Sometimes a baseball card encompasses more than just the main player featured within the borders of its photograph. That actuality has influenced one of the habits of the hobby that I particularly enjoy—“sleuthing,” or trying to figure out the identities of the other players on the card, whether they are in the background or off to the side of the card.
In some cases, trying to identify background players is difficult, because of the fuzziness of the photograph or the awkward angle provided by the camera. In other situations, it’s much easier, and on rare occasions, a collector might come to the realization that the “other” player is actually much more famous than the featured player. That is certainly the case with this 1972 “In Action” card of John Ellis (No. 48 in the set), a traveling-man catcher and first baseman who was probably best known for serving as Thurman Munson’s backup in the early 1970s. This card could just as easily have been chosen as the action card for Harmon Killebrew, who happens to be the “other guy” in the photograph—the Twins’ first baseman who is holding Ellis on during an afternoon game at the old Yankee Stadium, sometime in 1971. A member of the 500-home run club and one of the game’s quietly nice guys, “Killer” earned baseball immortality when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Killebrew was already featured on another one of the 1972 “In Action” cards, so there was no need to create another action photo for the Twins’ slugger. Still, it’s interesting that Topps cropped the photograph in the way that it did, making “Killer” just as prominent as Ellis on the facing of the card. Did Topps do this intentionally, because of Killebrew’s status as a star, or was it merely an accident? I honestly have no idea, but I do know that this 1972 Johnny Ellis carries no extra value because of the incidental presence of one of the greatest sluggers in the game’s history. This card is worth about the same amount of money as most common cards of 1972’s lower-numbered series, no more and no less. Still, it’s a fun card to have, especially when you can procure a picture of a Hall of Famer at the far more reasonable price of a journeyman.
Ellis might have settled for journeyman status, but he started his career as a popular player in the tri-state area who was once ticketed for stardom at a time when the Yankees badly needed such a quality. As a late 1960s contemporary of Munson, Ellis was actually regarded as an equal prospect by some scouts. In fact, some targeted Ellis, and not Munson, as the heir apparent to the long line of great Yankee catchers that had recently halted after the decline and trade of Elston Howard.
Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 1966, Ellis was dubbed the “New London Strong Boy,” a reference to his birth place in Connecticut and the massive right-handed power he had displayed as an amateur player. Though bypassed by all 24 major league teams in the 1966 draft, Ellis’ power and aggressive, rough-and-tumble style of play quickly made him a favorite of major league talent evaluators.
Ellis and Munson each made their big league debuts in 1969, with both settling for cameo roles. In 1970, Munson bypassed Ellis to emerge as the American League Rookie of the Year, forcing the Yankees to devise an alternate plan for Ellis. Knowing that only one man could fill the role as No. 1 catcher, the Yankees moved Ellis to first base. That made perfect sense, since Munson had always been regarded as the better defensive receiver—Ellis really struggled in trying to throw out baserunners—while Ellis’ booming bat figured to be better preserved as a first baseman than as a shopworn catcher.
The plan looked good on paper, but baseball’s realities dictated otherwise. Unable to establish himself as an everyday force, Ellis filled a role as a platoon first baseman and backup catcher. After the 1972 season, the Yankees decided to move on, sending Ellis to Cleveland as part of a package for the power-hitting third baseman they craved, a young Graig Nettles. As a member of the Indians, Ellis became the first DH in franchise history and earned the nickname “Moose,” a tribute to his rugged strength and stature. Ellis played three moderately productive seasons with Cleveland before being traded to Texas, where he spent the final six seasons of a journeyman career as a part-time catcher, first baseman, DH, and pinch-hitter.
By the time Ellis retired in 1981, when he had put 13 seasons of major league service into the books, he was reminding no one of Harmon Killebrew. But he would soon put his name and reputation to good use, heading up the Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer. Every year, Ellis and his foundation host a charity dinner at the Mohegan Sun Casino, an event that draws scores of former Yankees. That’s Ellis’ legacy now—and it’s a pretty good one.
And, for me, Johnny Ellis’ legacy will always include that bit of baseball card trivia, as he graciously shared the spotlight on his 1972 card with a Hall of Fame counterpart.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.