Very rarely do we see successful documentaries on baseball, or really any documentaries on baseball for that matter. In recent years, baseball has become more of a niche sport. It’s rare to find ‘casual baseball fans.’ The demographic of baseball fans is no longer young kids, young adults, older men and women, over the years the demographic of people watching baseball has gotten older, and older. Sure, baseball is in the media a lot, in recent years we’ve seen some baseball movies based on a true story for example 42 about Jackie Robinson, The A’s “Moneyball” story about Billy Beane, to Million Dollar Arm and some in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, baseball documentaries on the other hand, are even more scarce, which makes finding truly great baseball documentaries increasingly hard to find.
Director Jeffrey Radice knocked ‘NO NO: A Dockumentary’ out of the park, on every level. A Dockumentary is a fascinating ride through the life of Dock Ellis, former pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who famously (or infamously) threw a no-hitter while under the influence on LSD. Until you watch it though, you will never truly understand the person that Dock was. Before watching the film, like many people, I was totally misinformed about the presence that Dock had, whether in the media, in the clubhouse, or on the mound. I was also unaware of his life after baseball, about how he was able to ultimately rebuild his life and how much of an impact Dock had on the youth. Radice takes you more in-depth into that time period in baseball than you could have ever expected. I think the most underrated part of the movie is the fact that it’s not just a baseball documentary, it’s a learning experience. We finally have a documentary that shows the cultural aspect not only of the player that Dock Ellis was, but of the person he was. The 1960’s and parts of the 1970’s; it wasn’t easy to be black in America, especially a black athlete in America. This documentary doesn’t paint a picture of the contrasts between white America and black America at that time, like most sports documentaries beat to death. This film shows that Dock wasn’t afraid to be himself in the public eye as one of the focal points of a winning team, even if that meant he’d be criticized, which really was one of the main symbols we saw in Muhammad Ali. Dock looked up to guys like Ali, and Jackie Robinson, which you see in this film, and is evident by the way Dock carried himself. Although Dock died in 2008, his legacy will live on forever, thanks to Jeff Radice, it will have some help.
I had the chance to speak with Jeff about the film; he gave me some insight on the film and some other aspects of Dock.
What made you want to do this documentary?
Jeff: “I think Dock’s biography, and his relationship with Donald Hall (14th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.) Dock was able to cut across the poetic literary side of baseball, especially through Donald Hall.”
What is one thing you want people to take away from this documentary?
Jeff: “I wanted people to understand that there was a lot more depth to Dock Ellis than that kind of a circus sideshow of the no-hitter and that he was an interesting and innovative person.”
What was the most challenging part of making this film?
Jeff: “I think it was maintaining a target as to who Dock was, and trying to get to all of the facets of his personality, that he was stylish and flamboyant and outspoken, but there were some dark sides to his past and those are what prompted him to turn things around. I think there was an honesty that went through his whole career and an intelligence that was on display and he was misunderstood by a lot of people so capturing who he was and maintaining a true course of the ‘Dockness’ was the greatest challenge.”
Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to change the game for an entire race, but was Dock the first African-American to change sports for an entire culture?
Jeff: “He was, but in a way you might not realize. Dock was the first ball player to have an agent represent him in the negotiations of his contract because in 1970-1971 when he hooked up with Tom Reich, ball players would go in each year alone and negotiate with the general manager, and Dock said, why can’t I have someone represent me? So he changed things in a way that most people won’t realize. The outspokenness was just a continuation; I think he took a lot of cues from a guy like Muhammad Ali. His outspokenness, I don’t think it was as radical as the idea getting an agent to come represent him in the clubhouse, but that is a little unsung part of his story.”
It was funny to see Dock talk about his friends, and about how he had the perm, and how he had curlers in his hair and got suspended because of it, even though he and his agent resisted and got the suspension lifted, you couldn’t do that but, Dock seemed like he was the first one to really test the system.
Jeff: “And it was political, he saw that Joe Pepitone was wearing a hairpiece, and said you know, why can’t I wear my hair anyway I want? Now, when he resisted and they fought the suspension, they brought that up, he said “don’t talk to me about how I dress, talk to me about how I pitch,” and that was an important point that needed to be made.”
I was able to also ask Dock Ellis’ agent, Tom Reich some questions regarding the movie, and regarding Dock.
Out of the many things he did well in the movie, Jeff was able to not just contrast black America and white America at the time, which most sports films beat to death, he brought to light that it was tough to be a black ball player at the time, in any sport really.
Tom: “I said this then, and I’ll say this now, since Jackie Robinson, one of the great heroes of our country, in his rookie year in 1947 there hadn’t been a lot of progress made in terms of the actual treatment of players of color, and that is why I got in there because it wasn’t the business. You weren’t even allowed to be represented, and I had some experience as a young lawyer and other aspects of the racial problems. It was his way, he [Dock] took tremendous risk in standing up to it, and the hardest job with him at that time was keeping him in the game because there was a lot of interest that would have liked to put him out of the game.”
Jackie Robinson was the first to change the game for an entire race, but was Dock the first African-American to change sports for an entire culture?
Tom: “Well, I’m not going to originate that sweeping of a statement. I will say this, and I said this during the making of the film, he had as much impact on racial evolution in his journey of anyone that came down the Pike in his era and that I would say defiantly, because it was not good times in the USA in the 70’s there was a lot going on, not that there isn’t a lot going on now. Some things have gotten a lot better, but with a long way to go in racial America.”
I know you represented some players that had some controversy surrounding them. Was it tougher to represent players that had a good amount of controversy surrounding them? And what was Dock like?
Tom: “Well, sure it was because, and this is not intended to be self-congratulating, it was built into the job, the way I was raised that kind of stuff was a complete no-go. But he [Dock] had more guts than a burglar, he knew what he was doing, and that was not an accident. It’s just like as a pitcher it would appear like he was just one of these ‘who knows what’s going to happen’ guys when he went out there, and I’m not talking about when he hit some guys, which I wasn’t thrilled about either. The point is, he was a very intuitive pitcher, very cerebral, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He didn’t have 99mph gas, but he had real good stuff, he was a doctor out there for real, and that has nothing to do with his nickname by the way, but he was a very intelligent pitcher.”
Talk a little about Dock’s life after baseball
Tom: “When he was out of the game, he hit a place on the ground, he needed to regroup and reestablish his life and what he did as a counselor, really was redemption and a half. I watched what he did, I actually got him his first counseling job, with George Steinbrenner and the Yankees after he retired, then he went to school and got involved with the California Prison System of dealing with abuse, and he was a star, and I had nothing to do with that part of his life because he hooked up out there in California and he set up programs with the people who gave him all of the support and momentum and he really did live a heroic second half of his life.”
I think that’s something that isn’t really talked about, because before watching the film, I didn’t really know much about Dock’s life after baseball, and I don’t think a lot of people do.
Tom: “Well, it wasn’t well publicized, because the business of addiction had become quite large by then, in other words not that it wasn’t large to begin with, but the knowledge of it and the attempts at treatment, I know I took a lot of players myself, to rehab during their careers and sometimes after. But he [Dock] dedicated the rest of his life to it, and that was credit to him and the people out in California, and it was very inspirational. He deserves to be remembered the way the film presents it; [Director] Jeff Radice did a fantastic job of presenting an authentic creation and recreation of Dock’s life, the good the bad and the ugly.”
One thing I wanted to touch on, did you know in the 70’s how popular amphetamines were in baseball?
Tom: “Well, the thing that you knew, you couldn’t be involved without knowing what the recipe of the day was in terms of what players did and there were no rules or testing, which ultimately has come to pass finally, and thankfully, but the years of amphetamines in baseball was hard to quantify, but it was very widely utilized.”
‘NO NO: A Dockumentary’ is in theaters now, I would like to thank Jeff Radice and Tom Reich for taking the time out to let me interview them.