(2014) Documentary (Arts + Labor) Dock Ellis, Steve Blass, Willie Stargell, Ron Howard, Bruce Kison, Mudcat Grant, Dave Cash, Al Oliver. Directed by Jeff Radice
As someone who lived through the 70s, I can tell you that I never thought them particularly turbulent or interesting. Many point to the 60s as being a far more fascinating decade but the 70s had its share of difficult times. Looking back through the eyes of someone who was in his prime then and turned out to be a much more important influence than you could imagine, I can see that the 70s were far from boring.
Dock Ellis is probably not that well-known outside of baseball fans and knowledgeable baseball fans at that. He pitched his last game in 1979 and his glory years were from 1970-76, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates but also with the New York Yankees (he also pitched for the New York Mets, the Oakland Athletics and the Texas Rangers).
During his time in the game, Ellis was an impressive figure. Baseball is full of characters who march to their own drummer but Ellis was one of a kind. He was kind of a Superfly with a great slider. Outside the stadium he was the paragon of style and fashion; inside he was a dogged competitor. Both on and off the field he spoke out against what he thought was wrong. He was a powerful individualist.
Unfortunately powerful individualists in the 70s were attracted to recreational drug use. Ellis famously pitched his no-hitter while under the influence of LSD. Now, while the film doesn’t really cover this, it should be said in the interest of full disclosure that there are some who dispute this, including the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Press, Bill Christine, who was at the game and knew the team well. Corroborating evidence has been hard to find but in fairness, neither has any information disproving the story. What is not in dispute is that drug abuse was rampant in the major leagues at the time.
The main offender and Ellis’ usual drug of choice was dexomyl, an amphetamine commonly known as greenies is the locker room. Use of the drug was widespread in Major League Baseball and while the MLB continues to have drug issues (mainly with steroids), recreational drug use is apparently not nearly as common in the majors as it was back then.
Ellis was also known for being a proponent for players’ rights, particularly those of African-American descent. He was in the line-up when the Pirates dressed an entirely non-white team, the first time in Major League Baseball history that had been achieved. He was known to argue with management when he felt he was in the right, sometimes stridently.
However, his drug abuse and sometimes distracting behavior undoubtedly shortened his major league career. He would eventually get straight and after retiring from the game became a counselor to major league players and helped many of them get rehabilitated. When he died in 2008 from complications from liver disease, he was far too young but had left an indelible mark.
The documentary about Ellis is clearly a labor of love. First-time feature filmmaker Radice is based in Austin and has been working on this since reading Ellis’ biography ten years ago. Like many independent documentaries, it has been filmed in bits and pieces as the filmmakers could afford to go out and get interviews in Pittsburgh (where they talked to many of Dock’s old teammates) and Los Angeles (where Ellis grew up and where many of his family and friends still reside).
Like many independent documentaries, there is also a tendency towards talking heads. The filmmakers interviewed more than 50 people for the film and while that adds a lot to the mix, it’s just too many. Still, I can understand Radice’s dilemma; all of the interviews are pretty interesting and give a good deal of insight into Ellis.
The drug use is certainly a big part of Ellis’ life but that’s not all he was and the movie does a good job of portraying who he is as a person beyond the more sensational stuff. Sometimes the portrait is humorous, sometimes frightening (one of Ellis’ four wives did leave because Ellis, no longer himself, was menacing her physically) and often touching. Baseball wasn’t big enough to contain a larger-than-life person like Ellis by itself. In essence, this is a documentary about a person, not a drug abuse documentary nor a baseball movie although again, both play major parts in who Dock Ellis was.
Unfortunately, Ellis passed away before the filmmakers could interview the man himself but one of the movie’s highlights is an archival interview when Ellis was reading a letter from the great Jackie Robinson commending him on his activism and urging him to continue. The tough pitcher, one of the most competitive in the game and one of the most unique individuals to ever play, breaks down into tears. Dock Ellis got it, and the filmmakers do as well.
REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights. Ellis is an engaging character.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, drug content and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to self-financing his debut effort, Radice employed a volunteer advisory board to help him get through rough patches. The board included former major league pitcher Scipio Spinks, photographer and Ellis family friend Glen E. Friedman, documentary director Keith Maitland and SXSW/Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black. No, not that one; that one is spelled Lewis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Congo
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Edge of Tomorrow