Friday, April 1, 2011

#128 - John Ellis

Another Cleveland Indian who used to be a Yankee gets to pose at Yankee Stadium. John Ellis came to Cleveland in the same trade as Charlie Spikes who had an earlier post. John was a big boy and although he strikes a mellow pose he looks like he could do some major damage with that bat. Also his '73 card is great: even though he is airbrushed into a logo-less uniform he is chewing out an ump. Loudly. The trade for John worked pretty well, playing time-wise, as he got by far his most work and responded well offensively in a year that had him split time between catching and DH'ing. He did have a bit of a tough time defensively, giving up 43 passed balls, though a large part of that stat can be explained with two words: Gaylord Perry. More of John's special relationship with that pitcher is discussed below.

John Ellis was a local CT kid who got signed by the Yankees out of high school in '66. But John began putting in his military time right away which meant a delay in pro ball until midway through the '67 season and not too many at bats in A ball. But in late '68 he had a nice short run in Triple A and then the next year hit well over .300 at both Single and Triple A levels, earning him a late summer call-up to NY. For all his time in the minors he was a catcher. Up top he hit .290 in 15 games. In 1970 John wowed everyone in spring training but his timing was pretty terrible as the other hot rookie in camp was another catcher by the name of Thurman Munson. So John caught a spot on the roster, but with Thurm grabbing the catching slot John would spend most of his time the next two years spelling Danny Cater at first base. In '70 he was named first baseman on the Topps Rookie team. While the Stadium dimensions worked real well for some guys, they were tough for a righty pull hitter and John had a difficult time replicating his lower level success in his minimal at bats. Before the '72 season Jake Gibbs split allowing John to become the number two catcher behind Thurm. But Munson rarely sat and though John put up some good numbers in his plate time, the following winter he went to Cleveland in the trade that brought Graig Nettles to NY.

For the Tribe Ellis would split time catching with Dave Duncan the next couple years, played some first base - more in '74 - and did a bunch of DH'ing. He was Cleveland's first DH in '73. In '74 he turned in a line of .285/10/64 in a few more at bats. Off the field, according to "The Curse of Rocky Colavito," John's ability to be a hard ass to his teammates and others was exceeded only by that of his spitballing battery-mate Gaylord Perry. Before Duane Kuiper's first start for Cleveland Ellis told him that he was stealing his friend, Jack Brohamer's, spot and that he'd never talk to him again. In a game against Texas, Lenny Randle ran into pitcher Milt Wilcox hard when the latter was covering first base. Ellis went over and popped Randle three times in the face.

In 1975 Frank Robinson was named Cleveland manager and, like his buddy Gaylord Perry, Ellis didn't hit it off with his new manager, viewing Robinson as too judgmental on his pitch calls. That year Alan Ashby came up, Boog Powell came over from Baltimore, and Rico Carty DH'd a bunch more, all constricting John's playing time. His average fell to .230, his power halved on less than 300 at bats, and that winter he was sent to Texas for Ron Pruitt and Stan Thomas. In '76 he started with a bang for the Rangers, hitting .419 in his first 11 games. But in game 12 he broke his leg and that was it for the season. That leg injury compromised his hitting for a while but he returned in '77 and '78 to back up Jim Sundberg and play some first base and DH. In '79 he was the Rangers' primary DH and he put up nice numbers: a .285 average, 12 homers, and 61 RBIs in about a half season. The next two years Richie Zisk and then Al Oliver took over the DH spot and John did mostly backup work at first base. After a .138 average in '81 he was released. Lifetime he was a .262 hitter with 69 homers and 391 RBIs.

There are the spring training numbers that kept him in NY. One of his other off-season jobs was as a bail bondsman which I have read he continued to do after he finished playing. He also began a relationship with Spaulding in the mid-Seventies as a sales rep and even had his own mitt model.

There is a pretty funny story about Ellis that involved his Yankee and Ranger teammate George "Doc" Medich. Medich, who'll be up later, saved a fan's life by resuscitating him in the stands at a game. It was decided that it might be wise for all the Ranger players to take a CPR class after that incident. When the Rangers were then on a commercial flight later in the season they hit some turbulence and many passengers were worried. Apparently Ellis stood up and announced: "There's no reason to worry, everybody. We all know CPR and if anyone needs help we can pound on your lips and blow on your chest." That reassured nobody and Medich, who ran the CPR class, then failed Ellis.

Continuing the medical theme, it is hard to get a handle on what Ellis has done professionally since leaving baseball. There is the bail bond business and the Spaulding affiliation mentioned above. I have also read that he became a big deal in real estate, although I think that source may be confusing this guy with the John Ellis who was later the managing partner and CEO of the Mariners. One thing this John Ellis has done is to found a cancer support organization in the late '80s that provides assistance to people and their families dealing with the disease in CT. John lost two siblings and an in-law to cancer before each was 40. He also beat the disease himself. The name of the organization is Connecticut Sports Foundation and it has been very successful in raising money to help treat patients. It is linked to here.

Surprisingly, we connect these guys through the NL:

1. Ellis and Dave May - or Ken Henderson - '77 Rangers;
2. May or Henderson and Tom Paciorek '76 Braves.

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