Obituary: John Ellis (1948-2022)

RIP to John Ellis, a catcher-first baseman in the majors for 13 seasons. He also became the founder of the Connecticut Cancer Foundation, which supports cancer patients and their families financially. He died on April 5 at the age of 73, after a second bout with cancer. Ellis played for the New York Yankees (1969-72), Cleveland Indians (1973-75) and Texas Rangers (1976-81).

Ellis first battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1986, and the disease took the lives of his sister, brother and sister-in-law that same year. After surviving his own battle, Ellis and his wife, Jane, came up with a way of using sports celebrities to raise money to help cancer patients in Connecticut. The fundraising began in 1988, according to the CCF’s website. Sports legends like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mentle, Yogi Berra and Henry Aaron have all contributed to the organization’s efforts, and the CCF has raised almost $7 million to aid more than 8,000 families in the state as they go through their own battles with the disease. Additionally, the CCF has raised more than $2.5 million for cancer research. The Foundation’s 2022 charity dinner and memorabilia auction featured Johnny Bench, Willie Randolph, Chris Chambliss, Bobby Valentine and Graig Nettles.

John Charles Ellis was born in New London, Conn., on August 21, 1948. Always a tough customer, he acknowledged in early interviews that his home away from home during his school years was the Gold Crown Billiard Club. He was a talented but hot-tempered athlete at New London High School and a strong hitter for the Niantic American Legion baseball team. He was kicked off his high school baseball team for fighting, so he went undrafted. Pat Bolduc, a high school sports journalist for the Hartford Courant, took notice of the young athlete and mentioned him to several pro scouts. They admitted that they’d never heard of him. After hitting .465 with 6 homers in his last season of Legion ball, Ellis was signed by New York Yankees scout Harry Hesse in the summer of 1966. Johnny Johnson, Yankees farm director, reportedly called him “one of our most important signings of the season.”

See John Ellis at Baseball Almanac

Ellis made his debut as an 18-year-old in 1967, playing for a couple of low-level minor-league teams in Florida. He advanced quickly, appearing in Triple-A Syracuse in 1968. He was just 20 years old when he made the leap from the Class-A Florida State League to Syracuse, thanks to injuries to Syracuse catchers Lou Howell and Ellie Rodriguez. He celebrated his promotion by catching both ends of an August 28 doubleheader against Toledo, recording 6 hits in 8 at-bats, scoring 4 runs and driving in 2 more. Just a couple of days later, he hit a 2-run homer to lead Syracuse to a 2-0 win over Buffalo. In a 13-game audition with Syracuse, Ellis batted .348.

A similar catcher shortage gave Ellis a chance to join the Yankees in May of 1969. Starter Jake Gibbs had jammed his right index finger, and backup Frank Hernandez was expected to miss a weekend’s worth of games for the Army Reserves. Ellis was called up from the Carolina League to catch a weekend series against the California Angels, and then go back. His first game was May 17, and it was memorable for several reasons. He was hit by a pitch from starter Tom Murphy in his first at-bat, then grounded out and hit a sacrifice fly in his next trips to the plate. In his final at-bat of the night, he crushed a long fly ball that rolled to the left-center field wall and went for an inside-the-park home run. On top of all that, Yankee starter Stan Bahnsen had a perfect game for 6 innings before settling on a 2-hit, 6-0 shutout. Ellis followed that game up by catching both games of a doubleheader the next day, and that weekend with the Yankees turned into about a month-long stay. When the Yankees sent Ellis back to the minors in June, he was batting .300.

Source: Hartford Courant, December 18, 1977.

Ellis made a couple trips back to New York in 1969 and appeared in a total of 22 games, with a .290 batting average. He was well-liked both for his play and for his refreshing frankness — he never tried to gloss over his background. “I’m from the other side of the tracks,” he told reporters when he was brought to the majors. “I got two telegrams when I played yesterday [in his first game] and both were my old friends at the pool hall.”

Ellis stayed on the Yankees big-league roster for the next three seasons. Unfortunately for him, New York had another young catcher named Thurman Munson on the team, so Ellis barely saw any time behind the plate. He was more frequently a backup first baseman, and the Yankees even tried him at third base to pretty terrible results. Ellis was just fine as a first baseman, so he played regularly. He quickly became a popular teammate.

“Mostly it’s his attitude,” coach Dick Howser said of Ellis. “No one who played this game ever had a better attitude. He’s the first one to the park, he talks baseball all the time he’s here, and he’s the last to leave.”

Ellis struggled early in the 1970 season, but he never succumbed to the pressure. He finally had a breakthrough outing on May 24 in a doubleheader against Cleveland. He had five hits in the games, including a solo homer off reliever Fred Lasher that won the first game and a 3-run blast in the nightcap that put the Yankees back in the game after falling behind early. Even though the barrage of hits raised Ellis’ batting average from a lowly .111 to .173, he was the player the other Yankees wanted to talk about afterwards. “Give all the praise to John Ellis,” said Horace Clarke, who won the second game with an eleventh-inning single. “We’re all happy for him. He deserves the credit.”

Ellis raised his batting average to .248 by the end of the ’70 season, and he hit 7 home runs. He saw more action at first base in 1971 but hit .244 with 3 home runs. He struggled against right-handed pitching, and as players came and went on the Yankees roster, Ellis moved back to catcher in 1972 as a backup to Munson. It cut into Ellis’ playing time, as he appeared in only 52 games, but he hit well, with a .294 batting average and a .333 on-base percentage.

That November, the Yankees traded Ellis, shortstop Jerry Kenney and outfielders Charlie Spikes and Rusty Torres to Cleveland for third baseman Graig Nettles and catcher Jerry Moses. Between catcher, first base and the new position of designated hitter, Ellis was given more playing time than he ever had with the Yankees — a trade-off for being traded from a pennant-contender to an also-ran. He slashed .270/.339/.403 in 127 games in 1973, with 12 doubles and 14 home runs. He knocked in 68 runs and scored 59 times, both of which were career highs. He also displayed some of his fighting spirit when he ignited a brawl between Cleveland and Milwaukee on June 24. He tagged out outfielder Bob Coluccio on a play at the plate, and the two started jawing at each other. Don Money of the Brewers got involved, and the benches cleared. Coluccio said that Ellis tagged him hard in the face, which Ellis admitted was true.

“I tag everybody hard. If he can’t take it, I feel sorry for him,” Ellis told reporters. “Then he told me my wife is ugly. Well, he didn’t really tell me that, but what he did you couldn’t print.” Ellis also accused Milwaukee manager Del Crandall of running up the score but said he hit at least a few Brewers in the fracas. “Six of them had me. I didn’t get hit, but I got kicked a couple of times,” he said.

Ellis had an even better season in 1974, with a slash line of .285/.330/.421. He homered 10 times and added 23 doubles and 64 RBIs. His excellent season was interrupted by a fractured foot, sustained in a collision with Kansas City’s Hal McRae. Cleveland was wrecked by injuries, with Buddy Bell, Ellis, Remy Hermoso, George Hendrick, Dave Duncan, John Lowenstein and Jack Brohamer all missing time or slowed due to injury. “Ellis comes as close to anyone as being the team’s on-field leader — the tough-guy enforcer every team needs to keep it humping,” wrote Jack Patterson of The Akron Beacon Journal. “He’s the kinda guy that’s never supposed to get hurt. Now he is, and his loss haunts his teammates.” Cleveland finished in fourth place, 8 games under .500.

One of the young players that got their chance in the majors amidst all the injuries was Alan Ashby, who took the reins as the starting catcher for most of 1975. With veteran Boog Powell ensconced at first base, Ellis was left in a platoon at catcher. After a run-in with player-manager Frank Robinson, he wasn’t even that. He benched Ellis on July 20 after a series of run-ins between the two. Robinson called the catcher “selfish” and said that he wouldn’t play on the team anymore. “Alan Ashby and Bill Sudakis will do our catching. I’ve also told [GM] Phil [Seghi] I don’t want Ellis catching for me anymore,” Robinson said. “The only way I’ll ever use Ellis again is if he comes to me and says he’ll do anything that’s necessary to help the club.”

It’s not clear if there was any specific thing that Ellis, long praised as a team player, did to get into Robinson’s doghouse or what he did to get out of it, but by the end of July, he was back to starting and homered off Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar to give Cleveland and rookie starter Dennis Eckersley a 3-1 win. He finished the season with a .230 batting average in 92 games. Unsurprisingly, he was traded in the offseason. The Indians shipped him to the Texas Rangers for catcher Ron Pruitt and pitcher Stan Thomas.

John Ellis is carried off the field on a stretcher after a horrific leg injury in 1976. Source: Fort Worth Star Telegraph, August 3, 1980.

Ellis got off to a quick start with his new team in 1976. He hit .419 in his first 11 games and hit his first home run of the season on May 9 against Boston’s Bill Lee. Later in that same game, he slid awkwardly into second base and suffered a dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia — a remarkably similar injury to the one that affected the late Tommy Davis‘ career. It may have been even worse, in fact. Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice wretched at the sight of Ellis’ foot at an unnatural angle. Rangers trainer Bill Zeigler called it the worst injury he’d ever seen on the field. Ellis later said that he was cracking jokes in spite of the pain and asking for cocktails to ease everybody else who had gathered around him. He was carted off on a stretcher and, naturally, missed the rest of the year.

“He’ll be hard to replace,” said Texas manager Frank Lucchesi, who said he had to turn away when the injury happened. “He was swinging a hot bat for us. I just feel terrible about this happening.”

Though the injury was thought to be career-threatening, Ellis returned in 1977, acting as a pinch-hitter and a backup to Jim Sundberg at catcher and Mike Hargrove at first base. He batted .235 in 49 games in ’77 and .245 in 34 games in 1978. He had a fan in Lucchesi, but when the manager was eventually replaced by Billy Hunter midway through the 1978 season, Ellis saw his playing time reduced. Furthermore, the horrific injury that Ellis suffered took longer than a year to heal and affected all aspects of his game, from batting to catching. And that was just the physical aspect of the injury.

“It wasn’t just what the injury did to me physically, but what it did to me emotionally,” he said in a 1978 interview. “It took me a long, long time to get over that part of it.”

Ellis, like Davis before him, found a second chance as a designated hitter. He also thrived under the management of Pat Corrales, who replaced Hunter at the helm of the Rangers. Ellis caught all of 28 innings in 1979 and started 28 games at first base, but he became the Rangers’ regular DH. He appeared in 111 games — his highest total with Texas — and slashed .285/.318/.437. He homered and doubled 12 times each. Corrales said that one of his first decisions as manager was to name Ellis a player-coach in order to keep him around and give him a chance to contribute regularly.

Source: Hartford Courant, January 9, 1988.

“Pat is the one who gave me a chance to play,” said Ellis, after homering twice against Kansas City on July 12 to lead Texas to a 6-2 win. “I was very close to not playing for Texas. But Pat believed in me.”

Ellis had planned to retire after the 1979 season. Not only was he in constant pain from his leg, but he had a multi-million dollar real-estate business in Connecticut among his personal ventures, so he didn’t really need the game. But he played so well in ’79 that Rangers general manager Eddie Robinson asked him to come back. Ellis spent two more years with Texas, but he was no longer as effective as he had been. He hit .236 in 1980 and just .138 in 23 games in 1981. A thumb injury sapped his power, and he hit just 2 home runs over the final 2 seasons of his career. He was released at the end of spring training in 1982.

In 13 seasons in the majors, Ellis had a slash line of .262/.312/.392. He had 699 career hits, including 116 doubles, 13 triples and 69 home runs. He drove in 391 runs, scored 259 times and had a career OPS+ of 99.

Ellis’ recovery from his shattered ankle taught him one vital lesson about the fragility of it all. “The whole thing may have even helped me. I wouldn’t say it helped my career, but it helped my life,” he said in a 1979 interview. “I knew then, at that point, that nothing, nobody or anything is invincible.

“I tried to hurt people then,” Ellis said of his early career with the Yankees. “I tried to run them down, break up the double play. I thought that was what it was all about. But I’ve learned we’re in this thing trying to make a living together.”

Ellis operated multiple successful businesses in Connecticut, and he joked that his teammates who were used to seeing him in the middle of a brawl wouldn’t expect to see him dressed in a suit and tie. After lymphoma devastated his family and nearly took his life, John and Jane Ellis started the Connecticut Sports Foundation, later renamed the Connecticut Cancer Foundation. The organization raised $100,000 in its first fund-raising dinner and kept growing. It attracted current and retired major-leaguers, including some of the game’s greats.

“I made up my mind that I was going to join the war against cancer,” he told the Hartford Courant in 1988. “Not sit by and do nothing.”

In his spare time, Ellis was an avid outdoorsman and frequently brought ex-teammates on fishing trips. “Life has been very good to John Ellis,” he said in 1988. “Not bad for a dumb ex-brawler, eh?”

He is survived by his wife and two children, Erika and John, and a large extended family.

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