Sammy Ellis passed away on Friday, May 13, 2016. Most of the Nation has probably never heard of Sammy Ellis. He only pitched for the Reds from 1963-1967. He’s not in the Reds Hall of Fame. But for three pivotal years, Sammy Ellis was an integral part of the Cincinnati Reds as a right-handed starting pitcher.
His rise and fall were meteoric. He went from an All-Star to a 19-game loser. But after his playing career was over, Ellis was able to transform himself into one of the better pitching coaches of his time.
How good a coach was he? The New York Yankees honored Sammy Ellis with a moment of silence before their game against the Chicago White Sox two days after he died at Yankee Stadium.
Sammy Ellis was a power throwing hurler who the Reds drafted while Ellis pitched for the Mississippi State Bulldogs in 1962. Ellis signed with the Reds for $60,000 and made his debut with Cincinnati that season but spent 1963 in the minors. While trying to establish himself as a major league pitcher, Ellis battled two demons — his control of the strike zone and a temper. He had to master both to become a complete pitcher.
1964 became Ellis’ breakout season. Next to Ace Jim Maloney, Ellis had the best stuff and was the hardest thrower on the pitching staff. Manager Fred Hutchinson skillfully used Ellis as a spot starter and reliever for the Reds. Ellis’ season stats were a 10-3 record, a 2.57 ERA, 14 saves and 125 strikeouts in just 122 innings pitched. More than that, the young right-hander was thrust into one of the most hotly contested pennant races in the history of the National League. Left-hander reliever Billy McCool and Ellis gave Hutch a powerful 1-2 punch in the bullpen. Combined with the fact that Hutchinson was dying of cancer and had to step down as Manager in August, the Reds ran an emotional gamut the last three weeks of that season.
Sammy Ellis had a win and three saves in the remarkable two week stretch in which the Reds cut a 6 and ½ game deficit to the Philadelphia Phillies into sole possession of first place going into the final weekend of the season. Ellis was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “We think about Hutch all the time. You clinch your fists and wish somehow there was something you could do.”
Ellis built on his successful season in 1965 under new Reds manager Dick Sisler. He and Maloney both were 20-game winners, the last Reds right-handers to achieve that until 49 years later when Johnny Cueto won 20 games in 2014. Ellis’ 22-10 record and 3.79 ERA performance during that season yielded him an All-Star game appearance. Ellis won his 20th game in late September at Crosley Field when the Reds defeated the Houston Astros 4-2.
But as quickly as Ellis emerged as an All-Star he faded just as fast. Both Ellis and the Reds had a disastrous 1966 season. The Reds because they traded superstar Frank Robinson and Ellis because his ERA ballooned to 5.29 and he very nearly lost 20 games, finishing with a 12-19 record. Bothered by a shoulder problem, he also gave up a NL high of 35 home runs, which was also then a Reds record. (It would be broken later by Tom Browning, Eric Milton and Bronson Arroyo.) The Reds went from contenders to also-rans. Don Heffner, hired after the Reds dismissed Sisler after 1966, was gone by mid-season. Robinson won the Triple Crown in the American League.
Plagued by shoulder problems, Sammy Ellis never recovered. The Reds traded him after the 1967 season to the California Angels and Ellis’ 7-year career came to an end with the White Sox.
Ellis later became a pitching coach for several teams including the Yankees and White Sox. He was credited with transitioning New York pitcher Dave Righetti into a reliever.
I interviewed Sammy Ellis at Comiskey Park in Chicago during the 1991 season. He clearly enjoyed reflecting back on his brief yet memorable years with the Reds. In the third game of the Reds three game sweep of the first place Phillies late in 1964, Ellis came in to relieve in the 7th inning. Vada Pinson’s two home runs, along with another by Chico Ruiz, had given the Reds a 6-4 lead.
“I lost my control and the bases were loaded,” said Ellis. “Johnny Callison was at the plate. He was having an MVP type season. Dick Sisler came out to the mound and he had Joe Nuxhall warming up in the bullpen. I thought he was going to take me out. But instead, he said, ‘You’ve been doing the job all year, get this guy out’ and he left me in.”
“I struck out that son of a (gun),” said Ellis with a smile, “and then I struck out the next guy.”
The Reds clubhouse at Connie Mack Stadium had a party-like atmosphere after the game. Chico Ruiz danced, holding a newspaper clipping with the headline “Mauch unworried about Reds surge” Music blared. Sisler and the Reds were off to New York for a five game series against the Mets, which they would sweep.
“I was looking forward to playing in the World Series in 1964,” said Ellis. “But when we didn’t make it, I honestly thought there would be other chances.”
There wouldn’t be for Sammy Ellis and the Reds, at least not until 1970. By then, he was out of baseball. But to his credit, Sammy Ellis wasn’t finished with the game and he left his mark with several pitchers as a coach.