Obituary: Dick Ellsworth (1940-2022)

RIP to Dick Ellsworth, who was an All-Star with the Cubs as part of a 13-year pitching career in the major leagues. He died on October 10 at the age of 82 from cancer. Ellsworth played for the Chicago Cubs (1958, 1960-66), Philadelphia Phillies (1967), Boston Red Sox (1968-69), Cleveland Indians (1969-70) and Milwaukee Brewers (1970-71). The long-time Fresno resident was also a partial owner of the minor-league Fresno Grizzlies for several years.

Richard Clark Ellsworth was born in Lusk, Wyoming, on March 22, 1940, but he spent most of his life as a resident of Fresno. He was named to Fresno’s Babe Ruth League All-Star Team in 1955. He was also a part of one of the best high school teams in California history, as a southpaw pitcher for the 1958 Fresno High School team. The Warriors were 25-1, and that one loss was to a Fresno State University freshman team. The two best pitchers on the team were Ellsworth and Jim Maloney, a future All-Star with Cincinnati, and the catcher was Pat Corrales, who spent nearly 20 years in the majors as a player and manager.

Dick Ellsworth at his Cubs debut against the White Sox. Source: The Charlotte Observer, June 18, 1958.

Ellsworth graduated from high school with a 105-5 record between high school and American Legion Ball. Five days after graduating Fresno High, Ellsworth found himself pitching in Comiskey Park for an exhibition game between the Chicago White Sox and his new team, the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs had signed him for a reported $70,000 bonus and rushed him into a uniform almost before the ink dried on the contract. The first pitch Ellsworth threw in the exhibition game sailed over the head of leadoff hitter Billy Goodman and went to the backstop. Whether or not he rattled the Sox hitters is hard to say, but the South Siders managed just 4 hits in a 1-0 shutout.

Soon after that game, Ellsworth made his official major-league debut on June 22 against the Cincinnati Reds. He was 18 years and 3 months old, and his mound opponent that day was Joe Nuxhall, who made his own celebrated debut as a teenager in 1944. Ellsworth made it through a scoreless first inning after hitting Frank Robinson and walking George Crowe. Johnny Temple singled in a run in the second, and Ellsworth walked the bases loaded in the third inning before he was replaced by Glen Hobbie — who immediately gave up a grand slam to Gus Bell. Ellsworth took the loss after being charged with 4 runs on 4 hits, 3 walks, a hit batter and 2 wild pitches.

The Cubs let Ellsworth develop a little before bringing him back to the majors. He spent the rest of 1958 pitching for Fort Worth of the Texas League. “The difference I found in the major leagues and the Texas League is that you can fool a batter more easily in the Texas League than in the majors. The major league hitters also hit the pitches more often and harder,” Ellsworth said of his first season. He returned to Fort Worth for 1959 and won 10 games while losing 14. His ERA was 2.60, and he noticeably improved his fastball and curveball. He made 3 starts with the Houston Buffs of the American Association at the start of 1960, winning 2 and allowing 2 earned runs in 21 innings. The Cubs brought him back to the majors for good in May 1960

Ellsworth’s start on May 4 against Pittsburgh resulted in his first career win. It was a complete game, 5-1 victory. Ellsworth allowed 5 hits and struck out 4. The game also happened to be the final game ever managed by Charlie Grimm. It was announced after the game that he had swapped roles with Cubs broadcaster Lou Boudreau. Regardless of the manager, Ellsworth had a solid rookie campaign on a team that lost 94 games. His 3.72 ERA was tops among the four Cubs starters, even if he had the worst winning percentage with a 7-13 record. Along with 94 strikeouts, Ellsworth walked 72 batters in 176-12/3 innings. He vowed to work on his control over the offseason, and his 3.7 walks per 9 innings in 1960 would be the highest rate of his career until his final season.

Being a Cubs pitcher in the early 1960s rarely resulted in a .500+ win-loss record for starting pitchers. The College of Coaches fiasco started in the 1961 season, and the four managers used that season resulted in 90 losses. Ellsworth had a 10-11 record and 3.86 ERA, but he slipped to 9-20 in 1962, with a 5.09 ERA. That was the Cubs team that broke the 100-loss mark for the first time in franchise history. Ellsworth won his first two starts of the season but had a series of poor starts and occasional relief appearances that left his ERA in the 5s and 6s for most of the season. He topped the 200-innings mark for the first of five straight seasons, but he also surrendered 241 hits. Ellsworth did make the All-Star Team, at least — as a batting practice pitcher.

Ellsworth was just 22 years old when he went through his 20-loss season, which could have weighed on a young pitcher’s psyche. However, Ellsworth responded to the challenges by having the best season of his career in 1963. He won 22 games for a Cubs team that finished 82-80. In 37 starts, Ellsworth threw 19 complete games and 4 shutouts. His 2.11 ERA was second in the NL behind Sandy Koufax’s 1.88, and he led all of baseball with a 167 ERA+. Furthermore, he was second (behind Koufax) with a 10.2 WAR for pitchers and second (behind Willie Mays) and tied with Koufax for overall WAR with 9.9 Wins Above Replacement. He also threw 290-2/3 innings and struck out 185 batters, which were both career highs. In an odd baseball occurrence, Ellsworth won his 20th game of the season on September 2 in San Francisco. On the same day, on the other side of the country, his former high school teammate Jim Maloney won his 20th game against the Mets.

High School teammates Jim Maloney and Dick Ellsworth celebrate their 29 combined wins, as of late July 1963. Each would win 20+ games that year. Source: Fort Worth Star Telegram, July 27, 1963.

Ellsworth didn’t have a secret for his breakthrough season. “Everything just came together at the same time. My control was good and I came up with a pretty good slider,” he said in the offseason. “This gave the hitters something else to look for. I also was able to move the ball around and could hit a spot when I had to.”

Ellsworth was the only starting pitcher on the Cubs with a record above .500, and he was used often. He had to exit a start on May 1 against St. Louis after an inning with a sore arm. While there was a fear that he might have to miss a couple of starts, he warmed up on May 9 and pronounced himself fit to play. Ellsworth threw a 2-1 2-hitter against Pittsburgh, with the Pirates hitting so many ground balls in the game that Cubs first baseman Ernie Banks set a major-league record with 22 putouts and 23 chances. “I think I’ll be able to make my next start,” Ellsworth said after the game. “The arm feels good. This club is going places, and I want to do my part.”

“I had Glen Hobbie ready to go if Dick failed to show anything. But when he threw hard and it had no effect on his arm, I decided we had to go with him. Now I’m very happy we did,” said Cubs head coach Bob Kennedy.

Ellsworth didn’t pick up a single Cy Young vote in 1963, as Koufax (25-5 record, 1.88 ERA, 11 shutouts, 1 no-hitter) was a unanimous choice. However, he was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year. He was left off the 1963 All-Star roster but was named to the All-Star Team in 1964, as something of a make-good. He didn’t appear in the game, and his struggles with the Cubs started soon after.

Ellsworth won 10 games in the first half of the 1964 season, with a 3.05 ERA. He then lost 10 games in the second half to finish the year with a 14-18 record and 3.75 ERA. He again threw plenty of innings — 256-2/3 in total — but he led the league in hits allowed (267), earned runs allowed (107) and home runs allowed (34). Hitters continued to connect in 1966, when he led the NL in two more dubious categories — 22 losses and 321 hits allowed. His ERA was 3.98, and he gave up 28 home runs, including Willie Mays 521st, tying him with Ted Williams for third on the all-time list. The 26-year-old Ellsworth was the only proven veteran on the pitching staff after Ernie Broglio failed to recover from his arm woes, leaving new Cubs manager Leo Durocher with unproven starters like Ken Holtzman, Bill Hands and new Cub Fergie Jenkins. As a consequence, Ellsworth pitched 269-1/3 innings, or almost 50 innings more than any other Cubs pitcher.

The Cubs parted ways with Ellsworth on December 7, 1966, sending him to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Ray Culp and cash. The timing was bad for Ellsworth. With some terrible Cubs teams, he had a 84-110 record. Then the year after he was traded, the Cubs began a brief run of pennant-contending teams, culminating with the 1969 heartbreak season. Even though Ellsworth had six losing years in his seven full seasons, he had plenty of defenders. Richie Ashburn, former Phillies great turned broadcaster, was one of them. “Listen, I played for the Cubs for two years, and Walter Johnson couldn’t win with them,” he said after the trade. “Dick Ellsworth can pitch, and I predict he’ll be a big winner for the Phils. I am his No. 1 fan.”

Ellsworth threw a complete game win over the Mets in his first Phillies start, fanning 6 batters. After that gem, though, he was very uneven and found himself exiled to the bullpen by manager Gene Mauch. Ellsworth was given a second chance in late July when the Phillies lost Rick Wise (Army deployment) and Chris Short (sore back) in short order and pitched very well, including a shutout of the Cubs on August 12. He and pitching coach Larry Shepard reviewed film from his days with the Cubs, and Ellsworth corrected some flaws in his delivery. Though he improved, he never fully regained his starting role and ended the season with a 6-7 record and 4.38 ERA, in 21 starts and 11 relief appearances. On December 15, 1967, Philadelphia traded Ellsworth and catcher Gene Oliver to the Boston Red Sox for catcher Mike Ryan.

The 1967 Red Sox won the AL pennant but lost to the Cardinals in the World Series. Their ace pitcher, Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg, started the ’68 season injured after a skiing accident, so the team hoped that the additions of Ellsworth from Philadelphia and Ray Culp from the Cubs could make up for Lonborg’s absence. The 1968 Red Sox fell to fourth place, but it wasn’t the fault of the new pitchers. Both Culp and Ellsworth won 16 games; Ellsworth completed 10 of his starts, threw 196 innings and fanned 106 batters. His return to form earned him the William Wrigley Jr. Comeback Player of the Year Award by the Chicago Baseball Writers Chapter.

Source: The Fresno Bee, February 16, 1964

Ellsworth made two starts for the Red Sox in 1969, both of which resulted in no-decisions. He allowed 1 run in an 8-inning outing against Cleveland on April 11 and then gave up 4 runs in 4 innings against Baltimore on the 15th. On April 19, Boston traded Ellsworth, pitcher Juan Pizarro and outfielder Ken Harrelson to Cleveland for pitchers Vicente Romo and Sonny Siebert and catcher Joe Azcue. Ellsworth slid into the starter’s spot that had been occupied by Siebert, and he ended up with 22 starts and 12 relief appearances with the Indians in ’69. He won 6 games and lost 9 with a 4.10 ERA. The Indians couldn’t find room for Ellsworth in their 1970 starting rotation, and he was moved into the bullpen for the first time in his career. He made 29 appearances, 28 of which came out of the bullpen. He was 3-3 and picked up a couple of saves, and his ERA was 4.53. He was acquired by the Milwaukee Brewers on August 7 and was pretty brilliant as a reliever. He pitched in 14 games and had a 1.72 ERA in 15-2/3 innings. He appeared in both games of a doubleheader against the White Sox on September 25 and threw a total of 5-1/3 no-hit innings. He retired the final 10 batters of the nightcap to earn his only Brewers save.

In the spring of 1971, Ellsworth pitched the Brewers to an exhibition game win over the Tokyo Lotte Orions, working 6 innings in the 7-2 victory. However, he never got the chance to start with the Brewers, who penciled him in as a reliever. Ellsworth didn’t pitch regularly, and he was often ineffective when he did play. In his final appearance on June 23 against the California Angels, he retired one batter and gave up 2 runs on 3 hits and a hit batter. He was placed on waivers and released days later, with an 0-1 record and 4.91 ERA. He did not pitch professionally again. Though he’d been a part of 13 major-league seasons, Ellsworth was only 31 years old when he retired.

Source: Smithsonian Institution

In those 13 seasons, Ellsworth appeared in 407 games, including 310 starts. He had a 115-137 record with 3.72 ERA. He struck out 1,140 batters and walked 595. Batters hit .272 against him, and he had an ERA+ of 100 and a WHIP of 1.331. According to Baseball Reference, he had 20.1 Wins Above Replacement — a 23.3 WAR if you just look at his pitching totals and ignore his .088 career batting average.

In 1974, the Society for American Baseball Research declared Ellsworth the best ballplayer to ever come from the state of Wyoming. Considering how few ballplayers had been born there, it was declared a no-contest decision. His closest competition was Bob Harris of Gillette, who won 30 games in five seasons in the 1930s and ’40s. You could make the argument that Ellsworth is still the best native Wyoming ballplayer, though Tom Browning (Casper) came close, and Brandon Nimmo (Cheyenne) is just 29 years old and still productive. Ellsworth is also a two-time inductee into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, once as an individual and once as a part of the 1958 Fresno High School Warriors.

Ellsworth returned to Fresno after his retirement as a ballplayer and got involved with commercial real estate. He worked for Pearson Reality, and, according to the Fresno Bee, eventually worked his way up to a partner in the firm. He initially shunned baseball, but he softened after a few years away from it. “You know, when I turned up ineffective as a pitcher for the Brewers in 1971, I suffered inwardly for several years,” he told the Bee in 1979. “I think I tried to project the attitude that I’d washed my hands of the game. But baseball was good to me, I realize now. It taught me competition, dedication the team concept which is part of [Pearson Reality’s] philosophy.”

As successful as he became in the real estate market, he could never divorce himself from baseball entirely. His son Steve Ellsworth had an 8-year professional career and reached the majors in 1988 with the Boston Red Sox. The elder Ellsworth kept a low profile while his son was playing. “My wife and I have always felt it was important for him to form his own identity and not have people constantly saying, ‘Hey, there’s Dick Ellsworth’s kid.’ We thought that would take the pressure off and allow him to be his own person at the same time,” he said.

Dick and Steve Ellsworth in a 1963 photo. Both would go on to play for the Boston Red Sox. Source: The Boston Globe, March 25, 1988.

In 2004, Ellsworth became part of a group that purchased the Fresno Grizzlies minor-league ballclub from the Diamond Group, once headed by long-time minor-league executive John Carbray. Ellsworth had long been a champion of bringing a minor-league team to Fresno and helped managing partner Chris Cummings of the new ownership group as the team worked to overcome some financial hurdles that had long plagued the Grizzlies.

“Dick was a phenomenal partner and a great human being,” Cummings told the Bee. “He was always available to me and stood by me even when things weren’t perfect. As you know, there were more than a couple of times when things weren’t perfect.”

Dick and Jean Ellsworth were married for 61 years before her death in 2021. He is survived by son Steve, daughter Kim and their families.

For more information: Fresno Bee

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