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If you’ve been paying attention to baseball scuttlebutt during the off-season, you probably know there’s been some spirited back-and-forth among current and former players about the propriety (or lack thereof) of flamboyant behavior or emotional displays on the field. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. In anticipation of baseball season, I watched No No: A Dockumentary, the story of larger-than-life Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, who, among other antics and anecdotes, famously threw a no-hitter in the summer of 1970 while high on LSD.
Ellis debuted for the Pirates in 1968. Prior to that he pitched in the minors for teams in Ohio and the Carolinas, where he and his African-American teammates were often harassed and menaced by disapproving fans. In the majors, he became known for his antics on and off the field. Once, he showed up to practice with curlers in his hair; another time he stepped up to Muhammed Ali and promptly got knocked on his hinders. He was outspoken about the racial politics of baseball, which was not encouraged at the time. He made seemingly off-the-cuff remarks to reporters about the likelihood that two “brothers” would be picked to start the All-Star game; in fact, that’s exactly what happened. Ellis’s teammates all agree that Dock’s apparently flippant remarks were actually a neat bit of reverse psychology.
Ellis’s story seems especially relevant in the context of the current debate between several self-proclaimed “old school” players who don’t approve of attention-grabbing antics like showing up to spring training in increasingly outrageous cars (like the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes), or Jose Bautista’s now-legendary bat flip during the 2015 playoffs. Former pitcher Goose Gossage laid into both players in a recent interview, and regardless of how you think baseball players should conduct themselves on or off the field, it’s interesting to me that this topic continues to be so tied up in race. Gossage had plenty of criticism to go around, raking Nationals slugger Bryce Harper over the coals for similarly boisterous behavior, but he also complained that Bautista and Cespedes are “embarrassing to all the Latin players,” which I found far more troubling than his disapproval alone. Turns out this kind of bickering has been going on for a long time, and Dock Ellis had no trouble pointing it out and calling it what it was.
The legendary no-no itself was an accident of timing—Ellis had mixed up the days he was supposed to pitch. On the plate he literally couldn’t even see the batters, so it was less a stunt than a feat of misdirection. Director Jeff Radice uses a simple but effective technique throughout No No to illustrate Ellis’s evolving relationship to drugs and alcohol: he intercuts TV footage of Ellis pitching with an adorably heavy-handed PSA featuring boys in little league jerseys gradually being convinced by a pro ballplayer that drugs aren’t cool and won’t enhance their athletic performance. During the first two acts, it reads as amusing and ironic given how well Dock pitched his entire career and how cool he looked doing it. But as Ellis’s life spirals out of control and two successive marriages fail, the PSA’s sincerity looks more and more like wisdom.
Ellis’s iconic no-hitter wasn’t just a happy accident, a cool story to tell baseball neophytes. As No No illustrates, it perfectly captured the spirit of a dynamic player trying to make the best of a volatile situation.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.