Dock Ellis pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1968 to 1975, winning 96 games, pitching 12 shutouts and leading them to the postseason 4 times. He is most famous for pitching a no hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD. Although a major selling point, this incident is only part of the story of Dock, an often outspoken advocate for the rights of players, especially African-American players, a stylish public figure who got into as much trouble on the field and off, and a charismatic counselor who spent the last 26 years of his life helping recovering addicts stay off drugs.
No No: A Dockumentary is the perfect eulogy to one of the greatest characters the national pastime has produced in the last 50 years. The film has its origins in the short LSD A Go Go, which played Sundance in 2004. Director Jeffrey Radice, a producer on that film, used the one bit of folklore that everyone who knew baseball knew about Dock Ellis, as an excuse to dive deeper into a truly enigmatic figure. Unfortunately, Ellis died in 2008 before Radice could interview him. At this point, Radice had two choices, scrap the project, or, thankfully, find another way to tell the story. The lucky thing about Ellis is that he was so giving with his opinions and so out-there with his behavior, that the Dock Ellis story is really only truly understood by how it affected everyone with whom he came into contact. The audience is treated to various sports writers’ reactions to Dock taking the field with curlers in his hair, Ron Howard’s experiences with Dock on the set of the Michael Keaton-starring Gung Ho, and interviews with several men whose lives he saved working as a counselor, many talking about Dock for the first time. Radice explains, “the ensemble storytelling style developed organically, through the access we were able to get through the course of conducting the interviews. I knew that I wanted other people to tell Dock’s story, and I wanted to film them in a very intimate manner. The people who knew Dock – his friends, his teammates – they all loved him.”
I had the privilege of seeing No No at Sundance, and was truly taken by its tone. This isn’t a typical rise-and-fall-of-a-star type of doc, it’s a portrait of a flawed man, who spent a majority of the later years of his life out of the spotlight, but finally at peace. Producer Mike Blizzard says “This film is not about hero worship, it’s about showing Dock as a real person. We wanted to get past the legend of Dock Ellis and talk about who he was as a person and what his legacy is.” Of course, as a baseball mega-fan, I loved all the behind the box-score stories. It infuriates me that MLB will not just give over footage to anyone making a legit documentary about a public figure, but No No finds a resourceful way to tackle this issue, using animation. Famed celebrity sports artist Kevin-John worked with the team to create several sequences that add a stylish dimension to the film that could have relied on talking-heads to tell its story. Another highlight of the film comes from Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, who provides the score, an homage to Dock’s era that sounds a bit like the best instrumentals in the Beastie catalog (especially their The In Sound From Way Out, which always sounded to me like a film soundtrack in search of a film). But the highlight of the film is Dock himself, who through archival footage, carefully placed inside the context of all the interviews, talks openly and honestly about his experiences and life choices. This is a man not interested in perpetuating some myth of heroism or even sugar-coating his faults. He breaks down as he reads a letter from Jackie Robinson, thanking him for his advancement of civil rights in sports. Radice says “Dock Ellis followed directly in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Those were his mentors and I believe Dock led the charge in the next wave of athletic civil rights, alongside Curt Flood.” The full story of Dock Ellis has been obscured by one solitary incident and No No does the job to bring the rest of his life back into attention.
3rd opens with a sort of test for the average fan, as the only lyrics to “Stats” are a series of numbers: 61, that’s Roger Maris’s old home run record, 262, Ichiro’s hit total in 2004, still the record, 1.12, Bob Gibson’s invincible ERA in 1968. But the rest of the album is far less esoteric with songs honoring Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth (The Babe) and Cy Young (A Boy Named Cy) as well as the scathing “13” about A-Rod’s questionable relationship to performance enhancing drugs — “some things don’t come down to luck/it’s just the way that you add it up, 13.” The Baseball Project looks for inspiration anywhere, whether finding it in the story of Robin Yount’s older brother, who only ever managed a warm-up pitch in the big leagues (Larry Yount), or the average collector (The Baseball Card Song). “We don’t have any rules about what constitutes a baseball song,” McCaughey explains. “It can be anything from a character study of an obscure guy from the 1920s, to something that just happened, to something completely ridiculous like ‘Extra Inning of Love,’ which takes the baseball-as-love metaphor and tries to stretch it as far as it will go.”
My personal favorite track on the new album, “They Played Baseball,” is an all-encompassing homage to those stars and almost-stars whose names live on in our collective memories for reasons sometimes other than on the field play.
“Brooklyn called their own team the bums,
Mantle had his bum knees
The White Sox threw the series
Lou Gehrig got his own disease
And we cheered for them all
we cheered for them all
Because they played baseball.”
It’s everything The Baseball Project can be: witty, fun, insightful and just a great catchy song. And really, there are no benchwarmers on this album. 3rd really captures the energy achieved in songs here and there previously and delivers a ‘full album’ experience. Wynn says “I think this album most represents us as a rock band, both how well we play together, and how long we’ve been playing together in The Baseball Project and in other configurations over the past 30 years.” It is nice to see a band a mature together, even when these a players who all come from different bands. On 3rd, they achieve something fresh and wholly original together. I even think this album will satisfy someone who knows nothing about baseball (but what unlucky soul is that?)
“The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads” is a fitting tribute to the inscrutable player eulogized in Jeffrey Radice’s No No: A Dockmentary. Again passing over the obvious LSD no hitter (“that was amazing and true, though it was somewhat
Dock Ellis is one of the characters that make the old personality-driven baseball in the pre-ESPN era so appealing. Larger-than-life figures, individually leading a team to victory, memorialized by stats on the backs of baseball cards, and now on film and in music. Both No No and The Baseball Project capture the man as more than a single story, and it is great that they both get to share that with us at SXSW. Let’s play ball!
The Baseball Project will perform an official showcase at SXSW Thursday March 13th at 9 pm, at the Continental Club and again on Friday March 14th at the Paramount Theatre (the time is not listed on the sxsw website). No No: A Dockumentary will screen Saturday March 8th at 11:30 am at the Paramount, Sunday, March 9th at 9:30 pm at the Alamo Slaughter, Wednesday March 12th at 9:30 pm at the Rollins, and Saturday March 15th at 9:30 pm the Marchesa.