John Ellis, 73, who played major league baseball for 13 years with the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Texas Rangers, and who established the Connecticut Cancer Foundation in 1987 with his wife, Jane, died Tuesday, April 5, 2022 after a second bout with cancer. First afflicted with the disease in 1986 after both his older siblings, Delores and Richard, died from cancer, he appealed to the Almighty, saying with Jane at his bedside, “You let me live, and I will dedicate my life to helping Connecticut cancer patients.” And he did. The Connecticut Cancer Foundation, whose earliest supporters included Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin in 1988, now has an endowment of more than $10 million and has supported countless Connecticut families stricken by cancer.
John Ellis was born in New London in 1948 the son of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Ellis, a coast guardsman. John was a high school star athlete in football, basketball, and baseball, where he was nicknamed “New London Strong Boy” and “Moose,” as he stood 6’2, and weighed 225 pounds. When he heard major league baseball scouts would attend a game his senior year in 1966, he took a cast off his injured hand and hit three home runs that day, one traveling more than 400 feet. He was drafted by the Yankees practically that day. After three years in the minor leagues, John was brought up to the Yankees in 1969. In his first game he slammed a 457-foot homerun to left center and his major league career had begun.
“When Ellis is around, things seem to happen,” said his manager, Ralph Houk. “No matter where he plays, he gives you that added punch.” With Thurman Munson on the team taking over as catcher, Houk moved Ellis to first base. Later that season, a hand-written note arrived in the dugout for John Ellis. It was from Lou Gehrig’s widow Eleanor in the stands. “To John, for 30 years I have been looking for Lou’s successor, if not better, and I am rooting for you. Mrs. Lou.” Ellis didn’t think there would ever be another Lou Gehrig but said Gehrig “was a leader who always gave 100 percent. That’s the type of guy I want to be.” In the vagaries of baseball, Ellis found himself traded to the Cleveland Indians for Graig Nettles. In three years, he had 322 hits including 31 homeruns and batted .285 in 1974. It was on to the Texas Rangers in 1976 where Ellis was Gaylord Perry’s catcher. He retired after the 1981 season and established a highly successful real estate career based in New London.
At an early Cancer Foundation dinner, master of ceremonies Reid MacCluggage, the editor and publisher of The Day in New London, put John Ellis’s career in perspective.
“Did you know,” he said from the podium, “that John hit over .270 six times in his 13-year career? And in 1974, just to pick a year at random, his .285 batting average was higher than Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Thurman Munson, Johnny Bench, George Brett, Dave Parker, Jim Rice, Billy Williams, Dave Winfield, Robin Yount, and Graig Nettles.” And furthermore, said MacCluggage, Reggie Jackson had one RBI for every five at bats, John had one for every six. Reggie’s lifetime batting average is .262. John’s is .262 . . . and John had more assists, fewer errors, and a higher fielding percentage than Reggie.”
Then John Ellis introduced Reggie Jackson to that night’s dinner crowd of close to a thousand people there to talk and hear about baseball and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in one night in the fight against cancer.
John and Jane Ellis’s marriage and partnership in life was dedicated to their Connecticut Cancer Foundation. At the 2020 Celebrity Dinner at the Mohegan Sun, Jane rose to the podium. She talked of a six-year-old boy named Evan she had just met. He had brain cancer and was hooked up to an oxygen tank. “I can’t get it out of my mind. Can we even begin to imagine what he has been through? John and I walked away in tears.” She put Evan’s photo on the large screens in the vast dining hall and asked everyone to take out their cellphones and click on the link everyone just received. “If everyone gives $100 or $50 or whatever you can do, our goal is $25,000,” she said. The screen instantly lit up with donation upon donation. In 10 minutes, they raised the $25,000. Jane thanked everyone and John Ellis said, “The need in Connecticut is greater than ever. We cannot do it alone. Please give your unconditional support.” They raised a total of $600,000 that night. “It has been a privilege. It has been our life,” said Jane Ellis.
John was also an avid outdoorsman who loved fishing on Long Island Sound. He was a striper tournament champion and was featured in a May 2017 article in
Angler’s Journal fittingly headlined “The Battler” because of his hard-nose spirit in life and in his fight against cancer. In the article, a good friend stated “He’s a tough guy. He confronts things head-on. He’s 24/7 thinking of ways to raise money for cancer patients. He just doesn’t stop.” John woke up each day at 4:30 am ready to take on the world with a smile on his face. If you were blessed enough to know him, he made you laugh often, he shared incredible stories, and he inspired you.
John Ellis is survived by his wife Jane, his daughter Erika and husband Steve Jayne, son John and fiancé Joann Braun, brother Dave and wife Marge, sister Joanie Tarby and husband Tom, and several nieces and nephews along with Jane’s extended family. He was beloved by his family. In honor of John Ellis, memorial donations to the Connecticut Cancer Foundation would be appreciated to continue the mission of helping Connecticut cancer patients at www.ctcancerfoundation.org. A private celebration of life memorial will be planned for a later date.