Veteran reporter 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 a proverbial fork and picking up another, Smith said, âWe have a book here! “
Smith interviewed Ellis and his wife Jane in several long question-and-answer sessions, and four years later his book was finished. “Baseball’s Greatest Players: The Story of John Ellis and the Fight Against Cancer” was released this summer and includes the stories of Ellis courting the big boys, becoming a real estate mogul, and ultimately his battle with Lymphoma. Hodgkin.
The latter experience prompted Ellis and his wife to form the Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer to raise funds for research and help families across the state fight the disease. The Foundation’s flagship fundraising event attracted some of baseball’s biggest names, including Whitey Ford, Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle.
âHe has so many baseball stories,â Smith said. âAt the start of the book, I’m talking about John’s first game as a New York Yankee. He hit a ball 457 feet for a home run inside the park. He debuted after a few years in the miners and Ralph Houk named him. He was then traded for Graig Nettles. He played three or four years with the Cleveland Indians before ending the last six years of his career with the Texas Rangers.
That first game in which he hit this homerun inside the park was in 1969. When he was called up to New York, Ellis replaced injured wide receiver Jake Gibbs.
Ellis might have had the chance to replace Gibbs for good had it not been for another Yankees rookie: Thurman Munson. He and Ellis were fellow catchers and friends who arrived at the same time.
In all, Ellis spent 13 years in the majors. But that’s only half the story.
âHe had cancer and his sister, brother and sister-in-law died of cancer and he thinks he’s done,â Smith said. âHe promised God that if he survived, he would help the people. He recovered, and he and Jane created the foundation and each year it helps hundreds of families across 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 to families in states struggling with cancer and struggling financially. It has also generated over $ 2.5 million for cancer research.
The Connecticut Sports Foundation’s first banquet was held at the Groton Motor Inn in 1988 and brought together Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin.
âJohn was worried they might show up, so a board member was sent to New York to pick them up. They found them in a hotel lobby at 8 am drinking Bloody Mary’s, âSmith said. âThey got in the limo and went to dinner. Mantle was a huge success. He can really get a crowd excited.
There were around 300 to 400 people at this inaugural dinner. The event has grown over the years, moved to Mohegan Sun, and is attended by Hall of Fame members and current MLB stars.
âThe Foundation started from nothing,â Smith said. âThe baseball players were what helped build it. Whitey Ford and Don Zimmer were on the board of directors and actively participated. There is such a great camaraderie with these players, and they would come to these dinners and raise thousands of dollars.
Smith has stated that he wants to capture Ellis as a player and contender, and how that culminated in the creation of the Foundation.
âThere are some pretty heartbreaking stories about saving little children and stories about children who couldn’t be saved,â Smith said. âIt’s his biography. His enthusiasm and dedication to the game fascinated me.
Ellis grew up in New London. He signed with the New York Yankees upon leaving New London High School in 1966.
âHe was a bit of a bully in high school,â Smith said. âHe played college baseball for New London and in one game a kid from Norwich slipped into the plate. Ellis tagged him and then punched him.
Smith said Ellis was kicked from the team and then kicked out of school, but continued to play with the American Legion team in town.
âJohn heard there would be scouts at Palmer Field in Middletown to see Bobby Valentine play,â Smith recalls. âJohn had a broken finger, but took off his cast and hit three home runs. Soon after, he signed with the Yankees.
“He said he got a bonus of $ 50,000, but speculation at the time was that he got $ 20,000,” Smith added. “He played a year at Single-A and another season at Triple-A before being called up.”
A rambling player with a definite advantage, Ellis was usually in the midst of bench cleaning brawls.
âAt the bottom of a pile, he had Don Zimmer in a headache,â Smith said. “Eventually, Zimmer became a big supporter of John’s founding.”
Smith said Ellis’ career lasted over the years after playing.
âHe wasn’t a superstar, but he played at the highest level in the country for 13 years,â Smith said. ” It’s a good story. It’s a Connecticut story and I’m really glad I did. It’s great what he has done with the Foundation. He has helped so many families.
âThe Greatest Baseball Players: The Story of John Ellis and the Fight Against Cancerâ is Smith’s sixth book. He was editor-in-chief of several state newspapers, 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.