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Willie Wells

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Willie James Wells Sr. (The Devil, Chico, Bubbles)

  • Bats Right, Throws Right
  • Height 5' 9", Weight 170 lb.

Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1997

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[edit] Biographical information

Widely regarded as the 2nd-greatest black shortstop before 1950 (after Pop Lloyd), Willie Wells spent over two decades playing in the Negro Leagues and hit .328 with 138 home runs over his career. He combined power, speed, contact hitting and some walks with fine defense at short.

[edit] Early career

Wells was playing for the minor San Antonio Black Aces when he drew the attention of the Chicago American Giants' Rube Foster and George Keys of the St. Louis Stars. Wells opted to go to St. Louis, an overnight train from ride from Austin, where his mother was encouraging him to complete college. In St. Louis, he played in a hitters' park. He hit just .263 as a rookie in 1924 (struggling with the curveball) and increased that 7 points the next year, when his 14 steals were 5th-best in the Negro National League. In '26, Willie developed into a star. He batted .371, tied for 4th in the NNL. In his first three years, he played in the California Winter League, managing just a .238 average and .319 slugging percentage.

[edit] Rise to prominence

At age 22, Wells began demonstrating significant power. He homered 23 times to lead the NNL, was fifth in average (.380) and second in doubles (20, trailing Turkey Stearnes). Wells led St. Louis to their first title in 1928; his numbers included a .353 average, 17 homers (4th in the league) and 22 doubles (second). Willie hit .322 in the 1928-29 Cuban Winter League, fifth in the loop. With St. Louis, the shortstop hit .373 (4th in the NNL) and tied the league record set earlier by his teammate Mule Suttles with 27 homers. Wells' record would never be broken. He also was 5th in the league with 21 stolen bases. He hit .322 in the winter season for the champion Cienfuegos team of Cuba.

In 1930, Willie's Stars again finished first and he was a big reason why. He led the NNL in homers for a third time (15), was second in steals (17, one behind Terris McDuffie, led in doubles (32, 11 more than the runner-up) and hit .403, 5 points behind the leader, Suttles. His statistics would have been impressive for a first baseman, let alone a good-fielding shortstop. He hit .275 and slugged .509 in the California Winter League that year, continuing his struggles on the Coast.

At age 25/26, Wells tied for second in the NNL with only 5 homers and batted .263 in an off-year. He hit .417 in six games in the California Winter League in 1931-32. In 1932, St. Louis folded and Willie split the year between the Kansas City Monarchs, Homestead Grays and Detroit Wolves, logging most of his time with the champion Detroit club. His 14 doubles were second in the East-West League and he tied for 4th with 3 triples; he also tied for third with 7 stolen bases. He hit .330 with Detroit and .255 with Kansas City.

[edit] The "off-years"

Willie joined the American Giants in 1933, 10 years after their first offer to him. He hit .265 in pitcher-friendly territory. In the first East-West Game, he went 2 for 4 with a double, RBI and two runs to help the West to a victory in the first contest; he batted second. In the California Winter League that off-season, Wells hit .355 (7 points leader Cool Papa Bell, banged out 58 hits (one behind leader Bell), led with 19 doubles, stole bases, slugged .614 and did not make a single error in 44 games.

Wells led the Negro American League in triples in 1934 (8), tied for fourth in steals (3) and was third in doubles (10) while hitting .264 for Chicago. Willie led off for the West in the East-West Game that season and went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. Wells had been the top vote-getter among position players, trailing only Bill Foster among all candidates. Back in California, he hit .319 and led the winter loop with 9 doubles. It would be almost a decade before his next winter there. He also played in Cuba, hitting .356, second in that winter league to Martin Dihigo's .358. Wells tied Jacinto Roque for the home run lead (5).

In 1935, Wells hit .270 for Chicago and stole 7 bases, tied for second in the NAL behind Cool Papa Bell. The top vote-getter in all of black baseball for the 1935 East-West Game, he went 0 for 3 with an error as the #3 hitter for the West. Wells hit .349 in Cuba that winter.

[edit] Forming the Million Dollar Infield

In '36, the 30-year-old infielder moved to the Newark Eagles and batted only .237. He hit .286 in the Cuban Winter League and tied for the home run lead (4) with Ray Brown and Bobby Estalella. 1937 presented a .320 average for Wells. He hit second for the East in the East-West Game and went 1 for 5 with a run.

Wells hit .300 in the 1937-38 Cuban Winter League, then in '38 burst back onto the scene. Newark had now assembled their Million Dollar Infield. Wells led the NNL in average (.404), was fifth with 6 homers, tied for fifth with 4 doubles and tied for the lead with three steals. After several mediocre years, he again was arguably the greatest player in black baseball.

During his time in Newark, Wells was plunked in the head by Bill Byrd and wore a modified hard hat when returning to play. This is cited as a case of the first batting helmet, but similar claims can be made by many others.

Wells was third in the 1938-39 Cuban Winter League in average (.328), then was fifth in the '39 NNL in average (.355) and led with three steals. He went 2 for 7 in the two East-West Games, scoring twice, driving in two, getting hit by a pitch and doubling once. He played in Cuba again that winter.

[edit] Mexico

In 1940, Wells began a new phase of his career, one which earned him his lasting nickname. At age 34, he went to the Mexican League. Players there begun saying not to hit it to shortstop because "El Diablo (The Devil) plays there." Wells reports loving the environment in Mexico - "We are heroes here... in the Untied States, everything I did was regulated by color." Wells hit .345/~.411/.472 for the Veracruz Blues, scoring 95 runs and stealing 17 bases in 84 games. He tied Wild Bill Wright for the Liga lead with 30 doubles and was second to Cool Papa Bell in runs scored. He wintered in the Puerto Rican League and hit .378 with 17 doubles (tied for second, one behind Monte Irvin). In '41, El Diablo hit .347/.426/.516 for Veracruz. His 102 runs in 100 games tied Silvio Garcia for third in the LMB and he tied Garcia for 4th with 29 doubles.

[edit] Back to the US

Four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wells wrote to Abe Manley, offering a return to Newark for $315 per month as player-manager. Manley welcomed back the star shortstop, who proved to be a well-liked manager. Wells' return moved Monte Irvin to the outfield. Wells hit .358, third in the league. He was third with six homers and led with five steals at age 36-37. Newark finished third at 18-16. He played in both East-West Games that year and was 4 for 9 at the plate with 3 doubles, 2 RBI, a run and an error. He hit 3rd in the second contest, showing the respect he got despite his age. Wells got into disagreements with the controlling Effa Manley and left Newark after the year, replaced as manager by long-time teammate Suttles.

[edit] Back in Mexico

Wells hit .295/~.384/.404 for the 1943 Tampico Lightermen, then split '44 between Veracruz and the Mexico City Red Devils, batting .294/~.423/.481. He also replaced Rogers Hornsby as Mexico City's manager.

[edit] The veteran statesman of black baseball and an unusual teammate

Returning to America again, he went 2 for 9 in his final California Winter League action in 1944-45. In 1945, the 39-year-old returned to Newark once again as player-manager. He only hit .216 but still was spry enough to start at shortstop. Newark finished 21-17. He moved to second base for the 1945 East-West Game (his final such contest) and went 1 for 5 with a double and two RBI.

In 1946, he hit .263 for the Baltimore Elite Giants and .278 for the New York Black Yankees. Wells also helped Jackie Robinson learn how to play second base that year. He managed the Indianapolis Clowns for part of '47. In 1948, Willie was the third baseman of the Memphis Red Sox - and the shortstop was his son, Willie Wells Jr.. Wells Sr. hit .328.

[edit] Going over the other border

Having served four years in the Mexican League, Wells joined the Winnipeg Buffalos of the Mandak League for three years as player-manager and again was joined by his son for a spell. In 1954, Wells Sr. came out of a two-year retirement to play for the Birmingham Black Barons as manager.

[edit] After baseball

Wells worked in a New York City deli for 13 years. In 1973, he returned to Austin to care for his mother. When she died, he lived in the home he had grown up in before dying in 1989 of congestive heart failure. In 1997, he was belatedly and posthumously elected into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.

[edit] Overall statistics

Wells hit .328 in the Negro Leagues, tied for 12th all-time and second among shortstops to Lloyd. His 138 homers are 5th all-time behind a first baseman (Suttles), two outfielders (Oscar Charleston and Turkey Stearnes) and Josh Gibson. He hit .323/~.413/.467 in his four seasons in Mexico. In seven years in the Cuban Winter League, he batted .320. He hit .378 in his only winter in Puerto Rico. In the Californian Winter League, he hit .301 and slugged .462 and is third all-time with 40 doubles. In nine East-West Games, Wells hit .325/~.372/.550 with 7 doubles in 40 AB. He is third in AB in the East-West Game, fourth in hits, first in doubles (as many as the next two combined), 4th in RBI, third in total bases and 7th in slugging. In exhibitions against white major league players, he hit .353 (second all-time to Cristobal Torriente among those with 100+ AB) and homered five times, tied for 6th.

[edit] Sources

The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues by James Riley, The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues by John Holway, The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics by Pedro Treto Cisneros, Black Baseball's National Showcase by Larry Lester, Invisible Men by Donn Rogosin and The California Winter League by William McNeil

[edit] Further Reading

  • Bob Luke: Willie Wells: "El Diablo" of the Negro Leagues, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, 2007.

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