By Trey Williams
Bobby Ellis won consecutive state high jump titles at Science Hill in 1950-51 and he also had the Hilltoppers soaring toward a state baseball title as a senior in ’51.
Ellis, a third baseman, got hit by a pitch after a long at-bat to lead off the state championship game against Memphis South Side in Memphis and eventually scored on Joe McClain’s hit. The ‘Toppers were ahead 1-0 in the state championship game in front of 2,238 fans and Ellis was the reason.
Unfortunately, Don Goad went on to pitch a three-hitter and South Side rallied for a 4-1 victory, but Ellis was flying toward a pair of crowns for a while there.
“I fouled off something like 11 pitches and the guy threw it at me and hit me,” the late Ellis said in 2013. “And Joe batted after me. As soon as I’d get on first base, (John) Broyles would always give me the steal sign. So I stole second and Joe hit a single.”
McClain remembered one of Ellis’ foul balls in Memphis vividly.
“We were in the Memphis Chicks’ ballpark and Coach Broyles didn’t say a lot of things that struck you as funny,” McClain said, “but Bobby hit a long foul ball out of that ballpark – he just missed a home run – and Coach Broyles turned around and looked at us (from the third base coach’s box) and said, ‘Boy, that Bobby certainly hits a long foul, doesn’t he?’ It just tickled all of us.
“I thought Bobby was a better basketball player than baseball player. He could sure jump, and he had long arms. … He was just a good athlete.”
Ellis led Science Hill in scoring in basketball. He scored 24 in a 52-50 loss to Dobyns-Bennett his senior season. Ellis had a lot of respect for D-B coach Guy B. Crawford, who coached the Indians 13 seasons (1947-60).
“My dad was doing construction in Kingsport,” Ellis said, “and he (Crawford) said, ‘Why don’t you come over here and play with me because your dad’s working over here?’ I loved him. He was their baseball coach, too.”
Ellis, like many people, said he believed Crawford was killed after a poker game in 1961.
“He was a card shark,” Ellis said. “He was a good coach too, but he was just too good of a card player. … He’d won big and they found him in that lake the next morning.”
Sidney Smallwood coached Ellis in basketball and track. Smallwood said he was eager to have Ellis once he started seeing him compete in junior high.
“Hell, Smallwood grew up with us,” Ellis said. “That was his first job and wasn’t but about us seven years older than us.”
Smallwood could manage a budget.
“Every year, I’d say, ‘Smallwood, you gonna take that two-by-four out of the jumping pit,’” Ellis said. “He had it bordered, and I’d say, ‘You gonna put some sawdust in there?’ And I was there three years and I don’t ever remember them putting new sawdust in there.”
Ellis learned to high jump from Clement Tamaraz, who was a senior when Ellis was a sophomore.
“Every meet they’d have, I’d go out and watch him,” Ellis said. “He had that belly roll down pretty good. … He was my mentor.
“He kept a notebook on words. So evidently, he might not have been born in this country. If you wanted to know the definition of a word, he had it. I believe he was a straight-A student.”
Genetics and environment each worked in Ellis’ favor. He had a jump pit behind his childhood home around Milligan College. His father was also a good athlete.
“That sucker would jump alongside me and it’d just kill me,” he said. “He was like 40 or 50 years old.”
But Ellis was rarely challenged by high school opponents.
“I jumped against them for three years,” Ellis said. “Nobody ever beat me. I was tied twice.”
Ellis’ teammates in baseball his senior year included McClain, Buddy Berry and Bo Austin. He was a sophomore when Billy Joe Bowman was the ace on Science Hill’s Southeastern Region champion, and Bowman’s brother Ferrell, who went on to play for the San Francisco Giants, was a freshman on the state runner-up team in ’51.
“All of those Bowmans were great ballplayers,” Ellis said. “Ferrell was just a little squirt when I played with him. But he was dunking a basketball before he left there.”
The 6-foot Ellis could dunk too, which wasn’t a common sight to see in that era. But basketball wasn’t his passion.
“I scored a lot of points, but I never cared that much, never practiced (on my own),” he said. “I liked track and baseball.”
Ellis was fond of Austin, who went on to play baseball and football at George Washington, where he was the 1957 Sun Bowl MVP.
“I remember Bo, myself, Jim Cloyd and maybe another guy, we’d run plays down there in our basement,” Ellis said. “The goal was the rim off a ’39 Ford and the basketball was just a little bigger than a softball. And boy, we would really have a time. We’d go there many a time and it’d be after 12 o’clock.
“I loved ole Bo. He and Jerry Hickman were probably my favorite in high school. … I said to Bo one day, ‘Why in the world would you go to (George Washington)?’ He said, ‘I got scholarship, that’s why.’”
Hickman was a versatile athlete, too.
“Smallwood wouldn’t let Hickman and I play football,” Ellis said with a chuckle. “He said, ‘You’re gonna play basketball for me.’”
Actually it wasn’t Smallwood that put football coach Mule Brown behind the 8-ball. Ellis was also an excellent pool player.
“Jerry Hickman was probably one of the best prospects in football I ever saw,” Ellis said. “He was, like, 6-1 and fast, you know, built good and steady. And he loved football. He played first string.
“When it came time for us to go out, we were shooting pool at the recreation center on a Saturday, and Mule Brown wanted us all to come out. So it got time and Jerry and I were in a big nine-ball game and he said, ‘Weasel, let’s don’t go out there.’ And I said, ‘It suits me fine.’”
If Ellis didn’t lead the basketball team in scoring, chances are, Kenneth Gilley did.
“Kenneth was probably about 6-5, real skinny boy,” Ellis said. “I don’t know what ever happened to him, but he was a pretty good player. But he was just too skinny to get in there and get those elbows.”
Ellis, who served in the Army, worked most of his life as a contractor. He was also a beekeeper and proudly supplied Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols with blackberry honey. He laughed recalling Bo Austin eating so much of his father’s honey when they were young that Austin got sick.
“My dad had 85 stands of bees and when it came robbing time and extract time, he’d say, ‘Bob, you better go get some football players to crank this thing,’” Ellis said. “Well, I got Bo (chuckling), and he said, ‘Man, this thing is great.’ After about 30 minutes standing over that honey, he got so sick – I never will forget – it took him an hour before he ever came back in. He was sick as a dog. That honey makes you sick, boy.
“We had a lot of fun. I enjoyed the whole experience from junior high through Science Hill. And I did win state.”