John Ellis, New London native and former major league baseball player, dies of cancer
Old Saybrook — John Ellis, a rugged New London native who played 13 seasons of major league baseball, the first four with the New York Yankees, before pursuing successful careers in real estate and philanthropy, died Tuesday night at Yale New Haven Health’s Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven, according to his wife, Jane. He was 73.
Ellis had been fighting a recurrence of cancer, a disease he was first diagnosed with in 1986, after which he and his wife founded the Connecticut Sports Foundation, later renamed the Connecticut Cancer Foundation.
Ellis’ recent bout of cancer had been diagnosed as acute myeloid leukemia, or ALM, Jane Ellis said Thursday.
“It’s very shocking,” she said. “It happened in about two weeks’ time. It’s a monumental loss for me. We were partners in every sense of the word, partners in business and of course partners in the foundation, which we founded together and which we've been extremely privileged to be involved in.”
She said when her husband was first diagnosed with cancer, “He promised that if he lived, he would spend the rest of his life helping others with the disease — and he did.”
Ellis was unable to attend the foundation’s 34th Annual Celebrity Dinner and Memorabilia Auction, which took place Feb. 25 at Mohegan Sun and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over the years, the foundation has given more than $7 million to Connecticut families dealing with the financial hardships that often follow a cancer diagnosis, and donated more than $2.5 million to support cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, N.Y., where Ellis had been treated.
Reid MacCluggage, former editor and publisher of The Day, recalled meeting Ellis at the New London YMCA in the mid-1980s, not long after Ellis’ baseball career had ended. They became lunch-hour “running buddies,” MacCluggage said Thursday from Sarasota, Fla.
“He had been undergoing some very aggressive chemotherapy,” MacCluggage said of Ellis. “I last spoke to him about a week before his death. I was very surprised. He said it was getting pretty rough, but you know John was a very tough guy. I truly expected to see him in May back in Old Saybrook.”
Ellis, who lived in East Lyme for years before moving to Old Saybrook, founded John Ellis & Associates, a New London-based real estate investment firm that invested heavily in Florida and the Northeast.
“I remember him telling me that with his signing bonus from the Yankees, he bought a couple of buildings in New London, and that’s how he got started in the real estate business,” MacCluggage said. “He told me later in his career, when he was a bullpen catcher, when all the other guys were chewing tobacco or gum while waiting to get into the game, he was reading real estate books.”
The son of a Coast Guardsman, Ellis spent time growing up in the Hodges Square area of New London, according to MacCluggage, and had athletic success in multiple sports at New London High School.
Joe Stellato, now retired, was Ellis’ banker and became close with him during the latter part of Ellis' playing days.
“I loved the guy,” Stellato said Thursday from Hillsboro Beach, Fla., recalling that Ellis invited him to the Texas Rangers’ spring training facility in Florida several years in a row. Stellato got to know several of the players and maintained contact with them after Ellis’ retirement.
“I just hung up with Sparky Lyle,” Stellato said, referring to the renowned relief pitcher, who was an Ellis friend. “He (Lyle) loved him dearly.”
Ellis enlisted Stellato in the early days of the sports foundation, calling on him to ensure that Yankees luminaries Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin kept their promise to appear at the foundation’s first dinner in 1988, an event that took place at the Groton Motor Inn.
“He was a nervous wreck,” Stellato said of Ellis. “More nervous than he was batting cleanup for the Yankees on Opening Day 1970.”
Signed by the Yankees on Aug. 15, 1966, Ellis made his major league debut as the team's starting catcher on May 17, 1969, hitting an inside-the-park home run, the only one of his career. He was traded to Cleveland after the 1972 season and became the first designated hitter in that franchise's history. After three seasons with the Indians, he was traded to Texas, where he played parts of six more seasons with the Rangers.
He finished his 883-game career as a catcher/first baseman/designated hitter with a .262 batting average, 69 home runs and 391 runs batted in. In 1974, perhaps his best year, he batted .285 in 128 games with Cleveland, hitting 10 home runs and driving in 64 runs.
Jim Smith, a former managing editor of The Day who wrote a biography of Ellis, “Baseball’s Greatest Players: The Story of John Ellis and the Fight Against Cancer,” gave an account of the Yankees moving Ellis from catcher to first base when Thurman Munson, a future All-Star, took over behind the plate.
Later that season, a handwritten note arrived in the dugout for Ellis, Smith wrote. It was from Lou Gehrig’s widow, Eleanor, who was in the stands.
“To John, For 30 years I’ve been looking for Lou’s successor, if not better, and I am rooting for you,” the note, signed "Mrs. Lou," read.
In addition to his parents, Ellis was predeceased by an older brother, Richard, and an older sister, Dolores, both of whom died of cancer. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Erika; a son, John; a sister, Joan; and a brother, Dave.
Jane Ellis said her husband requested there be no funeral “or any fanfare” following his death. She said a memorial service will be held at a later date.