Wilbert Ellis: The Embodiment of the Spirit of Grambling

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Legendary Grambling University baseball coach Wilbert Ellis enjoying the 2018 SWAC Baseball Tournament. Photo Credit ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

I met former Grambling baseball coach Wilbert Ellis at a baseball game in New Orleans, Louisiana, sitting in the bleachers of Wesley Barrow Stadium . He was surrounded by a faithful entourage; holding court on the nature of the competition in the Southwestern Athletic Conference 2018 Baseball Championship.

This is a subject he knows something about, as history records Ellis won three SWAC baseball championships and eight western divisional titles in his 26 years as head baseball coach at Grambling State University.

He is warm, affable and extended his right hand to greet me, as his former shortstop and National College Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee Robert Braddy, sought to introduce us.

“I know who he is,” Ellis, said interrupting Braddy’s introduction.

“He’s doing a fine job,” Ellis said, grasping my right hand in a firm handshake.

We had not met until that moment. Yet Ellis greeted me as if he was greeting a son, a former player of his or someone he had watched grow into adulthood.

Ellis, ever the coach kept a watchful eye on everyone and everything that moved or did not move in Wesley Barrow Stadium, which is named for the legendary manager of the New Orlean Black Pelicans during the period of segregated professional baseball.

Unknown to me, he watched as I went about my job of reporting on the baseball action for BlackCollegeNines.

Although we had not been formerly introduced, he was observing me, my professionalism and character and was keenly aware of my movement around the stadium. With all of his success in baseball, the game for Ellis has never been about runs, hits and errors. It is about the opportunity to mold the character of young men.

The Tuskegee Flash Harold Michael Harvey with legendary Grambling baseball coach Wilbert Ellis. Photo Credit: ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

Character is a trait that he looks for in the people he encounters. It is a trait that is the ethos of Lincoln Parish where the City of Ruston, Louisiana is located and where Ellis’s character was nurtured.

Lincoln Parish is the base from which he has taught character building to young people who come into his sphere of influence.

In the 1930s when Ellis was born, Lincoln Parish was a little over 60 years old. The Parish is named in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th President.

Lincoln Parish was formed as a Reconstruction Parish. It was organized in 1873 from parts of Bienville, Claiborne, Union, and Jackson parishes, for the explicit purpose of providing a political subdivision with a strong Black voting block.It was expected that these new voters would counter Democratic Party and vicariously, Confederate sympathizers’ who controlled Louisiana politics after the Civil War.

In the beginning, Lincoln Parish was a small community. It still is today. According to the 2010 census, less than 50,000 people live in Lincoln Parish.In 1873, Blacks in Lincoln Parish were primarily employed in the agriculture industry.

Ten years later, the Vicksburg, Shreveport, and Pacific Railroad depot was opened in downtown Ruston. The land for the railroad depot was sold to the company by Robert Edward Russ, the founder of Ruston, who sought to capitalize his business interest with the support of “Freedmen” voters.

In 1873, Blacks in Lincoln Parish were just eight years removed from the enslavement period. Farming was a natural fit for formerly enslaved people of the newly formed county. For people engaged in farming, life post emancipation was not much different than enslavement days.

So 28 years after Lincoln Parish was organized to take advantage of Black voting strength and 36 years after enslavement, a group of Black farmers in Ruston, wanting a better future for their children, wrote to Booker T. Washington, Principal of Tuskegee Industrial and Normal School and asked if he would come to Ruston in Lincoln Parish and establish a school.

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Grambling State sporting their Tuskegee Red jersey during SWAC Tournament play. Photo Credit: ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

Washington was committed to Tuskegee. He turned the letter over to Lewis Adams, the founder of the school at Tuskegee who had hired Washington as the school’s first principal.

Twenty-one years before the Black farmers in Lincoln Parish had written to Washington seeking help in organizing a school, Lewis Adams had the same desire for the children of Tuskegee.

In 1880, Adams was approached by two Democrats in the Alabama legislature who were in fear of losing their seats to Reconstruction carpetbaggers, one in the Senate and the other in the House,. They came to Adams for his political endorsement. Adams traded his support for their promise to appropriate funds for the establishment of a teacher’s college in the city of Tuskegee. The two men won and they keep their promise.

Within a month of taking office an appropriation bill that provided $2,000 annually for teachers salaries passed the House and the following month the measure passed the senate. It took Adams four months to settle on Washington as the person to bring his vision to life and to lure him out of seminary school in Virginia, where he had gone after leaving Hampton Institute.

Lewis Adams was a big proponent of industrial education. His philosophy meshed with the agricultural genius of George Washington Carver, who Washington had convinced to come to work at Tuskegee.

Ironically, several years before the Black farmers of Lincoln Parish had written to Washington, a native son of Lincoln Parish named Charles Adams had journeyed to Tuskegee to attend school. While in Tuskegee, Charles Adams met and married a daughter of Lewis Adams. He came under the tutelage of his father-in-law.

Clearly, Lewis Adams did not want to lose Washington at Tuskegee. He had the perfect candidate to recommend to the Black farmers of Lincoln Parish.

Coach Ellis lives to watch and instruct his Grambling Tigers to win baseball games. Photo Credit ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

He sent his son-in-law, Charles Adams back home to organize the Colored Industrial and Agricultural School in Lincoln Parish, now known as Grambling State University. Charles Adams was steeped in the Tuskegee ethos, which was built on character, hard work and dedication to one’s God, family and community.

Charles Adams learned these principles from Lewis Adams and Booker T. Washington. They played well in the agrarian community of Lincoln Parish. These principles became the guiding spirit of Grambling and were taught to each student who came through the school to learn how to find a better way of life as free men and women in early 20th century America.

In 1926, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones organized a baseball program at Grambling. Ten years later Jones, affectionately known as “Prez” by those who knew him, became the second President of Grambling.

In 1940, Jones organized a football program and was the school’s first head football coach. A year later, he hired Eddie Robinson to take over the football duties. Jones would later say that “Hiring Eddie Robinson was one of the best decision I ever made.”

Robinson was cut from the same cloth as Jones. He molded young student athletes into a fierce fighting machine on the gridiron and into respectful young men in society.

Jones continued to coach baseball during his tenure as President. He retired from both posts in 1977.

“Prez “ was a role model for students on campus and his student athletes on the baseball team. He won more than 800 baseball games in his 51 year collegiate coaching career. In 2014, Jones was inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.

As a young man, “Prez” was tutored in the Grambling way by Charles Adams, who had sat at the feet of Lewis Adams, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

In 1955, a youngster from Ruston, Louisiana in Lincoln Parish named Wilbert Ellis, enrolled into Grambling to study Physical Education. He came out for the baseball team and fell under the spell of Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones.

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Coach Ellis is the consummate family man. Pictured with him is his daughter and his grandson. Photo Credit:©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

Ellis graduated from Grambling in 1959. Jones immediately hired him as the assistant baseball coach. For 17 years, Ellis came under the tutelage of Jones. He shared the dugout with him and learned the life lessons through the art of baseball that a man of sound character can teach a young man.

In 1977, Jones handed Grambling’s baseball program to Ellis, who held the job until his retirement in 2002 winning 745 games along the way. In 2007, Ellis was inducted into the America Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Yet at 80 years of age, there is nothing retiring about Ellis. At the SWAC tournament, Ellis would move away from his entourage when his Grambling Tigers were on the field.

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Legendary college baseball coaches Wilbert Ellis and Robert Braddy taking in the action at the 2018 SWAC Tournament. Photo Credit ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

At one point, following a Jackson State win, he told his former shortstop, Robert Braddy, who was the Head Baseball Coach at Jackson State for more than 30 years, “Go ahead on now. You won your game, I got to get ready to see what my boys gonna do.”

He would move his seat near the Grambling dugout where He could yell encouragement and sage coaching advice to players and coaches alike.

“Bunt stikes,” Ellis shouted to a young batter who failed in an attempt to bunt a pitch out of the strike zone.

“Bunt down,” he offered to another batter who had bunted a ball in the air where it could have been caught for an out by the opposing team.

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Marshawn Taylor bunting in a game during the 2018 SWAC Baseball Tournament. Photo Credit:©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

“Take the ball with you,” Ellis yelled to a left hand batter who laid down a bunt towards third base rather than first base.

Listening to Ellis shout clear, concise instructions was like a writer reading Professor William Strunk, Jr’s timeless book, The Elements of Style.

Without meeting Professor Strunk, but being a witness as Coach Ellis laid down the rules of baseball, I can visualize the cadence and nuance of Strunk’s command to his students at Cornell:

“Do not join independent clauses with a comma.”

“Do not break sentences in two.”

“Use the active voice.”

I’ve probably violated more of Will Strunk’s rules for good writing in this piece than I care to be graded upon.

It’s easier said by the professor than done by writers who write a little or a lot. Much like the difficulty the Grambling players were having carrying out the commands of a baseball professor, who knows, should the players execute his commands, they will find success on the diamond and in the game of life.

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James Cooper played for Coach Ellis and how he coaches the Grambling State baseball team. Photo Credit ©2018 Harold Michael Harvey

Current Grambling Head Baseball Coach, James Cooper, one of the 49 Grambling baseball players Ellis sent to the major leagues does not seem to mind the constant instructions from his former coach.

At one point in the championship game, the Grambling pitcher hit a rough spot and could not retire the opposing batters. Ellis shouted, “Go out there and settle him down.”

Moments later, Coach Cooper called time-out and sauntered to the mound to help his young pitcher collect himself. After the visit, the pitcher got the out he was seeking.

This is the respect that Ellis has from his former players. They still listen to him. He is a trusted voice and can be counted upon to give good, clear advice.

On Saturday, Grambling was confronted with a must win game if they were going to advance to the championship game the next day. Their opponent was Alabama State University, just 35 miles down the road from Tuskegee. Alabama State university’s colors are gold and black. The same colors as Grambling.

In 1987, Grambling’s head football coach, the legendary Eddie Robinson added a bit of Tuskegee Red around the iconic “G” logo of Grambling.

Robinson, like Ellis was mentored by Jones, who was mentored by Adams, et al; so Grambling suited up in their Tuskegee Red jersey with the gold and black trim. An appropo move considering its historical ties with Tuskegee. They routed a very good Alabama State team that had beaten them handily the previous day.

“Hello Coach, how are you doing today,” a young man about 40 years-old said as he walked up to shake Ellis’s hand before a Grambling baseball game.

It was Pentecost Sunday. Ellis extended his hand to the young man and asked, “Did you go to church today?”

“Yes sir,” he replied to his former coach, then added, “You taught me to do that a couple of decades ago.”

“Just wanted to make sure you still living right young man,” Ellis said.

Before the beginning of the championship game against Texas Southern University, Marshawn Taylor, Grambling’s nationally top rated shortstop came near the stands where Coach Ellis was seated to get his blessings and last minute instructions before the game.

“You focused?” Ellis asked Taylor.

“Yes sir,” Taylor replied.

“There is no tomorrow. Today is tomorrow,” Ellis admonished.

“I’m ready,” Taylor respectfully responded.

After Taylor trotted back to the dugout, Ellis averred:

“He should get drafted next month. He is a good shortstop, but I think he will be moved to second base.”

Taylor finished the year with a .400 batting average in spite of teams routinely deploying a shift to the right side to take away his natural hitting zone.

The 5 foot 10 inch, 150 pound Taylor, pounded the ball with such force, that more often than not, he drove pitch after pitch through the infield shift. Taylor made the SWAC All-Tournament team.

Everyone in the stands, at least everyone on the Grambling side of the stadium, from parents of current team members, to alumni to former baseball players, knew Coach Ellis and hung on his every word.

Throughout the school year and before each game, Ellis has a pep talk with the players. He talks to them about the game of life, remaining focused, especially in difficult moments and doing the best you can possibly do.

During the first day of the tournament, Ellis remarked after seeing Texas Southern win their opening game, “Texas Southern looks like they are ready for a championship.”

Ellis’ keen sense of people and their tendencies did not fail him, as Texas Southern trounced his Grambling Tigers 18–3 in the Championship game.

Undaunted, Ellis is off to Omaha where he will conduct a baseball clinic during the College World Series.

Asked to put his life into perspective, Ellis said, “I have one God, one life, one wife and I’ve had one job.”

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com

Harvey is Living Now Book Awards 2020 Bronze Medalist for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. Available at haroldmichaelharvey.com

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