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Former Cubs lefthander Dick Ellsworth has died

He had one truly outstanding season on the North Side.

Dick Ellsworth was a lefthanded pitcher who exhibited great promise for the Cubs in the early 1960s.

In 1963, he made 37 starts, went 22-10 (back when individual pitcher wins really meant something), posted a 2.11 ERA and led the major leagues in ERA+ at 167. Yes, better than Sandy Koufax of the pennant-winning Dodgers. Koufax won the NL MVP and the (then single) Cy Young Award, but there were those who favorably compared Ellsworth to Koufax. After he threw a one-hitter against the Phillies June 1, Edward Prell wrote in the Tribune:

Dick Ellsworth has been a magnificent pitcher all year. Today that elegant word was inadequate when the 23-year-old Cub lefty held the Phillies to one hit — a bunt — in a 2-0 victory. It was the finest performance of his budding career.

Ellsworth finished 19th in NL MVP voting that year, and his 10.2 bWAR season was a close second to Koufax’ 10.7. It remains to this day the second-best bWAR season by any Cubs pitcher (Pete Alexander, 11.9 in 1920 leads the list).

Injuries prevented Ellsworth from fulfilling that promising beginning, and eventually the Cubs traded him away.

Dick Ellsworth passed away Monday in his hometown of Fresno, California, aged 82.

He was born in Lusk, Wyoming on March 22, 1940, and his family moved to Fresno when Dick was a child. He was a high-school sports star there, and one of his high school teammates was Jim Maloney, who later would no-hit the Cubs in 1965.

Ellsworth was signed by the Cubs June 13, 1958, and then something happened that might have altered his future. Per his SABR biography:

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?

Well, as you know the Cubs were desperate for anything to help them back then, and that included rushing high school kids to the major leagues. He started a game nine days later against the Reds and, perhaps predictably, got pounded (four runs in fewer than three innings).

He spent the next year-plus in the minor leagues, then made the Cubs rotation in 1960. That year and the following two were good, but not great, seasons for the lefthander, all the while piling up innings on a very young arm — he didn’t turn 22 until just before the 1962 season. Pitchers got abused like that all the time back then.

Then followed the 1963 season, which was great, but also piled 290⅔ innings on Ellsworth’s left arm. For context, no Cubs pitcher has thrown that many since Fergie Jenkins threw 325 innings in 1971.

Again, predictably, that led to Ellsworth being injured. Baseball writer and book author George Castle told me:

Dick did say during the 1964 season that he suffered tendinitis, which prevented him from throwing his breaking pitches. He continued making his starts, though, and declined from 10-7, 2.80 in early July to a a final 14-18, 3.75 mark, posting a 4.98 ERA over his final 20 outings. He had a similar poor finish in 1965, falling from 9-3, 3.15 on June 30 to 14-15, 3.81 at season’s end (4.47 ERA over his last 18 starts).

After his 22-loss season in 1966, Ellsworth was traded to the Phillies for Ray Culp. Ray did not pitch all that badly for the Cubs, but aggravated Leo Durocher and was in turn traded to the Red Sox for a nonentity in Bill Schlesinger. Amazingly, Ellsworth also found his way to Boston. Ellsworth had a bit of a comeback 16-7, 3.03 season in 1968 before sliding out of the majors by 1971.

After his baseball career, Ellsworth returned to Fresno and got into commercial real estate, a career at which he was quite successful. He also had an ownership interest in the Triple-A franchise in Fresno for many years beginning in 2005.

There was a post-career incident at Wrigley Field that soured him on the Cubs. From George Castle:

Dick said he came back to Wrigley in the late 1980s, and walked onto the field. Some young front-office functionary, not knowing who Dick was, yelled at him to get off the field. From then on, he declined to be part of any official Cubs event and attended games as a fan only

That’s really too bad, because Ellsworth was a real favorite of mine from back in the day — a pitcher I really thought could have been part of a 1960s Cubs renaissance, and he might have, if not for the injuries and overuse.

Before that 1980s incident, Ellsworth served as the starting pitcher in the very first Old-Timers Game played at Wrigley Field June 25, 1977 — a young “old timer” at age 37. You can see him pitch starting at about 18:30 into this video:

Interestingly, Ellsworth wore No. 31 in that game, the number he wore for his one 1958 appearance. Later, he wore No. 37 from 1960-66 for the Cubs.

Sincere condolences to Dick Ellsworth’s family — among whom is his son Steve, who pitched briefly for the Red Sox in 1988 — and friends. Rest in peace.