John “Zeke” Bella, a Greenwich native who played for the New York Yankees in the late 1950s and later became a long-serving youth sports official in town, died Sunday from complications related to a stroke and fall he suffered during the last week. He was 83.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes produced by the town, Bella was also one of its most beloved. He earned one of his most prestigious accolades Oct. 20 when he was inducted with Steve Young and Sue Merz into the inaugural class of the Greenwich High School Sports Hall of Fame.
“Zeke was a great man; a molder of boys into men,” said Young, a three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers. “I’m grateful for his inspiring me to be better. He was an important part of the rich athletic tradition in Greenwich. His hearty ‘strike three’ will be missed.”
Chris Hunt, co-coordinator of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Old Greenwich, also paid tribute to Bella.
“We were devastated to learn of Zeke Bella’s passing,” he said. “He was a legendary official, superlative athlete at Greenwich High School in both football and baseball and did what few are able to do – make it all of the way to the major leagues, which he did with the Yanks and A’s.”
Bella was born on Aug. 22, 1930. Raised in Greenwich, he emerged early as a standout athlete. He played football, basketball and baseball at Greenwich High School.
He took his nickname from first baseman Zeke Bonura, one of his favorite players on the 1939 New York baseball Giants.
Bella graduated from high school at age 16 in 1947. He then attended a military academy for a year before moving on to semi-pro stints on teams in Hertford, N.C., and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He signed with the Yankees in 1951 and played in the team’s farm system for several years.
After serving in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1954 during the Korean War, Bella returned to baseball in 1955. The outfielder was called up to the Yankees at the end of the 1957 season. The Bronx Bombers won the American League that season, but lost the World Series in seven games to the Milwaukee Braves.
Bella was traded to the Kansas City A’s in 1959. He retired from baseball at the end of the 1959 season, following two operations on his left eye.
Returning to Greenwich in 1960, he embarked on a long career with the U.S. Postal Service.
In his post-playing career, Bella developed an important community presence as a youth sports official and mentor to many young players. His record included umpiring junior and senior Babe Ruth and high school baseball games.
“He was one of our own and instantly a hero to us,” state Rep. Fred Camillo, R-151, who played in Babe Ruth games officiated by Bella. “I had his baseball card when I was a kid. He was this great figure, a legend, who was actually doing my games.”
Bella’s officiating inspired Camillo. In addition to his legislative career, Camillo is an umpire, whose experience includes junior and senior Babe Ruth games, FCIAC games and private-school contests.
“He was a good example of how to conduct yourself on the field,” he added. “The lessons we learned on the field from guys like Zeke stayed with us our whole lives.”
Dan Gasparino, a 1978 Greenwich High graduate who played baseball for the University of Vermont and was later signed by the Yankees organization, also paid tribute to Bella.
“I had the honor to catch a lot of games with Zeke umping behind me,” he said. “He always took charge and gave me advice and pointers during the course of the games we shared. It’s the end of an era for Greenwich sports.”
The current generation of Greenwich youth athletes also looked up to Bella.
“Those that have come before us like Zeke helped pave the way for each succeeding generation,” said J.T. Hintzen, a Greenwich High baseball team tri-captain, during his introduction of Bella at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “Six decades of baseball players – all influenced by Zeke in some fashion – were that much better.
“We are the present-day beneficiaries of the hard work and sacrifice he made and, because of that, the entire baseball program over the years has been one of the most successful in the state.”