Certain moments in baseball history have transcended the game to become bona fide pop culture memes. Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield wall before smashing a home run in that direction, a little kid asking Shoeless Joe Jackson to say it ain't so, Bobby Thomson hitting the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to give the Giants the 1951 National League pennant. Then there was the time Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while tripping on LSD.
If you're not familiar with the story, it must be because you didn't have internet access in 2009, when James Blagden's amazing animated short film Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No exploded across the web, turning what was a quirky footnote in baseball history into a modern-day tall tale known by fans and non-fans alike.
If you've never seen it, enjoy:
Like with most legends, there's some controversy about how much of it is the unvarnished truth—there's no way to prove that Ellis was actually tripping balls while standing on the pitcher's mound that day, as he maintained until his death, in 2008. Deadspin tried to sort out facts from fiction in 2011, noting that none of Ellis's teammates have ever corroborated his story about tripping on acid. But myth or not, Ellis was a fascinating man, and a worthy subject for a film by Jeffrey Radice, No No: a Dockumentary. Although the pitcher consumed mountains of pills, weed, and cocaine before and during games in his career, Ellis's story is more complex than that of a simple drug-addled athlete.
The film, which played at Sundance, tells the story of a man who fought against racism in baseball and worked hard to advocate for the right to free agency, before which players were largely at the mercy of owners who could buy and sell them at will. Ellis, who died in 2008, also turned the Pittsburgh Pirates' dugout into the biggest party in the major leagues.
I met with Radice to talk about why this story has such staying power.
VICE: Why did you want to make a movie about Ellis?
Jeffrey Radice: What brought me to the story of Dock Ellis is if you trace the history of LSD—in the United States at least—it goes back to the CIA and their MKUltra stuff. I had produced a short film about that. The CIA had hookers on the payroll dosing guys, and they were observing them through two-way mirrors. That, to me, is far stranger than any fiction that anyone could make up.
But you also love 1970s baseball, right? Did you want to spread that love?
[Between] baseball and counterculture, if you did a Venn diagram, there's not a tremendous amount of overlap. [There's] a little bit of "sticking it to the man," and it's also kind of a nod to a bygone era. The war on drugs started in 1970 and LSD was certainly a part of the war on drugs. What I tried to do with the film was use [Ellis] as the third eye, and that game as this kind of blossom to explore. To people in their 20s, the 1970 is [an alien] time and place. So Dock Ellis is kind of this "fuck-you to the establishment!" character, and that's where I was going with it.
Dock kind of embodies that anti-establishment attitude. People who are kind of drawn to that—the Burning Man kinds of people—it causes them to take a step back and kind of say, "That's cool! Not what I would have expected [from a baseball player]."
Pitching a no-hitter on acid seems hard. How'd he pull it off?
Dock was tripping for a couple of days. So he took acid, came down, and took some more, but the more you take, the less of an effect it has. You can prolong your trip, but, it was at the tail end of a multi-day trip, and when he got to the stadium, he also took a lot of speed—which was his drug of choice for pitching—and so that helped him get more set mentally.
Right. It seems like you would get psyched out by the people watching you.
Dock was able to handle that situation. I think pro athletes become real experts at tuning out the crowd and not paying attention to the roar. Another thing is muscle memory. Dan really talked about that. Especially for pitchers, more than any other position in baseball, it's about just pounding the ball. You get into a groove.
Do you think pitching is the only position where tripping doesn't interfere with your ability to play?
If you're playing right field, you only have maybe one ball that comes to you an inning. Or maybe every two innings. So, there's a lot of time for your mind to wander. But if you're a pitcher, it's like one thing after another and you hit this rhythm. That's why I think it's plausible from that perspective.
That's why you don't doubt the story?
At one point in time, I thought a lot of the doubt came from people who had no experience with LSD. It's very much a mental drug, so I don't think it's obvious if someone is under the influence of LSD. It's all practice and muscle memory at the end of the day. I think hallucinogens, with the right kind of mental focus, allow you to really just get into a groove and rely on your muscle memory.
No No: a Dockumentary was just released online. You can stream it in several places, including YouTube.
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