When he came out of high school in Connecticut, the young catcher’s nicknames were the “Moose” and the “New London Strong Boy.” At 6 feet, 2 inches and 225 pounds, John Ellis was a tough, gifted athlete who at 20 years old found himself in the starting lineup for the New York Yankees as an undrafted free agent.
He bought two houses and a car with his $50,000 signing bonus. World on a string.
He was a good right-handed hitter — tough, hard-nosed and scrappy, not one to avoid the dust-ups he always seemed to find himself in the middle of. Ellis had a 13-year career in the majors, playing for the Yankees, the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers. He caught a no-hitter, was the Indians’ first designated hitter, and in his best year in 1974 he batted .285 with a .421 slugging percentage. He would have played longer, he says, if not for a damaged nerve in his right hand.
Ellis, who is 65, is also an excellent fisherman, which is how I met him. Ellis, Ron Milardo and I spent an enjoyable morning on the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound this fall live-lining menhaden for striped bass. During the season, Ellis is out chasing stripers four or five days a week.
What makes Ellis different from you and me is not his big-league career, but a promise he made in a hospital bed about 27 years ago. That promise not only changed his life, but the lives of thousands of families as well.
“I lost a brother and sister to Hodgkin’s,” Ellis told me recently. “They died before they were 40. I was diagnosed at 38 [with the same disease]. I figured that was the end of it. I made a deal in the hospital — and it’s one I stuck to — and that was that I would help needy families. If you let me live, I’ll help people the rest of my life. That was my promise, and it’s really been the purpose of my life.”
A year later, in 1987, Ellis founded the Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer, which has a non-profit 501(c)(3) designation. Ellis says the foundation has donated more than $3.5 million to patients and their families and more than $1.5 million to cancer research since it began. Ellis’ wife, Jane, is president and executive director.
“Our vision is simple,” Ellis says. “Give money to the neediest of the needy.”
“John is one of those guys who lives life every day,” says Milardo, of Cooper Capital Specialty Salvage in Old Saybrook, Conn., who met Ellis shortly after his cancer treatments. “He feels like he’s living on stolen days after what he’s been through. He’s a tough guy. He confronts things head-on.”
The centerpiece of the foundation is its annual Celebrity Dinner & Memorabilia Auction, which will be held Feb. 7 at the Mohegan Sun Convention Center in Montville, Conn. This will be the 27th dinner, and Mike Francesa — the WFAN sports radio personality — is master of ceremonies.
The event raises significant money for the foundation, and from the start, top Yankee players have attended it. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, for example, made the first dinner. Joe DiMaggio and a host of others have followed.
“Why did they come?” Ellis asks. “Because I was a great Yankee? Because I paid them a lot?” Nope. “They knew they could trust me,” he says. “And I needed their help.”
Last night, I met again with Ellis and Milardo, who sits on the foundation’s board, to round out an earlier interview.
“You know what the purpose of life is?” Ellis asked me.
When he posed the question I was scribbling notes as fast as I could, thinking it’s another rhetorical question. But Ellis was staring at me, waiting for an answer.
“It’s complicated,” I answered lamely.
“No, it’s not. It’s easy,” he said. “It’s helping other people. That’s it. Helping other people is the underlying principle of a successful life.”