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From Getting High to High Art: The Strange Journey of Dock Ellis

From Getting High to High Art: The Strange Journey of Dock Ellis (photo)

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The mythical story of Dock Ellis and the no-hitter he pitched in 1970 while on LSD is one giant matryoshka doll. There’s layer upon exquisite layer to be uncovered: The black power movement, the war on drugs, Major League Baseball’s free-agency era. And that’s just the first couple of layers.

In the last year, the story of Ellis, who died in 2008, has been resurrected in song — it’s the sixth time — with folkie Todd Snider’s “America’s Favorite Pastime.” That was followed by artist James Blagden’s psychedelic animated short, “Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No.” Now there’s a movie, “No No: A Dockumentary,” in production.

Austin filmmakers Jeffrey Radice and Mike Blizzard, “No No”‘s writer/director and producer, respectively, took the occasion of June 12th, the 40th anniversary of Ellis’ no-hitter with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to debut a seven-minute trailer of their forthcoming documentary. The location was The Highball, the new lounge/bowling alley operated by Austin’s homegrown movie theater chain, Alamo Drafthouse.

06212010_DockEllisandtheLSDNoNo.jpgThe trailer opens with a frame of text: “I pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs.” Whether or not Ellis pitched his no-hitter on LSD, four years after the drug became illegal, is beside the point (Ellis was equally infamous for beaning hitters). LSD was just a metaphor for doing things your own way, being your own man.

“You draw people in with the LSD,” Radice says, “so you can start to address much bigger issues. What is it to be a role model as an athlete? What is heroic behavior? I mean, Dock was certainly flawed, but he was human and he was honest about his flaws. And that’s the story to me: how his honesty about himself and his own flaws become as much a part of the story as the drugs he was taking.”

Through archival footage and interviews, we meet a man in Ellis who is funny and charismatic, and who likes to tell it like it is — part Richard Pryor, part Eldridge Cleaver. “I would try to out-milligram any opponent,” Ellis said in the trailer. This played well with the radical times, but it really ticked off Major League Baseball, who didn’t appreciate Ellis being so vocal about rampant amphetamine use among its players.

We also begin to see a glimpse of the man behind the legend — a Zelig whose influence ranged from the at-risk males he counseled about drugs for roughly a quarter century after baseball, to Glen E. Friedman, the acclaimed photographer of the ’80s punk rock and skate counterculture, who as a boy got a signed baseball from Ellis that read, “You can do anything you want,” to the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, whom it’s said Ellis got high with before bunkering down with them in the trenches while on a USO tour.

06212010_DockEllisBooks.jpg“There’s this story about Jackie Robinson writing Dock this letter,” Blizzard says, upon qualifying Ellis’ place in baseball’s first all-non-Caucasian lineup, with the ’71 Pirates, “basically saying, what you’re doing is good. Keep doing it. But it’s gonna be a hard road to tell the truth.”

Radice adds, “The two times I’ve heard him recite that letter he’s broke down crying.”

Radice already has two Sundance-selected short documentaries to his credit, as producer. The most recent, “LSD A Go Go,” about MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s mid-century experiment with LSD as mind control, sparked a lot of hallucinatory tales.

“People love to share their own personal LSD stories,” Radice says. “It kicked something loose in my brain about this piece of folklore that I had heard about Dock Ellis.”

That led Radice to “Dock Ellis: In the Country of Baseball,” a biography written by Donald Hall that was published in 1976. Hall, who would become U.S. poet laureate in 2006, had a long history with America’s game, having played softball with Robert Frost in his youth.

“Here’s this academic poet, kind of hippie-looking white guy, long hair, but he and Dock Ellis kind of became friends over a couple of spring trainings,” Radice says. “So there’s this connection through this school of very traditionalist American poetry that ends up at Dock Ellis, and that gave me something really to think about.”

06212010_DockEllisGungHo.jpgRadice and Blizzard plan to shop “No No: A Dockumentary” around to festivals next year. In the mean time, they’re working to score interviews with, among others, David Lander, better known as Squiggy from “Laverne & Shirley,” who was at Ellis’ LSD no-hitter; Ron Howard, who directed Ellis in the movie “Gung Ho,” and whose “Happy Days” character Richie Cunningham often ran into Laverne and Shirley; and Michael Keaton, who starred in “Gung Ho,” and who is a huge Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

“We’re not just sitting around on the couch smoking a joint and talking about this anymore,” Radice says.

[Photos: “Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No,” No Mas, 2010; “Gung Ho,” Paramount Pictures, 1986]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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