native Willie Wells was one of the best shortstops to ever play professional
baseball but he was also one of generations of players who performed
in relative obscurity because of Major League Baseball's long-standing
"gentleman's agreement" that kept Black players out of the big leagues.
Wells first played for the semi-pro team the Austin Black Senators
in 1923 and caught the attention of Negro League superstar and entrepreneur
Rube Foster (another Texan) and St. Louis Stars scout Bill Wallace.
Wells' mother informed both men that her son, a graduate of the original
L.C. Anderson High School in Austin,
had no time to play professional baseball because he was going to
attend college. When Foster and Wallace both promised that her son
would be able to attend classes in the off-season, she told Willie
to sign with the Stars because St. Louis was closer to Austin
Nothing in Wells' rookie season foreshadowed the outstanding career
he would have. Like many otherwise promising prospects, Wells was
befuddled by professional curveballs. Players on the opposing team
would start razzing Wells every time he came to the plate. "Hey,
Wells, here comes the curveball." He looked for all the world
like just another good-field, no-hit disappointment.
Willie went back to Austin and enrolled at what is now Huston-Tillotson
College, figuring his baseball career was already over, when he got
a call to play winter ball in California. This time Willie made up
his own mind and hit the road for the Golden State. He later recalled
how he had watched his mother take in washing and ironing to make
a living and thought, "Now I can help her." He went to California
against her wishes.
In California, a man named Hurley "Bugger" McNair taught Wells to
hit the curveball by tying his ankle to a stake at home plate to keep
him from bailing out on the pitch, and then fed him nothing but curveballs
until he learned to recognize and hit them. When Wells showed up for
spring training the next season and pitchers' eyes lit up when they
saw him coming to the plate, he responded to their breaking balls
by smashing them all over and out of the park.
"He could hit to all fields, hit with power, bunt and stretch singles
into doubles and doubles into triples," longtime Negro league player
and manager Buck O'Neil said of Wells. "But it was his glove that
truly dazzled…Old-timers in St. Louis who saw Willie play for the
St. Louis Stars still have not seen his equal."
For a short time, Wells played with fellow Texan Newt Allen at second
base. Together they formed the best double-play combination in baseball.
Former Negro League player Bill Drake recalled that Allen wouldn't
even look at first when he made the pivot at second on a double play.
"He'd throw the ball to first under his left arm."
Baseball was a pretty lousy way for a lot of African Americans to
make a buck, at least in the United States. Some, like Willie Wells,
played ball in Cuba and then winter ball in Mexico when Mexican millionaire
Jorge Pasqual stocked his team with several Negro League all-stars
in order to win the Mexican League championship.
Wells played for Vera Cruz in 1940 and 1941, hitting .345 the first
year and .347 the next. Fans loved him. They called him "El Diablo"the
Devil for the way he handled the shortstop position. He lived
in an affluent neighborhood, was paid well, and wasn't discriminated
against because of the color of his skin.
"I've found freedom and democracy here, something I never found in
the United States," Wells told the Pittsburg Courier. "I was
branded a Negro in the United States and had to act accordingly. Everything
I did, including playing ball, was regarded by my color. Well, here
in Mexico I am a man. I can go as far in baseball as I am capable."-
Wells, who is also widely credited with introducing the batting helmet
to baseball and modifications to the glove, went pretty far with the
game despite the barriers. He played professionally for 28 years and
even got to team with his son, Willie Wells, Jr. at second base, for
the only father-son double play combination in pro baseball history.
He retired in 1954 with a .364 average against other Black teams (though
records from the Negro Leagues are far from complete) and .410 against
After leaving the pro game, he went to Canada as a player-manager
for the Winnipeg Buffaloes of the Western Canadian League before returning
to the U.S. to manage the Birmingham Black Barons. He moved to New
York City and worked in a deli until returning to Austin
to take care of his aging mother. Reporters sometimes came around,
wanting to talk about his days in baseball. He'd say he'd had a beautiful
career and the money had actually been pretty good about $25,000
a year for playing ball for 12 months.
Asked about his chances of ever getting into the baseball Hall of
Fame, Wells was optimistic. "I think they'll put more of us in there,"
he said of him and his fellow Negro League players. "Just let me see
it while I'm living."
It wasn't to be. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of
Fame in 1997, eight years after he died in Austin
of heart failure. He's also a member of the Cuban and Mexican baseball
halls of fame.
In 2004, Wells' remains were reinterred from the small Evergreen Cemetery
to the Texas
State Cemetery in East Austin. And in January of this year, Anderson
High School renamed its baseball field "Willie Wells Field."
It has taken a long timetoo long for major league baseball
and his hometown to recognize his greatness, but El Diablo is finally
getting his due.