Position: Shortstop; Manager
Teams: St. Louis Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Wolves, Homestead Grays, Chicago American Giants, Newark Eagles, New York Black Yankees, Baltimore Elite Giants, Memphis Red Sox, 1924-1948
Teams opposing Willie Wells in the Negro Leagues of the 1930s and early ’40s were given this solid advice: “Don’t hit it to short; the Devil himself plays there.”
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Willie James Wells (1905-1989) was nicknamed “Devil” (“El Diablo” when he played in Mexico) because of his defensive work. Incredibly sure-handed, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and diabolically threw runners out by the barest of margins. He studied the hitters and their tendencies in order to compensate for a less-than-powerful arm, and he was very proud of his ability to beat them to the bag by just a step. All in all, Wells was one of the four great shortstops in Negro League history.
Wells was a great shortstop and turned
himself into an excellent hitter
in the course of his 26-year career.
But Willie was more than just a good glove man. He made himself into an excellent hitter, sporting averages over .360 early in his career. In 1926, he slugged 27 homers in one 88-game season because he was smart enough to take advantage of the short left field porch in his home park. He won batting titles in 1929 and 1930 with averages of .368 and .404. Over the course of his 26-year career, his lifetime average registered around .330.
With all that -- batting, fielding, and smarts -- Wells was the kind of guy championship teams are built around, and he proved it so. The St. Louis Stars won league titles with him at short in 1928, 1930, and 1931. He boosted the Chicago American Giants to flags in consecutive seasons in two different leagues in 1932 and 1933. Chosen as the starting shortstop for the West in the first East-West Negro League All-Star Game (1933), he went on to appear in seven more of the All-Star contests (batting .281).
With a batting average routinely in the .350 range, combined with his aggressive, combative attitude, Wells was a frequent target for head-hunting pitchers. But he didn’t back down from anyone. Knocked unconscious by a pitch in 1942, he returned to play the next day despite doctor’s orders wearing a modified construction helmet -- one of the first batting protectors.
He joined the Newark Eagles in 1936 and helped form the “Million Dollar Infield,” along with Ray Dandridge, Dick Seay, and Mule Suttles. Later, Wells became the well-respected manager of the Eagles. Three of his players -- Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Don Newcombe -- made it to the majors. Wells narrowly missed out on election to the Hall several times, once falling only one vote short, before he was elected in 1997.
Here are Willie Wells's major league totals:
|.328||945||3,455 ||1,133||209 ||48||126||107|
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