Ellis’ acid-fueled no-hitter is played with a good deal of humor in No No, much like Ellis’ latter-day spinnings of the yarn. The retired right-hander would primarily employ it as a tool in his motivational lectures, urging young ballplayers and prisoners to keep their noses clean, the LSD story perhaps containing a bit of purposeful tall tale-dom to it. “I was high as a Georgia pine,” Ellis was fond of saying. And it is that quality that makes the story remarkable, as well, a versatile and unprovable baseball legend on par with Babe Ruth calling his shot or the 1962 New York Mets shouting “yo la tengo” as they misplayed a fly ball.
The filmmakers touch on the strands of Ellis’ story, but never pull on any of them tight enough for sustained emotional impact. The film also muddles the chronology of Ellis’ career, saving the titular no-no to serve as the proverbial middle relief even though it falls earlier in Ellis’ real-life timeline. One wishes they had more faith in the rest of Ellis’ story, which finds poignancy as he befriends Pirates teammate Roberto Clemente, and its emotional center as Ellis recounts a letter he received from Jackie Robinson in the wake of the second-most-famous story about his career, told with relish in the film.
In 1973, Ellis became embroiled in a controversy when he decided to wear hair curlers as he pitched. Ordered to take them out, he accused the management of racism. Jackie Robinson wrote a letter in righteous support of Ellis, then in the midst of a 12-14 season. It is a fair bet that Robinson, a professional baseball player through and through, damn well knew the real reason why Ellis wore the hair curlers, and it wasn’t merely flamboyance. It is part of Ellis’ legacy, a legacy which makes room for the LSD no-no and, for example, the time that Ellis knocked down one Cincinnati Red after another in 1974. The curlers, Ellis said, generated enough sweat on his neck to throw a special kind of spitball. Dock Ellis was clever. Dock Ellis was Dock Ellis.
One of the great enjoyments of baseball, a reward for all the long innings of stillness and routine plays and idle chatter by sportscasters, is to witness some combination of events that’s never happened on a professional baseball field before. For fans of perpetually losing teams — like the Mets, who Ellis pitched for during their 63-99 sixth-place 1979 season — these novel moments can be astonishing, joyful in a way that transcends winning or losing. Dock Ellis was seemingly put in the major leagues with the sole purpose of making those moments, which ranged from intentionally hitting all of the Cincinnati Reds with pitches (May 1, 1974) to pitching for the first all-minority starting lineup in history (September 1, 1971). Though the film briefly examines Ellis’ pitching technique, the Dockumentary gives short shrift to Dock Ellis the pro pitcher — the individualized and specific skill set that allowed him to pitch his no-hitter, employing a pitching arsenal that included hair curlers, what Ellis labeled a “sliding fastball,” and a notebook filled with his annotations on his various opponents.
There is footage of the LSD no-no, but never enough. It is mostly from a far-off camera angle, deployed in too-fast-to-process excerpts, and the film as a whole feels similar, removed from Dock himself. It’s a tall order to want intimacy from a subject who passed away before the documentary was made, about the kind of drug experience most people can’t explain anyway, and the filmmakers absolutely make do with what they have. But the story of Dock Ellis remains open, a trickster’s tale with seemingly more to teach. Perhaps the answer is as close as Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, the 1976 memoir Ellis wrote with future poet laureate Donald Hall, whose earliest editions had “screwdrivers” in place of acid and “coffee” in place of benzedrine. Perhaps there is no answer. Dock Ellis was only a pitcher, after all.