The Battler

By William Sisson ,

John Ellis fishes hard, smart and often. During the season this sharpie is on the water four or five days a week, often alone and usually well before dawn, in search of live bait. And he can catch: big striped bass, summer flounder, tautog, blues, black sea bass, the usual suspects from inshore southern New England waters.

Ellis is also a battler, a guy with a tough, hard-nosed spirit who doesn’t back down from a challenge and keeps his promises, even the kind you make on an airplane when severe turbulence has scared you half to death or when you’re lying in a hospital bed waiting for test results. The plane lands safely, the results come back negative, and the promises and prayers you’ve whispered are quickly forgotten. Not with Ellis.

Nearly three decades ago, Ellis was the guy in the hospital, with tubes running out of him and no one giving him much of a chance of making it. The former big-league baseball player from Old Saybrook, Connecticut, was battling Hodgkin’s disease, which had already ravaged his family. He’d lost a brother, sister and sister-in-law to cancer, all before they were 40.

“I was in a dark place,” remembers Ellis, who is 66 and played 13 years for the New York Yankees, the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers. “I lost a brother and a sister to Hodgkin’s. I was diagnosed at 38. I figured that was the end of it. I had no expectation of living. Absolutely none. I was almost fourth-stage Hodgkin’s.”

That’s when he made a hospital-bed promise. “If you let me live,” Ellis said to the heavens, “I will help every person I can, every needy family. That was my deal, and I stuck to it. It’s as simple as that.”

Ellis recovered, and about a year later, in 1987, he founded the Connecticut Sports Foundation (sportsfoundation.org), which has raised and donated more than $3.5 million to cancer patients and their families and more than $1.5 million for research. “Our vision is simple,” Ellis says. “Give money to the neediest of the needy. The person who wants to go home to die. The person who needs money to keep from losing their home. The mother who can’t work because she has to take care of a sick child.”

Ellis is a straight-ahead kind of guy. A lifelong fisherman and hunter, he was the headstrong free-and-easy ballplayer who never walked away from a dustup. After his illness, he made helping others his life’s work.

“John is indefatigable,” says friend Ron Milardo, who runs a marine salvage business and is first vice chairman of the foundation. “He’s a tough guy. He confronts things head-on. He’s 24/7 thinking about ways to raise money for needy cancer patients. He just doesn’t stop.”

And because his word is his bond, he’s been able to draw a litany of big-leaguers to his annual sports foundation dinner, from Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford in the early days to Joe Girardi, David Cone and Bernie Williams this past winter.

“Why do they come?” Ellis asks. “Because I was a great Yankee? Because I paid them a lot?” No. “They come because they can trust me.”

It has been quite a journey for Ellis, who was nicknamed the “New London Strong Boy” and the “Moose” when he came out of high school in Connecticut. He was a gifted athlete who stood 6 feet, 2 inches and weighed 225 pounds. By 20, he found himself in the Yankees’ starting lineup as an undrafted free agent.

How he got there is a story worth telling. He was playing American Legion baseball the summer he got out of high school, trying to get noticed. The scouts had come to a game in Middletown to see a young Stamford, Connecticut, standout named Bobby Valentine, who went on to have a long major league career as both a player and manager. Ellis, who was on the opposing team, initially hadn’t planned on playing; he had broken a bone in his hand, which was in a cast. But the determined kid saw opportunity with the scouts present. He removed the cast and wound up hitting three home runs, including one that soared out of Palmer Field and over the Coginchaug River.

Shortly thereafter, the Yankees signed Ellis.

“If you ask anybody what made him roll, they’d tell you he was absolutely fearless,” Milardo says. “Old school.”

Ellis believes in the healing power of nature and living what he calls a “physical, outdoor life.” Time on the water and in the field helped him recover from his near-fatal struggle with Hodgkin’s and continues to sustain him.

And if age and life’s vicissitudes have rounded some of his hard edges, Ellis still approaches life head-on, the only way he knows. “Some of us have a responsibility,” he says. “You can’t have the life I’ve had without all the experiences, good and bad. It’s forged who I am. I’m overwhelmed by it and inspired by it. I march through trying to do the best I can.”

John Ellis remains the archetypal tough guy, a battler with a soft spot for those wrestling with life’s misfortunes.

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