scorecardresearch Skip to main content
movie review

‘No No’ looks at Dock Ellis, on and off the field

Ron Mrowiec

“No No: A Dockumentary” eagerly reasserts that maverick big-league baseball pitcher Dock Ellis was more than the sum of his headlines. Ellis, who starred for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970s (and briefly played for the Yankees and a handful of other teams), is famously remembered for pitching a no-hitter on LSD. You can catch some of the vintage broadcast footage here, tweaked with a psychedelic tint and set to Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” rendition. The idea that documentarian Jeffrey Radice would make the episode both the hook and the opener for his film is to be expected — it’s an attention-grabbing story.

But a hook is all it is. This is a portrait of Ellis the high-living character, certainly, but also Ellis the racial and cultural trailblazer. Radice also ventures into territory that may demand a spoiler alert if you knew the player best from childhood trading cards. Some time after you start to think, Hey, is this something that’s entirely to be celebrated — a guy throwing big-league-scary heat at batters while he’s high? — the picture does turn darker. “Just say no” is definitely the lesser of that quirky title’s dual references, but we do get a look at Ellis hitting bottom, then finding redemption. He died in 2008 after battling liver disease.


With the majority of Ellis’s reminiscences apparently culled from a single interview, the good times are recalled in greatest detail by others. We hear from Ellis’s Pittsburgh teammates — look, Al Oliver! — and from friends he grew up with in Los Angeles. They talk about how he would push people’s buttons, and his Superfly style. They recount the classic story of how he once wore curlers to warm-ups, drawing the commissioner’s ire. It’s enough to make you wonder why local parlance for athletes’ flakiness wasn’t preceded decades earlier by “Dock being Dock.”

At the same time, there’s a clearly stated message: Whatever baseball and society’s expectation of black athletes had been to that point, Ellis wasn’t about to stifle his individuality and just take orders, let alone inferior treatment. We hear about the impact that universally respected teammate Roberto Clemente had on him, and Ellis tearfully shares a note of support he once received from Jackie Robinson.


Audio clips feature Ellis talking openly about his drug use: first amphetamines, then those acid tabs, and just about everything else. But it’s two of his ex-wives who offer the most revealing look at how bad it all went, including one particularly chilling account of unhinged violence. Ellis’s interview and news reports then take us through what followed: a rehab stint, and his reinvention as a substance abuse counselor. He admits to Ed Bradley that his mind wasn’t right during a notorious beanball episode involving Pete Rose and others. There’s no mea culpa for that no-no, though.

Ron Howard, of all people, pops up to share some of Ellis’s thoughts on the matter. (Ellis, we’re belatedly reminded, appeared in Howard’s 1986 comedy “Gung Ho.”) According to Howard, Ellis rolled with the cast’s amused delight at the LSD craziness, but he had real regrets. At least someone says it, even if we don’t get it straight from Ellis, or from the funky image the movie sells up front.


Tom Russo can be reached at