The following excerpt is from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s “Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration.” Henry Pennymon provided the newspaper with the above photo of Ellis, No. 42.
BY DARREN IVY
The start of a phone conversation with Pine Bluff sports legend Arthur “Knute” Ellis is predictable.
“Is this Knute Ellis?” the caller asks.
“Yep, what is left of me,” says Ellis, 89, who now makes his home in Chicago.
Ellis was one of the top athletes in Arkansas during his athletic prime in the 1930s and 1940s, playing quarterback on a national champion high school football team and later playing the same position on an undefeated college team.
Ellis also was recruited by several Negro League baseball teams, but chose to further his education. Ellis became one of the first black men to enlist as a sailor in the Navy during World War II.
“He is an extraordinary man,” said Henry Pennymon of Pine Bluff, who grew up watching Ellis at Merrill High School and Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College.
Had it not been for a chance meeting with Merrill football Coach Henry Foster in 1931, Ellis likely would have been another story of what could have been.
Ellis, who was born in Pine Bluff, had dropped out of school after ninth grade and moved with his mother to Chicago to work. But during this particular summer he had returned home.
One day Ellis was practicing his punting — his kicks traveling 60 to 70 yards in the air — when Foster walked by the park in Pine Bluff.
Foster was impressed, and recruited the 19-year-old Ellis to Merrill. Unlike Illinois, where Ellis would have been too old, Arkansas didn’t have any age limitations.
“The only eligibility rule was that you had to be in school and get the grades,” Ellis said.
Ellis had three years of eligibility when he joined the team. The first season the team won one game before going undefeated in state play the next two seasons, winning two black state championships.
Merrill was crowned the mythical national champion of black high school football after defeating Roosevelt High School of Gary, Ind., in 1933.
Ellis was recruited to AM&N by Coach James Hazzard after his success as a “triple threat” quarterback, halfback and kicker.
He played on the 1934 team, which was Hazzard’s last year, but starred as a starting quarterback and halfback for Coach James McCaray in 1935 and 1936 and Coach Bill Taylor in 1937. Those teams compiled a 15-9-4 record.
Ellis said the 1937 season, in which AM&N posted a 6-0-3 record, was bittersweet. He earned All-Southwest Athletic Conference honors, but had he made extra point attempts in 13-13 ties with Southern and Wiley, the Golden Lions would have finished 8-0-1.
The Pittsburgh Courier didn’t hold those misses against Ellis when it came time to choose a team of black all-stars to face the 1938 Chicago Bears in an exhibition game.
Ellis, AM&N teammate Madison “Mack” Robinson and Little Rock native Charles “Bo” Spearman of LeMoyne College were among the players who were trounced 51-0 by the Bears, runners-up to the Washington Redskins in the segregated NFL championship that season.
“The team wasn’t really decided until the last minute, so we really only had a couple of weeks to prepare for a professional team,” said Ellis, who never left the bench. “Most of the players on the team had graduated the previous fall so they weren’t in shape.
“Maybe we would have made a better showing if we had a chance to make a showing. That was the only year we did that. The public wasn’t too enthused.”
Neither was Bears owner George Ha- las, who opted not to play another game against the black players.
Despite not playing in the game, Ellis he said he was able to make some contacts that would help him make the 1939 Chicago Brown Bombers — an all-black minor- league football team that played and practiced in Chicago’s Washington Park.
Ellis said he played halfback in four of the six games that season against teams from around Chicago, and on one occasion the team traveled to Cleveland to play.
The coach, in name only, was Fred “Duke” Slater, who was a star lineman at Iowa from 1919 to 1921, Ellis said.
“Most of the players coached themselves,” Ellis said. “There wasn’t any sponsoring and we usually didn’t get paid. The players basically volunteered.”
Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein scheduled a few games for the Brown Bombers in which the team would receive 40 percent of the gate and Saperstein the rest, Ellis said. .
One season would be all Ellis spent with the Brown Bombers.
Ellis was hired to teach and coach football, basketball and track at Moten High School in Marianna in the fall of 1939. He took as much pride in his teaching as he did coaching.
“The state of Arkansas gave scholarships to outstanding teachers and after the first year I was recommended,” Ellis said. “So I took five hours at Fisk College toward my master’s degree.”
Accepting the scholarship was a difficult choice for the then 27-year-old Ellis, who had also received offers that summer to play professional baseball for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro leagues and Asheville, N.C., of the Piedmont League.
“I wanted to finish up my schooling,” Ellis said.
Unfortunately for Ellis, it would be his last opportunity to play professional baseball. He also never would finish his master’s degree.
Ellis had spent his summers playing on the baseball fields of Pine Bluff, from the time he was young. He joined his first semipro team, the Pine Bluff Boosters, in the summer of 1933. Ellis played games around Arkansas as well as in Shreveport and Monroe, La., and Piney Wood, Miss.
Questions arose as to whether playing semipro baseball would affect his high school and college athletic eligibility so he would not return in 1934. He did play for AM&N’s baseball team his freshman year before it was disbanded in 1935.
Ellis traveled to Butte, Mont., in the summer of 1935 with his college roommate, William Fenter, and some other ballplayers from Arkansas to play for the Butte Colored Giants, a semipro team that played against integrated competition.“We was talking about baseball one day, and he asked me if I would like to go back to Montana with him that summer and play,” Ellis said.
Fenter’s uncle, Mac Walker, managed the team and his father, Gurley Fenter, who had grown up in Arkadelphia before moving in 1910, was also actively involved.
Ellis returned to Butte in the summer of 1936 after Butte won a league championship in 1935. Ellis took 1937 off to focus on school but returned to the diamond in the summer of 1938 as a player for the semipro El Dorado Black Lions.
Ellis took over the team after the manager got sick. One key move he made involved legendary Harlem Globetrotters star Reece “Goose” Tatum.
“He was trying to play outfield and was really clumsy, so I moved him to first base,” Ellis said. “He was playing straight baseball at that time, but he had a good sense of humor. I arranged a baseball scholarship to Wiley University in Texas for him, but he decided not to go, or they might have changed his style.”
This concludes the excerpt from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s “Untold Stories.” The rest of Ellis’ story, along with profiles of more than 80 other African-American Arkansan sports greats and pioneers are contained in the book’s 120 pages. Go here to find out more.