Monday, May 16, 2016

RIP Sammy Ellis

Former Reds pitcher Sammy Ellis passed away this weekend. He is another one of those guys who will always hold a special place in my heart because he helped me with one of my books. I spoke with him twice about Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 season. He was very helpful adding stories about his rookie year and his manager.

Ellis was a hotshot pitcher signed by the Reds off the campus of Mississippi State in 1961. He pitched for the Reds briefly in 1962 but was not effective and admittedly battled an intense competitive nature that at times caused him to lose both his temper and his focus on the mound.

After two solid seasons in triple-A San Diego, where he threw a no-hitter in 1962, Ellis made the Reds for good in spring training 1964. It was a memorable spring for Ellis as he also met his future wife in Florida that March. He was ecstatic about both making the Reds' roster and getting the pay raise that came with the major league assignment--to a whopping $7,000 a year.

The 1964 season would turn out to be a dramatic one for the Reds as popular manager Fred Hutchinson was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer before the season. Refusing to give in, Hutchinson gamely tried to finish out the season with his team.

"I was scared to death of Fred Hutchinson initially," Ellis told me. "I later found out that he was a very loveable guy, but he was intimidating. He was burly and almost a grumpy looking guy when you first met him. But I think everybody who ever played for him really liked him. He let his players play and you always knew where you stood with him. And no one wanted to win more than he did. He was one of those guys who commanded respect and could manage men without saying a lot."

By June, Ellis and fellow first-year man Bill McCool had formed one of the best righty-lefty bullpen combos in the majors. Over and over the youngsters displayed cold-blooded efficiency holding on to slim late-inning leads.

With Hutchinson visibly melting away due to the cancer, the team tried to stay focused on the field. But it wasn't easy. "Whereever we go as a team this year, Hutch is somehow there," Ellis was quoted in Sports Illustrated in September. "His name will come up over dinner. You're sitting there and somebody says, 'Hear anything about Hutch?' There is a kind of quiet that comes over everybody. It makes you put your hands under the table and clench your fists and wish somehow there was something you could do. Sure we want to win the pennant for ourselves . . . a ballplayer wants a World Series ring more than anything and we want to put a ring on Hutch's finger."

The Phillies appeared invincible most of the season, with the Reds lurking just closed enough to have a shot. After Hutchinson stepped down when he was finally no longer able to continue managing from the bench, the Reds rallied in late September. They swept a crucial series with the Phillies and launched a nine-game winning streak to give themselves a chance to win the pennant on the last day of the season.

Ellis was on the mound for the Reds in a tense situation in the third game of the Phillies series. Coming on the seventh inning of a tight game, he struck out the first man, then walked the bases loaded. "All of a sudden I couldn't find the strike zone," Ellis said. "With the bases loaded Johnny Callison is the batter and he was having an MVP year, a great year." Callison would end up with 31 home runs and 104 RBIs in 1964 and had won the All-Star game with a ninth-inning three-run walk off homer. "I look down to the bullpen and [interim manager] Sisler's got Nuxhall warming up. Sisler comes out to the mound. I'm expecting him to take me out. But he looks at me and says, 'Look, you've been doing the job all year, get this guy out.' And so I struck the son of a bitch out and then struck out the next guy too." On a full count to the dangerous Callison, Ellis threw probably the best pitch of his career, painting the outside corner to catch him looking. He then finished the last two innings for the save. It was that kind of year for Ellis. He would end the 1964 season with a 10-3 record and a 2.57 ERA.

In 1965 Ellis was converted to a starter, won 22 games, threw 15 complete games and made the All-Star team. Only 24 years old, his future appeared secure. Unfortunately, he fell victim to the peculiar malady of Ohio River Fever--a highly contagious, devastating arm ailment that afflicted virtually every Cincinnati pitcher of the era. Reds hurlers spent so much time in the whirlpool that they regularly led the league in barnacles. Ellis noted by mid-1966 that his arm was no longer the same. He struggled to a 12-19 season with an ERA of 5.29. It was the beginning of the end.

Although teams and management didn't seem to care or take note of pitch counts and total innings thrown in those days, a modern forensic specialist might point to the fact that young Ellis threw 263 innings in 1965 after throwing only 122 in 1964. There was also the period in late June in which he pitched an 11-inning complete game then, with three days rest, went 14 innings in Pittsburgh. In the second game, in which he gave up only four hits, he hit for himself leading off the top of the 13th inning, drew a walk and came around to score the first run of the game. Unfortunately, he stayed in to pitch and gave up a run in the bottom of the 13th. The Reds eventually lost 2-1 in 16.

Trying to hang on, realizing he had lost his once-impressive fastball, Ellis adopted an assortment of junk, including a knuckleball, but after struggling in 1967 he was traded to the Angels. He played one season each with the Angels and the White Sox, never regained his effectiveness, and then his major league career was over at the age of 28.

After his playing days, Ellis was a longtime major league pitching coach and later retired with his wife to Florida. He was 75 years old when he passed away.

I feel a certain kinship to the guys who are nice enough to allow me to interview them and I always feel bad when they pass away and are relegated to the one simple memorial paragraph in a news service release. These guys take a piece of baseball history with them when they go. They certainly deserve much more than one paragraph.

Sammy Ellis: So long and thanks.


  1. I can certainly understand why you feel so sad. I had his baseball card

  2. I was lucky enough to have him as a pitching coach And he was awesome As a coach and a person

  3. Well done, Doug. I had totally forgotten about Sammy Ellis since I wasn't following NL baseball much at that time in my life. And now I do know something about him, thanks to you.

  4. Tammy Ellis ParkerMay 17, 2016 at 2:18 PM

    Doug, on behalf of our entire family thanks for this very moving article about my dad. We all really loved it. It is a great tribute to a great man. THANK YOU.

    1. Thank you very much for your kind comment. That makes my day. I'm very sorry for your family's loss.