Veteran journalist Jim Smith has known former Major League Baseball veteran John Ellis for more than three decades.
One day the two were sharing a meal and Smith was digesting all of Ellis’ stories.
Putting down one proverbial fork and picking up another, Smith said, “We’ve got a book here!”
Smith interviewed Ellis and his wife Jane in several lengthy Q&A sessions and, four years later, his book was complete. “Baseball’s Greatest Players: The Story of John Ellis and the Fight Against Cancer” was released this summer and includes the stories of Ellis making the big leagues, becoming a real estate mogul and, eventually, his fight with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The latter experience prompted Ellis and his wife to establish the Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer to raise money for research and help state families battling the disease. The Foundation’s flagship fundraising event has brought in some of the biggest names from baseball, including Whitey Ford, Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle.
“He has so many baseball stories,” Smith said. “Early in the book, I talk about John’s first game as a New York Yankee. He hit a ball 457 feet for an inside-the-park home run. He made his debut after a couple of years in the minors and Ralph Houk called him up. He was later traded for Graig Nettles. He played three or four years with the Cleveland Indians before finishing the last six years of his career with the Texas Rangers.”
That first game in which he hit that inside-the-park homer was in 1969. When he was summoned to New York, Ellis replaced injured catcher Jake Gibbs.
Ellis may have gotten a shot of permanently replacing Gibbs if it wasn't for another Yankees rookie: Thurman Munson. He and Ellis were friends and fellow catchers who came up at the same time.
In all, Ellis spent 13 years in the majors. But that’s just half of the story.
“He had cancer and his sister, brother and sister-in-law died of cancer and he’s figuring he was done,” Smith said. “He made a promise to God that if he survived, he was going to help people. He recovered, and he and Jane set up the foundation and every year it helps hundreds of families in the state affected by the disease.”
Based in Old Saybrook, the Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer was founded in 1987 by John and Jane. The Foundation has donated more than $6.9 million dollars to state families dealing with cancer and facing financial hardship. It has also generated more than $2.5 million to cancer research.
The first Connecticut Sports Foundation banquet was held at the Groton Motor Inn in 1988 and featured Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin.
“John was worried about them showing up, so a board member was sent to New York to pick them up. They found them in a hotel lobby at 8 a.m. drinking Bloody Mary’s,” Smith recounted. “They got in the limo and made it to dinner. Mantle was a huge hit. He can really turn on a crowd.”
There were an estimated 300-400 people at that inaugural dinner. The event has grown in years, moved to Mohegan Sun and is attended by Hall of Famers and current MLB stars.
“The Foundation started from nothing,” Smith said. “Baseball players were what helped build it up. Whitey Ford and Don Zimmer were on the board and were actively involved in it. There’s such a great camaraderie with these players, and they would come to these dinners and raise thousands of dollars.”
Smith said he wanted to capture Ellis as a player and a competitor, and how that segued into the creation of the Foundation.
“There’s some pretty tear-jerking stories about saving little kids and some stories about the kids that couldn’t be saved,” Smith said. “This is his biography. His enthusiasm and dedication to the game fascinated me.”
Ellis grew up in New London. He signed with the New York Yankees out of New London High School in 1966.
“He was a bit of a bully in high school,” Smith said. “He played varsity baseball for New London and during a game a kid from Norwich slid into home plate. Ellis tagged him and then punched him.”
Smith said Ellis was kicked off the team and then kicked out of school, but continued playing with the town’s American Legion team.
“John heard there were going to be scouts at Palmer Field in Middletown to see Bobby Valentine play," Smith recalled. “John had a broken finger, but he took his cast off and hit three home runs. Shortly after, he signed with the Yankees.
“He said he got a $50,000 bonus, but the speculation at the time was he got $20,000," Smith added. “He played one year at Single-A and another season at Triple-A before he was called up.”
A scrappy player with a definite edge, Ellis was typically in the middle of bench-clearing brawls.
“On the bottom of one pile he had Don Zimmer in a headlock,” Smith recounted. “Eventually, Zimmer became a big supporter of John’s foundation.”
Smith said that Ellis’ career has endured through the years in his post-playing days.
“He wasn’t a superstar, but he played on the highest level in the land for 13 years,” Smith said. “It’s a good story. It’s a Connecticut story and I'm really glad I did it. It’s great what he has done with the Foundation. He's helped so many families.”
“Baseball’s Greatest Players: The Story of John Ellis and the Fight Against Cancer” is Smith’s sixth book. He served as a chief editor as several newspapers in the state, including the Record-Journal, The Hartford Courant, The Connecticut Post, The Day of New London and others.
The 158-page book was published by Elm Grove Press in Old Mystic and can be purchased at elmgrovepress.org/bookstore.