Matt Warden: Once upon a time, you played side-by-side with Yankee legend, Thurman Munson (who also happened to be a Yankee captain). What was it like? At the time, did you realize just how big Munson’s legacy would ultimately be? Do you see any similarities between him and current captain Derek Jeter?
John Ellis: I did play side by side with Thurman. We were both catchers and I was called to the Big Leagues in 1969. The following year, they said they were going to move me to first base because of a guy named Thurman Munson. I had never heard of him. Anyway, in 1970, after getting “rookie of the spring*”, I opened the season batting fourth and playing first base, and Thurman was catching.
Well, we both had horrible starts to the regular season and they decided that one of us had to come out of the lineup. Ralph [Houk] called us into the office, and he told me he was taking me out and keeping Thurman [in]. And no, I never realized how great Thurman would be. But he was tough, smart, and a great athlete — I am sure Jeter is the same.
*During the 1970 preseason, John was the recipient of the James P. Dawson award which is given annually to New York Yankee rookies who demonstrate outstanding performance in Spring Training. For a complete list of James P. Dawson recipients, click here.
MW: Ralph Houkwas once quoted as saying, “I’ll tell you this much, [pinch-hitting is] one of the toughest jobs in baseball, because most of the time it means the ball game.” I bet you could attest to that. Thoughts?
JE: Pinch-hitting is always required at some point in your career. And good hitters are good pinch hitters most of the time if they focus on doing it.
MW: Did you know Bobby Murcer very well? He was another huge fan favorite in New York. What was he like in the clubhouse?
JE: Yes. Bobby Murcer was a great hitter and a quiet guy who led by example on the field.
MW: Regarding Derek Jeter, how do you feel about the way the contract negotiations went?
JE: I feel that the negotiations went well. Jeter signed, and the Yankees kept him. Both of their goals were met.
MW: Are the Yankees paying for future production or for an iconic player’s past?
JE: No. All great ballplayers or Hall-of-Famers play at a higher level than the rest of us.
MW: In 1972 you were traded to the Tribe. Were you upset by this turn of events or was the change of scenery welcome?
JE: No, I wasn’t upset. Yankee Stadium was too big of a ballpark for a platooning player like me. Undoubtedly, like all right-handed hitters playing there, it was difficult for [obtaining] power stats and I welcomed the trade.
MW: Did you get out of New York while the getting was good or would you have been interested in playing for George Steinbrenner? What was his reputation among the players?
JE: No, and yes. I wish I could have played for him and his reputation was of a tough taskmaster, but a winner as an owner.
MW: Looking back, does it seem surreal that you were inextricably linked to another popular Yankee, Graig Nettles?
JE: No, Graig was always a great third baseman and became an even greater hitter at Yankee Stadium.
MW: Fact or fiction: Wikipedia claims that you were Cleveland’s first designated hitter. Was it difficult to adjust to the role after having played the field for most of your career? What was your favorite ballpark to hit in? Least favorite?
JE: I do not remember this; but I checked and Baseball Almanac said I was so it must be true. I actually preferred just to hit and not field. My favorite ballpark was Tiger Stadium. Yankee stadium was my least favorite [because of the dimensions].
MW: Much has been made about the Twins’ recent inability to beat the Yankees in postseason play. As a former Big Leaguer, do you think a trend such as this would have affected your confidence if you were a member of the team (or at the very least, cast a shadow of doubt among you and your teammates)? Or, am I spouting pure media-generated drivel?
JE: When you become a professional [player] (even after many years of service) nothing remains the same and anything can happen. There is always a doubt, but like I said, nothing remains the same and great performances [can] happen everyday.
MW: While we’re on the topic of players’ psyches, I have to ask: What’s the deal with baseball players and their superstitions?
JE: I think it is a way to psychologically be better prepared and focused in the game or before it.
MW: Did you have any [superstitions] of your own?
JE: I had no rituals but [I] tried to keep routines the same to just stay focused.
MW: Not only did you spend time playing arguably the most physically grueling position in the game, but you were required mentally to be aware of all the pitcher/hitter tendencies. How does one go about keeping track of such things?
JE: The pitcher/hitter tendencies are unique and involve decisions based on so many baseball circumstances. The pitcher’s best pitch is what you win or lose on. Sometimes it (his best pitch during the game) changes . It all depends. How many men are on…do you want to pitch around him [the batter] to get to someone else…letting him [the batter] hit earlier in the game in order to possibly get him out with another pitcher later in the game (setting him up). On and on you can go.
MW: Was there any pitcher in which you had a particularly strong connection with in terms of pitch selection/continuity?
JE: I think Gaylord Perry was the pitcher I had the best connection with. He had a lot of pitches to work with.
MW: Was there a particular pitcher that was especially difficult to catch?
JE: I could not catch a knuckleball from anyone.
MW: Best active pitcher and why?
JE: CC Sabathia. He’s determined and strong, not scared.
MW: Current pitcher you’d most like to catch and why?
JE: Cliff Lee. Great control!
MW: How do you feel about advanced baseball stats? Do they tell enough of the story or is the “naked eye” still the best form of judgment?
JE: Stats are good and [they] are an important part of the projection of any player. Most players do not do everything right. Some teams look for what some players do best to make a team better rounded and stats help with that.
JE: Both would be great [to play for]. They are [both] former catchers and they make the best managers.
MW: Funniest guy in the clubhouse back when you played?
JE: Sparky Lyle
MW: Most serious guy in the clubhouse back when you played?
JE: Jake Gibbs
MW: Thoughts on performance-enhancing drugs? Did Jeff Bagwell get ripped off by the Hall of Fame?
JE: Performance-enhancing drugs are just that. If it [PEDs] is illegal then there are consequences. As for Bagwell, he is a [a fellow] Connecticut guy. He does not have certain milestones like others (500 HR), so it may take a little longer for him.
MW: Aside from being a former ballplayer, you’re also a philanthropist. Can you tell us about your charity and its objective?
JE: Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer (CSFAC) provides grants for living expenses and medical care to struggling cancer patients. We do this with help from individual and corporate sponsorships, as well as fundraising events such as our Annu
al Celebrity Dinner & Memorabilia Auction. Our mission is simple: to reach out to as many families impacted by cancer with much needed financial assistance. Please consider becoming a donor or sponsor at http://www.sportsfoundation.org/.
MW: Do the Yankees make the playoffs in 2011? If yes, how far do they go?
JE: Yankees all the way!
Thanks again to John for taking the time to sit down with me. If any readers have any follow up questions for Mr. Ellis, please leave them in the comments section of the post and I’ll certainly relay them to him. After having the distinct pleasure of chatting with him, I can certainly vouch for the fact that he is a real gentleman and I’m sure he’d be flattered to hear your thoughts.
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