SABR

Dick Ellsworth

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

In Candlestick Park on September 2, 1963, the final nine outs were tallied by closer Lindy McDaniel, insuring the 20th win of the season for the tall Chicago Cubs left-handed starter. This particular win, coming off a 20-loss campaign the preceding year, would etch the youngster’s name with a mere six other hurlers who, since 1920, have posted a Jekyll-and-Hyde like sequence of 20 losses followed the next season by 20 wins. Ironically, another 20-loss campaign three years later would again place that youngster’s name – Dick Ellsworth – among a select few in the history of the game.

Of course, during the heralded signing of the then 18-year-old one day after he graduated from high school, there was nary a thought of 20-loss campaigns. The Fresno (CA) High School graduate was inked on June 13, 1958 by Chicago Cubs scout Gene Handley, whose bid was taken over Babe Herman’s efforts on behalf of the Philadelphia Phillies. Explaining the decision years later, Ellsworth stated “my father and [I] figured the Cubs offered the best opportunity, and this was as important to us as the money involved in the situation.”i

Richard Clark (“Dick”) Ellsworth was born March 22, 1940, in Lusk, Wyoming, the eldest child of Virgil C. Ellsworth and wife Katherine Gertrude [nee Carpenter]. Having immigrated to Wyoming from Nebraska with his parents and four younger siblings some 20 years earlier, Virgil would pick up his new family and relocate over 1,200 miles to Fresno, California when Dick was only three years of age.

Virgil Ellsworth, a native of Nebraska, worked as the manager of a refinery in the year Dick was born to him and his wife Katherine. Virgil’s parents were Edward and Eva Ellsworth; one decade earlier the Ellsworth family had lived in Yoder, Wyoming, where Edward worked as a clerk in a lumberyard. Virgil was at that time (1930) employed as a truck driver for an oil company. He worked his way up to become manager in just ten years.

The refinery was almost certainly the C & H Refinery, currently preserved on the National Registry of Historic Places. As the Lusk Herald reported, “C&H began operations in 1933 and closed in the late 1970’s. In 1999, the Guinness Book of World Records listed the refinery as the smallest functioning refinery in the world, and two years later, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”ii

Three years after the Ellsworths concluded their trek from Wyoming, the California League would re-establish its own presence in Fresno with the St. Louis Cardinals Class C affiliate. In a remarkable coincidence, one of Ellsworth’s earliest childhood heroes with the Cardinals would later become a Cubs teammate – Larry Jackson, who posted a record of 28-4, 2.85 ERA for the league leading Fresno Cardinals in 1952. Via the strong advocacy of baseball coach Ollie Bidwelliii, Ellsworth and his American Legion teammates maintained an allegiance to the professional minor-league squad throughout its transformation from the Cardinals to the Giants (including a year of independent status in 1957). While taking in as many of the minor-league games as he could, Ellsworth was having his own thoughts of carving a professional baseball career for himself.

It was not as if those thoughts were unwarranted: Dick was a major contributor to the Fresno High squad that, to this day, is considered one of the greatest California prep baseball teams of all time. Ellsworth was the unquestioned ace, compiling a 15-0 record for a team that featured four other players who would sign professional baseball contracts – including future Cincinnati Reds hurler Jim Maloney and major-league catcher/manager Pat Corrales (Fresno High alumni from other graduating classes include, but are not limited to, one-time Mets hurlers Tom Seaver, Dick Selma, and Bobby J. Jones). The team drew considerable attention from prominent scouts such as former major leaguers Dolph Camilli, Carl Hubbell, and Jerry Coleman (as well as the aforementioned Babe Herman and Gene Handley). As Ellsworth would later recall, “Before I graduated I received at least one Christmas greeting from a scout on every major league club.”iv

Three days after graduating from high school, Ellsworth unexpectedly found himself hurling from the major-league mound at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The original intent was for Dick to accompany the Cubs under the strict tutelage of pitching coach Freddy Fitzsimmons, but manager Bob Scheffing decided to showcase their $60,000 bonus baby for an inning or two in the annual charity event with the crosstown Chicago White Sox. Instead, Ellsworth twirled a four-hit, complete-game shutout which immediately caused the Cubs to rethink their strategy with the 18-year-old lefty. As Scheffing said after this masterful performance, “[Ellsworth is] ready right now to help us. Can’t say anything else until someone scores a run off him, can I?”v

Perhaps truer words had not been spoken for a team that had not posted a winning record since 1946, and the maladies that cursed the Cubs in 1958 stemmed largely from the pitching slab. Sporting the fourth-worst team earned run average in the major leagues, the Cubs turned to 12 different starters over the course of the season in hopes of finding a cure. Thus, a move made as much from desperation as calculation caused Ellsworth to take the mound in Crosley Field on June 22 against the Cincinnati Reds, but the results were far different from the exhibition against the White Sox six days earlier. Dick did not survive the third inning, giving up four runs (three of which scored when reliever Glen Hobbie yielded a grand slam), two wild pitches, and a hit batsman, prompting a one-way ticket to the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in Fort Worth, Texas for the lefty just weeks removed from his high school graduation. Things improved little in the Texas League, as the Fort Worth Cats captured the regular season championship for the first time since 1949, seemingly in spite of Dick’s efforts (17 appearances, 1-7 record with a 5.47 ERA).

In 1959, the Fort Worth Cats – along with the Dallas Rangers and Houston Buffs – bolted from the Texas League to the American Association (Triple-A) when the latter expanded for one season from eight to 10 teams. Ellsworth followed manager Lou Klein and 12 of his teammates to the American Association, where he abruptly displayed the type of performances that warranted the hefty signing bonus less than a year earlier:

  • A one-hit victory on May 14 over the Dallas Rangers
  • A three-hit victory on May 24 over the Louisville Colonels
  • A four-hit victory on June 8 over the Omaha Cardinals. In attendance was former major-league hurler Sal Maglie – then pitching coach in the Cardinals organization – who said “…this is the first I’ve seen of Ellsworth and I’m impressed. He has the makings to make it to the majors. He showed me a good fast ball and when he got in tight spots he pitched himself out of them.”vi
  • A two-hit victory on June 18 over the Minneapolis Millers
  • A three-hit victory on August 18 over the Houston Buffs
  • A one-hit victory in the season finale – September 9 – over the Louisville Colonels

Ellsworth paced the Cats with 28 starts and a team leading 2.60 ERA – the third lowest in the American Association. A lack of run support contributed to a middling 10-14 record, but the overall performance definitely caught the attention of the parent club, resulting in Ellsworth’s recall to the Cubs when major-league rosters were expanded in early September (though he did not make an appearance).

In December, while still three months away from his 20th birthday, the Cubs discovered that Ellsworth had attracted the attention of other major-league clubs as well. As Cubs Vice President John Holland offered “…if there was ever any doubt about [Ellsworth’s] tremendous future, it was dispelled during the winter meetings when we began sounding out other ball clubs for deals…They always wanted Ellsworth…but [he] isn’t for sale.” Indeed, the Cubs had sported the youngest starting rotation in the National League in 1959, and were tentatively considering an even younger squad with the prospect of the 20-year-old joining the starting staff in the forthcoming 1960 campaign.vii

Circumstances dictated that these tentative plans did not survive spring training, and Ellsworth would be assigned to the Cubs’ newly-affiliated Houston Buffs (the American Association had reverted back to an eight team league in 1960, with Dallas and the Cubs’ formerly affiliated Fort Worth merging into part of the Kansas City Athletics organization). As explained by coach Elvin Tappe, “The only reason Dick was farmed out to Houston…was for him to get better control of himself…[h]e’d get to stomping around out on the mound when things weren’t going right for him and the only way for him to overcome it was on his own. And we thought he had a better chance to do it in the minors.”viii

This reasonable approach of allowing Ellsworth to mature in the minors was soon derailed by events taking place in both Chicago and Houston. The Cubs’ experiment of a youthful starting corps was flailing, evidenced by a 6.20 team ERA at the end of April that contributed to a 3-10, last-place start to the season. Meanwhile, on the last day of April, Ellsworth was posting what turned out to be his last game ever in the minor leagues, a three-hit shutout which lowered his ERA to 0.86 in 21 innings pitched. The Cubs were convinced that there were no further challenges for Ellsworth in the minors, and he was promptly recalled to the parent team.

The promotion provided immediate dividends as Ellsworth won his first two starts in fine fashion, carving a 0.56 ERA in 16 innings pitched. Thereafter, Dick appeared in 29 additional games throughout the season while carving a 7-13 record overall – a deceptive barometer of his contributions, as seven of the 13 losses were due to a lack of run support or a porous defense (evidenced by Ellsworth’s 2.79 ERA in those seven losses). Among the 11 starting pitchers used throughout the season, Ellsworth paced the Cubs with a 3.72 ERA while placing himself among the team leaders in games started, innings pitched, games completed, wins, and strikeouts – a remarkable achievement considering he did not make his first appearance until May 4, and missed at least two starts due to elbow stiffness in July.

In many respects the 1961 campaign mirrored Ellsworth’s efforts of the preceding year, losing some heartbreaking outings while placing among the team leaders in many of the same pitching categories (including one particular, albeit dubious, distinction of being the only National League pitcher to surrender two grand slams during the season). Still, the achievements garnered by Ellsworth from 1960-61 did not come close to predicting the Jekyll-and-Hyde performances that lay ahead.

In 1962, the Chicago Cubs posted its first 100-loss season in franchise history, spared a last-place finish by the mere existence of the expansion New York Mets. The pitching staff contributed its share to this downward spiral, as the once-heralded stable of slab youngsters – Ellsworth, Don Cardwell, Glen Hobbie, and Bob Anderson – combined for a 5.07 ERA while accumulating over 55% of the team’s losses. Meanwhile, Ellsworth joined three other National League pitchers (all from the expansion Mets or Houston Colt .45s) in posting his first 20-loss season.

This campaign was particularly disappointing because of the expectations placed on Ellsworth going into the season. He’d concluded the 1961 season on a high note – 3-1, 1.90 ERA in his final seven appearances – and continued his mastery by putting up a fine 0.82 ERA in his first 11 innings of spring training. These numbers were, in part, why pitching coach Vedie Himsl offered the following assessment: “Dick has reached the temperamental poise that could turn him into a big winner.”ix Unfortunately, “big winner” was still a year away, and although Ellsworth would show glimpses of the ace-in-waiting that the Cubs so desperately needed – e.g., a five-hit complete game victory over the Houston Colt .45s wherein he did not surrender an earned run – there were other, much uglier stretches that contributed largely to his dismal campaign, as exemplified by a combined 10.76 ERA in 12 of his 20 losses.

As terrible as the Cubs were in 1962, the team abruptly realized its first winning season in 17 years during the following campaign – albeit barely a tick over .500 (82-80) which still resulted in a second division, seventh-place finish in the standings. The team abandoned the youth movement, as evidenced by the veteran presence of starting pitchers Bob Buhl (secured partially into the 1962 campaign) and Larry Jackson (the same righty-hurler whom Ellsworth had idolized 11 years earlier in Fresno), and the benefits accrued immediately as the team ERA was shaved nearly a run and one-half less than the preceding season (4.54 to 3.08). One beneficiary of this overall mound success was the still very young (23-year-old) Dick Ellsworth, who went on to post the most successful campaign of his major-league career.

Entering the 1963 season, confidence in Ellsworth still abounded from all sectors, including the lefty himself. As indicated in a league-wide survey of baseball scribes, observers were not deterred by Ellsworth’s preceding campaign, as he garnered such team-wide accolades as “Best Young Pitcher”, “Likeliest to Improve” and “Most Improved Player”.x As reported, the determined youngster “now has the confidence he lacked…’I’m no 20-game loser,’ he said with anger when he reported to [spring training]. Ellsworth thereupon went out and led the Cubs during the exhibition season, turning in a snappy 0.90 ERA for 20 spring innings, easily the best on the staff.”xi

Of course, for a major-league pitcher, confidence and determination are good – developing an effective third pitch is even better! Ellsworth began tinkering with the slider, but it was pitching coach Fred Martin and veteran teammates Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl who helped the young lefty in perfecting his delivery. As Ellsworth stated a year later, “I was throwing [the slider] wrong, trying to snap my wrist too much and it hurt my arm…[but when cultivated the slider] helped set up my other pitches. In 1962, the batters began laying on my sinking fast ball over the outside of the plate. They knew it was coming and they began leaning over the plate and hitting it to right field. The slider gave me a pitch that kept them honest. I’d push the right-handers back by jamming them on the wrists with the slider.”xii

With this additional pitch as part of his overall arsenal, Ellsworth would go on to post one of the most productive seasons in Cubs franchise history, and relish in the accolades that followed. Remarkably, the 22 victories, accompanied by a 2.11 ERA – second in the National League to Sandy Koufax’s miniscule 1.88 – told only part of the story. Ellsworth twirled an accumulated 2.02 ERA in nine appearances where he sustained either a loss or no decision, and it is conceivable that had he received even the slighted modicum of run support in these outings, Ellsworth arguably could have been flirting with the rare 30-wins season! Still, the 22 victories placed him in select company – four other National League pitchers won at least 20 games in 1963, the best representation since 1951 when there were seven such accomplished hurlers. Of these four, three went on to induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, while the fourth happened to be Dick’s former high school teammate, Jim Maloney.

From the season’s outset, Ellsworth amassed league-wide recognition for his numerous accomplishments. For example, a 4-1 mark that went along with a 1.29 ERA earned Ellsworth the National League Player of the Month Award for May. Later, when Ellsworth cracked the 20-win threshold on September 2, he became the first such Cubs hurler in 18 years, and his 22nd win 26 days later matched the most wins by a Cubs southpaw since Jim (Hippo) Vaughn in 1918. He would go on to garner votes toward the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award, and lockdown the league’s Comeback Player of the Year Award (incidentally, Ellsworth was the first pitcher since Paul Derringer in the 1934-35 campaigns to win 20 games immediately following a 20-loss campaign, a feat which has been accomplished only twice since – in fact, when Randy Jones followed suit in the 1974-75 campaigns, he joined Ellsworth as the only N.L. southpaws to turn this feat in the history of the game). Not to be outdone, Ellsworth’s hometown proceeded to induct both Dick and Jim Maloney into the Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame on November 13.

Still, perhaps nothing represents Ellsworth’s charmed season more so than the particular achievement attained at the plate midway through the 1963 campaign. Although the lefty batter would be known for a number of accomplishments throughout his career, hitting was not one of them. A lifetime batting average of .088 was accompanied by the fact that in 673 career at-bats, he struck out nearly 50% of the time (322). Therefore, the afternoon game of July 15 would result in a particular career highlight, as Ellsworth stroked a bases-loaded single against St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ernie Broglio in the seventh inning which resulted in the only two runs scored in this classic pitchers’ duel. The two runs batted in would represent nearly 10% of Ellsworth’s career total of 22, and as he modestly stated afterward, “It’s the only time I ever won my own game with a hit…[a]fter all, I don’t get very many of them.”xiii

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Cubs entered the 1964 season with realistic expectations of taking part in the pennant chase. In fact, the Cubs were a mere five and one-half games off the pace a third of the way into the campaign when, on June 15, they entered into a six-player trade with the St. Louis Cardinals that featured future Hall of Famer Lou Brock going to the Cardinals for righty Ernie Broglio – a move intended to supplement the Cubs’ “Big Three” starting rotation of Jackson, Ellsworth, and Buhl. Unfortunately, an ailing arm ultimately sidelined Broglio (in fact, postseason surgery proved ineffective, and Broglio was out of the major leagues 17 starts later), and his loss, compounded by a 19-34 tailspin beginning in late July, effectively eliminated the team from any pennant consideration.

The team’s late season futility would be mirrored in Ellsworth’s mound efforts as well. Dick started the season strong, and a 10-6, 2.87 ERA would result in his selection to the National League’s All-Star squad – the only such honor in his 13-year major-league career. Not long after returning from the Midsummer Classic, Ellsworth’s numbers abruptly turned south. Elbow tendinitis set in, and in his final 15 appearances he posted a 2-8 record accompanied by a 5.36 ERA (which, combined with a 3-9 finish by mound mate Bob Buhl, goes a long way in explaining the Cubs’ demise). Dick’s late-season collapse also resulted in his surrendering the most home runs (34, which remains a franchise record for a left-handed hurler), earned runs, and hits in the National League throughout the entire 1964 season.

Ellsworth’s 1965 campaign was remarkable in the manner by which it so closely resembled the preceding season. For example, a strong start to the season (10-4, 3.23 ERA) was witness to another late-season collapse – once again, the elbow tendinitis being a contributing factor -- resulting in a second consecutive campaign of 14 wins. A season-ending ERA of 3.75 and 3.81 in 1964 and 1965 respectively were figures not far removed from the league average, but still resulted in losing campaigns for the lefty. Perhaps it was the curse of pitching for the Cubs – a team not known for its offensive prowess during these years – but what is certain is that Ellsworth’s won-loss record would have benefitted from a little more run support, as evidenced by the following comparisons of contemporary pitchers with similar ERAs who were beneficiaries of sufficient run support:

1964  

Dick Ellsworth, 3.75, 14-18
Ray Sadecki, 3.68, 20-11
Denny Lemaster, 4.15, 17-11

1965  

Dick Ellsworth, 3.81, 14-15
Sammy Ellis, 3.79, 22-10
Wade Blasingame, 3.77, 16-10

Conceivably, the frustration Ellsworth experienced could best be expressed by recalling the hard-luck loss he sustained on May 15, 1965, when he held the Los Angeles Dodgers to one hit, did not yield a single earned run, and still lost by a score of 3-1. In absorbing such a loss, much less the Cubs’ eighth-place campaign overall, any reasonable athlete could not be faulted for looking forward to the next season.

That winter the Cubs made a bold move in an attempt to end the continuing frustration by hiring Leo Durocher to take the helm. The Cubs had finished in eighth place in two consecutive campaigns, and the once-successful manager of both the Dodgers and Giants offered the opinion that “[t]his definitely was not an eighth-place ball club.”xiv As fate would dictate, Durocher was absolutely correct – 13 games into the 1966 season, the Cubs took possession of last place and never relinquished that hold.

Perhaps Ellsworth should have had a premonition of the fate awaiting him, as a sterling start to the season – a 2.14 ERA through ten appearances spanning 75 2/3rd innings – still resulted in one win against seven losses. Those losses continued to accumulate for both the team and the hurler, and for the second time in five years, the Cubs suffered a 100-loss campaign (a third such season arrived in 2012), while Ellsworth posted his second-ever 20-loss season. In so doing, Ellsworth joined the ranks of only 16 other major league pitchers who, since 1920, have posted two such campaigns (he also is the last non-knuckle ball hurler to have ever done so). Furthermore, in compiling 22 losses overall, Ellsworth holds the franchise post-1900 record for losses by a left-handed hurler in a season, as well as setting the mark for hits allowed (321), runs allowed (150), and earned runs allowed (119).

As difficult as it must have been to absorb such ghastly numbers, a closer examination is once again merited: Ellsworth’s season ending 3.98 ERA compares favorably to those of Tony Cloninger (4.12), Vern Law (4.05), and Milt Pappas (4.29), yet none of these hurlers came close to a 20-loss season (in fact, each of them had a winning percentage!). “He’s still one of the best pitchers we’ve got,” offered Durocher,xv and this assessment was readily apparent by the fact that Ellsworth was still among the team leaders in many of the club’s pitching categories. “Don’t let Dick’s won-and-lost record fool you,” said future Hall of Fame inductee Willie McCovey, “[i]t’s misleading. He’s tough on any hitter.”xvi

Ironically, McCovey and Ellsworth nearly found themselves teammates in San Francisco during the 1966 campaign. The Giants had long coveted the lefty hurler (which was of further irony in itself, as Giants farm director Carl Hubbell had personally scouted Dick in 1958, and he and his staff had concluded that “[Ellsworth] isn’t that good. He’ll never pitch in the big leagues”).xvii In May 1966 “[i]t was reported that Manager Herman Franks of the Giants was eager to swap [another future Hall of Fame inductee, Orlando] Cepeda and probably Jim Davenport for Dick Ellsworth because he needs a southpaw starter, but that team owner Horace Stoneham flatly refused to part with Cepeda.”xviii  (Cepeda was instead dealt to the Cardinals for lefty Ray Sadecki.) Instead of heading west to San Francisco, Ellsworth soon found himself travelling in the opposite direction, because on December 7 the Cubs traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies for righty Ray Culp and cash considerations in what amounted to a swap of each team’s once-prized bonus babies (Culp had reportedly signed for $100,000 in 1959 before his 18th birthday).

The trade united Ellsworth with an already strong pitching staff that included future Hall of Fame inductee Jim Bunning, fellow-lefty Chris Short, and former teammate and childhood idol Larry Jackson (who, along with Bob Buhl, was traded to the Phillies in April 1966). With the addition of Ellsworth “I don’t think any club can match our top four starters,” said Phillies Manager Gene Mauch,xix and the team entered the 1967 season with high pennant hopes.

Indeed, the pitching thrived, with a team ERA of 3.10 that ranked fourth in the National League – unfortunately, a team-wide offensive slump would contribute to an 82-80 overall tally that resulted in a distant fifth-place finish. Ellsworth struggled likewise, as evidenced by a 6-7 record with an ERA of 4.38. There were the occasional glimpses of the former 22-game winner, as demonstrated by the six-hit shutout hurled against his late teammates, resulting in his first career shutout since June 23, 1964 (against the Phillies). Unfortunately, these brief glimpses were balanced against 11 starts wherein Ellsworth recorded a 0-6 mark with an unenviable 10.53 ERA, resulting in Dick being relegated to the bullpen throughout various parts of the campaign. This demotion actually produced some rather interesting results, as Ellsworth made 11 relief appearances spanning 19 2/3 innings without surrendering a single earned run! This fine relief effort notwithstanding, Ellsworth would soon find that he was on the move again.

On December 15, 1967, Ellsworth was packaged 300 miles north to Boston, thereby initiating his American League endeavors. Historic Fenway Park is alleged to be the graveyard for left-handed pitchers, but Ellsworth arguably posted his second-best major-league campaign while hurling for the Red Sox in 1968. Boston was still basking in the wake of the “Impossible Dream” season – the 1967 American League Championship – but the general opinion was that the “Red Sox must improve their pitching if they hope to repeat as pennant winners.”xx The acquisition of Ellsworth, coming on the heels of gaining Ray Culp 15 days earlier (the very same Ray Culp traded to the Cubs for Ellsworth less than a year earlier) was deemed to have met that goal.

Nine days after Ellsworth was acquired, the Sox’ reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, Jim Lonborg, was severely injured in a skiing accident at Lake Tahoe, and Boston suddenly found itself in need of an Opening Day starter. That role was filled by Ellsworth on the merits of a solid spring training that included a strong seven-inning victory over the team that had just discarded him, and on April 10 Dick twirled a complete-game Opening Day victory over the Tigers in Detroit that would set the tone for his fine season overall. His 16 victories qualified Ellsworth for the most wins by a Boston lefty in 15 years, and further anointed him co-leader in team victories with Ray Culp (largely on the strength of a combined 23-4 to finish the season). Interestingly, the events surrounding Ellsworth and Culp, beginning December 7, 1966, are believed to be a one-time-only sequence in the history of the game, as no other pair of pitchers is known to have been traded for one another, only to become teammates the following season in which they both became co-leaders in that team’s victories (adding to this unique twist is the fact that the pair were not only close friends, they were also roommates when the team travelled on the road).

It is also worth pointing out that Ellsworth lost approximately four or five starting assignments when he contracted mumps in August (prompting roomie Culp and 11 other teammates to receive immediate immunization shots). At the time he was hospitalized, Ellsworth was in the midst of a 6-1 run. After a layoff of more than three weeks, he picked up right where he left off, concluding the season with a comparable 5-1 mark (a fine 2.40 ERA accompanied this entire run that started on July 1). Considering the pace he’d set for himself over this extended period, one wonders if Ellsworth could’ve gone on to win 20 games during the 1968 campaign had he not lost time while falling victim to the infectious disease. Still, his overall 16-7 mark placed him among the American League leaders in both wins and winning percentage while also garnering attention in a former haunt, as the Chicago baseball writers selected Ellsworth its chapter’s recipient of the William Wrigley, Jr. Memorial award for the comeback of the year.

Surprisingly, the 1969 campaign was barely underway when Ellsworth was traded again – this time to the Cleveland Indians in a large six-player transaction. Initial reports indicated that the Indians had sought Dick out as the third starter – behind Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant – in what was hoped to be a season of pennant pursuits for the Tribe, but another report in 1970 may have come closer to the truth. A perception among the Boston brass indicated that they thought Ellsworth had lost something off his fastball, “and feeling he could not repeat [the production of the 1968 campaign], the Red Sox traded him to Cleveland.”xxi

Whether it was a case of velocity lost, the results of a nagging injury – Ellsworth sustained a chipped bone in his left ankle during spring training that was aggravated again in April – or another reason altogether, the 1969 campaign came eerily close to statistically replicating the poor season Dick had with the Phillies in 1967. The Indians did not fare much better – a rained-out finale may have prevented the Indians from realizing their second 100-loss campaign in franchise history, but the 99 losses still represented the worst record in the American League (1 1/2 games worse than the expansion Seattle Pilots). Incidentally, over the course of the season, Indians righty Luis Tiant lost 20 games on the heels of his 20-win campaign the year before – an exact reversal of that which Ellsworth posted over the 1962-63 campaigns. As the Indians limped to the finish line, the Cleveland press was rife with opinions on the need to trade the existing veteran talent and rebuild the team from the bottom up. In this regard, Ellsworth’s name was mentioned prominently with such “established but aging major leaguers [such as] Stan Williams…Juan Pizarro [and] Chuck Hinton.”xxii

Although Ellsworth was not traded during the offseason, he was eventually purchased by the Milwaukee Brewers during the 1970 campaign, marking Dick’s fifth different team in as many years. Relegated almost exclusively to the pen – he did make one start while still with Cleveland – Ellsworth accumulated 70 innings over the 1970-71 campaigns before the end, a far cry from the 200-plus innings he hurled in the midst of his many seasons with the Cubs. He closed out his career with a .456 winning percentage, a number which would seemingly mar his overall record, but there remains far more to the story.

Through the end of the 2012 season, Ellsworth still remains one of only six lefthanders to top the Cubs staff in wins since World War II. Furthermore, from 1960-66, Ellsworth’s winning percentage exceeded that of the Cubs as a whole (.435 to .422), leading one to speculate whether this mark would have been even greater had Ellsworth found himself pitching for someone other than a perennial second-division club. It is worth recalling that the Phillies had pursued Ellsworth vigorously when he was still a Fresno High School hurler in 1958. Six years later, the Phillies concluded the 1964 campaign with a .568 winning percentage after a late-season collapse – could Ellsworth have thrived on this comparably successful team, and possibly have changed baseball history by helping to prevent the infamous “Phillie Phold” that transpired?

Speculation aside, Dick returned to Fresno after his playing career and became immersed in the real estate profession. The skills gleaned from his offseason work in sales and public relations with Serta Mattress Company while in Chicago mapped over nicely to a long and very successful venture (including attaining the level of Senior Vice President, Land Division) in commercial transactions with Grubb & Ellis/Pearson Realty. Dick’s success and versatility are represented by the firm’s website description of him herein: “[Ellsworth’s] real estate expertise ranges from office, industrial, and shopping center development to general leasing and sales of commercial property.”

Perhaps it is deeply imbedded in the blood, but Ellsworth’s post-retirement connections with the baseball world could never be described as a distant relationship, evidenced by an ownership stake he has in the Fresno Grizzlies, a San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League since 1998. Furthermore, son Steve carved his own mark in the game, as he was courted by the Twins and Indians in 1980 and ultimately drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the first round (ninth pick overall) of the 1981 June draft – Secondary Phase, then going on to make his major-league debut in 1988. At 6’8”, it was hard to imagine that this same tall young man had, 20 years earlier and considerably smaller, accompanied Dick onto the field at Fenway Park during the annual Fathers and Sons game.

In closing, an examination of the time period in which Ellsworth entered the major leagues is warranted. As cited above, Ellsworth was promoted to the parent team when still a very young 20 years old – much less 18, when the Cubs first experimented with Dick in his 1958 debut in Cincinnati in June of that year. With few exceptions – Dwight Gooden in the 1980s; Kerry Wood in 1998 – the modern major-league team will rarely promote so young a prospect for fear of derailing the team’s sizeable investment in both time and money. A precise, detailed, and often lengthy regimen is prescribed for each prospect as he weaves his way through the minor leagues, in order to facilitate the maturation process that will hopefully lead to a successful major-league career.

In 1960, Ellsworth seemingly displayed that he had nothing more to learn in the minor leagues, and with the Cubs failing miserably at the same time, his promotion seemed inevitable. Still, as evidenced in the modern game’s longer development process, one is left to wonder if such extended development would not have better served both Dick and the Cubs. For example, had Ellsworth mastered the slider in the minors, could he have stepped into the major leagues a more accomplished and confident pitcher? Would that same confidence have mapped over to a frequent repetition of the sterling season he delivered in 1963?

These will forever remain questions without an answer, but it is worth recalling the high esteem Ellsworth was held in as evidenced by the above-cited quote from Willie McCovey. This strong young prospect, a product of the California prep schools in the 1950s, had an extremely bright future before him. Did the rush to the major leagues serve to somewhat hinder that development such that this fine lefty does not share the present accolades of a Sandy Koufax or Whitey Ford (contemporaries of Ellsworth who were likewise feared from the mound)? Perhaps this is the lesson learned in the slower minor-league progression seen in professional baseball today.

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks for the e-mail input provided by Mr. Ellsworth on November 9, 2012. Further assistance was provided by Sandra Talmadge, Jan Larson, and Michael Bass.

 

Sources

www.ancestry.com

www.hall-of-fame-baseball.com/dick-ellsworth.php

www.rivals.com/content.asp?cid=803708

http://chicago.cubs.mlb.com/chc/history/season_records.jsp

http://www.pearsonrealty.com/ge/ge_home.html

 

Notes

i “Quakers Finished Second to Cubs in Bidding Match,” The Sporting News, August 17, 1963, 3.

ii Lusk Herald, July 21, 2011.

iii “Four Fresno Aces Collected 230 Gs in Bonuses,” The Sporting News, June 10, 1959, 19.

iv “Dick Ellsworth is the best club lefty in 45 years,” Hall-Of-Fame-Baseball.com

v “Cub Bonus Kid Blanks Chisox in Brilliant Bow,” The Sporting News, June 25, 1958, 26.

vi “American Association,” The Sporting News, June 17, 1959, 34.

vii “Grimm Wheels Out Ellsworth for Kiddie Unit,” The Sporting News, December 23, 1959, 9.

viii “Cubs Pegging Extra-Sharp Ellsworth for Banner Year,” The Sporting News, March 28, 1962, 21.

ix “Tighter Defense, Sharper Hurling No. 1 Bruin Goals,” The Sporting News, December 27, 1961, 30.

x “N.L. Writers Make Their Picks,” The Sporting News, April 20, 1963, 14.

xi “Bruins Bare Claws Behind Sharp Hill Work of Big Three,” The Sporting News, April 27, 1963, 6.

xii “Cub Ace Ellsworth Doffs Hat to Mates For Strong Support,” The Sporting News, February 1, 1964, 20.

xiii “Plate Patsy Ellsworth Stars At Dish,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1963, 21.

xiv “P.K. Asks Lippy to Lead Cubs to Light,” The Sporting News, November 6, 1965, 3.

xv “Ellsworth Says He’s Frightened By Bad Season,” The Sporting News, August 19, 1966, 7.

xvi “Stretch Proved His Point – Whacked Lefties,” The Sporting News, November 19, 1966, 33.

xvii “Ellsworth, Maloney Latest From Area to Gain Fame,” The Sporting News, September 28, 1963, 4.

xviii “Leo Flavoring His Cubs With Youth, Speed,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1966, 7.

xix “Phils’ Four Starters Best in Baseball, Mauch Boasts,” The Sporting News, March 4, 1967, 9.

xx “Can Ellsworth Cure Bosox’ Old Malady, Weak Left Wings?” The Sporting News, December 30, 1967, 30.

xxi “Bosox Hail Visit From Santa!” The Sporting News, January 3, 1970, 39.

xxii “Poor Injuns Harvest A Skimpy Farm Crop,” The Sporting News, September 13, 1969, 17.

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