Willie Wells was arguably the best shortstop of his generation. As Monte Irvin, a teammate and fellow Hall of Fame player, writes in his foreword, "Wells really could do it all. He was one of the slickest fielding shortstops ever to come along. He had speed on the bases. He hit with power and consistency. He was among the most durable players I've ever known." Yet few people have heard of the feisty ballplayer nicknamed "El Diablo." Willie Wells was black, and he played long before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Bob Luke has sifted through the spotty statistics, interviewed Negro League players and historians, and combed the yellowed letters and newspaper accounts of Wells's life to draw the most complete portrait yet of an important baseball player.
Wells's baseball career lasted thirty years and included seasons in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada. He played against white all-stars as well as Negro League greats Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O'Neill, among others. He was beaned so many times that he became the first modern player to wear a batting helmet.
As an older player and coach, he mentored some of the first black major leaguers, including Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe. Willie Wells truly deserved his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Bob Luke details how the lingering effects of segregation hindered black players, including those better known than Wells, long after the policy officially ended. Fortunately, Willie Wells had the talent and tenacity to take on anything—from segregation to inside fastballs—life threw at him. No wonder he needed a helmet.
Willie Wells was a hell of a ball player in anybody's league. A consistent .300-plus hitter whose play at shortstop and on the base paths was called "peerless," he once beat a team of major leaguers almost single-handedly. In October 1929, Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Heine Manush, and Harry Heilmann led a team of major leaguers against an all-star team of Negro leaguers, called the American Giants, featuring Hall of Famers Wells, Judy Johnson, and Bill Foster. In the eighth inning of the first game, Wells tripled off the right-field fence and scored the winning run moments later with a steal of home. In game two, Wells smashed two triples and again stole home as the Giants prevailed. In the bottom of the ninth in game four with the score tied, Wells came through once more, knocking in Jelly Gardner—the winning run—with a single. The Giants beat the All-Stars four games to one. Among players on both teams with fifteen or more at bats, Wells's .409 average was second only to Heilmann's .471. Wells batted .403 the following season and won the Fleet Walker Award that John Holway gave annually to the player he considered the best in each Negro league.
What Is Here
You will find more than baseball here. A friend of mine, after hearing my description of the book, said, "I'd never buy a book like that, but I'm sure the baseball junkies will." While you will find a lot here about Wells the player, manager, and coach, be aware that the book is intended to interest readers besides "baseball junkies"—those who devote themselves to compiling and talking about statistics, pride themselves on having photographic memories for plays on the diamond, and revel in the mechanics of hitting, fielding, and baserunning. You will also find out about Wells as a person, his family, his hometown of Austin, Texas, the segregated conditions under which he played and lived during his nomadic baseball career, and his retirement years in New York City and Austin.
You will follow a teenager as he skips town, against his mother's wishes, for the travel, low pay, camaraderie, and opportunity to excel that the Negro leagues offered. You will see his skill as a fielder, batter, manager, and baseball strategist; his return to an impoverished "civilian" life; his struggle with diabetes, glaucoma, and heart problems on a modest Social Security pension—and his dedication to the world of baseball through all of it.
You will get a view of the thirty-five-year controversy that surrounded inducting Negro leaguers, including Wells, into the Hall of Fame.
You will go to the Lone Star State to see citizens of Austin "doing our best to attempt to right a wrong," as Danny Roy Young, owner of the Texicalli Grill, put it, by lobbying the Hall of Fame for his induction; writing a play about him; naming Austin's major thoroughfare, Congress Avenue, after him for the day; and transferring his body to the Texas State Cemetery, also in Austin, with a headstone as prominent as others there. Former congresswoman Barbara Jordan is the only other African American buried in the Texas State Cemetery.
Willie Wells Baseball Time Line
As an aid to following Wells's nomadic career, I have constructed a time line showing where he played and when. This information came from several sources. His years with the California Winter League (CWL) were taken from William F. McNeil's California Winter League. Fellow SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) member Kit Krieger researched the line scores and rosters in Raul Diez Muro's Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba to document Wells's play in Cuba. I took the Negro-league team entries from newspaper articles and standard reference books, notably Dick Clark and Larry Lester's Negro Leagues Book. Wells's years in Mexico and Puerto Rico were taken from a chronology in his Hall of Fame file. Articles in the Winnipeg Free Press documented his years in Canada.