Battling big-leaguer makes each day a winning home run

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Geese bark in a cove to the north, and a pale yellow light colors the east bank of the river. John Ellis is waiting at the dock in front of his home in Old Saybrook, Conn., and the live wells in his 23-foot center console are filled with freshly caught menhaden. An excellent, hard-charging fisherman, Ellis has been on the river netting bait since about 4:30.

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“Hurry up, guys, you’re killing the bait,” he says. “Hurry up.” Striped bass are waiting for us not 15 minutes from his dock.

It was a good morning to be alive. I meant it when I said it — and the fishing was good — but the expression is something of a cliché. A throwaway line. Something we all say without giving it much thought.

As I found out later, it has a deeper meaning for Ellis, 65, a former big-league baseball player who wasn’t given much chance of living when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease 27 years ago. By that time, cancer had already deeply scythed his family, claiming a brother, sister and sister-in-law — all before they were 40.

“I lost a brother and sister to Hodgkin’s,” says Ellis. “I was diagnosed at 38. I figured that was the end of it. I had no expectations of living. Absolutely none. I was almost fourth-stage Hodgkin’s. I figured that was the end of it.”

What happened next changed not only Ellis’ life, but also the lives of thousands of other cancer victims and their families. He made a promise — the kind, he says, people make when they’re really afraid, like when they’re sure their plane is going to crash. The kind they forget as soon as they land.

“I made a deal in the hospital, and it’s one I stuck to,” says Ellis, “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.”

Ellis recovered, and a year later, in 1987, he founded the Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer (www.sportsfoundation.org). He says the foundation has donated more than $3.5 million to patients and their families, and more than $1.5 million to cancer research. Ellis’ wife, Jane, is president and executive director. “Our vision is simple,” says Ellis, an avid fisherman who spends four or five days a week on the water during the season. “Give money to the neediest of the needy.”

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 Uncasville, Conn. This will be the 27th dinner, and Mike Francesa — the WFAN sports radio personality — is master of ceremonies.

“John is one of those guys who lives life every day,” says Ron Milardo, of Cooper Capital Specialty Salvage in Old Saybrook, who sits on the foundation’s board and 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.”

Head-on is a pretty good description of Ellis. When he came out of high school in Connecticut, the young catcher’s nicknames were “Moose” and “New London Strong Boy.” At 6 feet, 2 inches and 225 pounds, Ellis was a tough, gifted athlete who at age 20 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. Baseball came easy to him. “It was like pounding nails to a carpenter,” he says.

He was a good right-handed hitter — tough, hard-nosed and scrappy, not one to avoid the dust-ups he always managed 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, 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.

I met up with Ellis again recently to round out our earlier interviews and to talk fishing. “You know what the purpose of life is?” Ellis asked me.

When he posed the question I was scribbling in my notebook, thinking he’d asked another rhetorical question. I looked up, and 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.”

“But the whole point

of weighing anchor is

that he has chosen

his weather and his tide, and

that he is setting out.

The thing is done.”

— Hilaire Belloc

January 2014 issue