two Sundance-selected short documentaries to his credit, as producer. The most recent, "LSD A Go Go," about MK-ULTRA, the CIA's mid-century experiment with LSD as mind control, sparked a lot of hallucinatory tales.

    "People love to share their own personal LSD stories," Radice says. "It kicked something loose in my brain about this piece of folklore that I had heard about Dock Ellis."

    That led Radice to "Dock Ellis: In the Country of Baseball," a biography written by Donald Hall that was published in 1976. Hall, who would become U.S. poet laureate in 2006, had a long history with America's game, having played softball with Robert Frost in his youth.

    "Here's this academic poet, kind of hippie-looking white guy, long hair, but he and Dock Ellis kind of became friends over a couple of spring trainings," Radice says. "So there's this connection through this school of very traditionalist American poetry that ends up at Dock Ellis, and that gave me something really to think about."

    Radice and Blizzard plan to shop "No No: A Dockumentary" around to festivals next year. In the mean time, they're working to score interviews with, among others, David Lander, better known as Squiggy from "Laverne & Shirley," who was at Ellis' LSD no-hitter; Ron Howard, who directed Ellis in the movie "Gung Ho," and whose "Happy Days" character Richie Cunningham often ran into Laverne and Shirley; and Michael Keaton, who starred in "Gung Ho," and who is a huge Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

    "We're not just sitting around on the couch smoking a joint and talking about this anymore," Radice says.


    By Michael Hoinski on 06/24/2010

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