Willie Wells was one of the top shortstops of all time, black or white. The best shortstop in black baseball during the late 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, he was outstanding in the field, on the bases, and at the plate. Afield he had great range, sure hands and an accurate arm. His stellar defensive play earned him a spot in the Newark Eagles’ “million dollar infield” in the late 1930s, where in addition to his defensive prowess, he hit for averages of .386, .330 and .343 in 1937-39.
A product of the Texas sandlots, he played with the San Antonio Aces until being discovered by the black major leagues. The teenage whiz signed with the St. Louis Stars in 1924 and through hard work and diligence, made himself a good hitter, compiling averages of .378 and .346 in 1926-27, while establishing a single season record the former year, when he hit 27 HRs in 88 games. His hitting continued to sizzle as he annexed consecutive batting titles in 1929-30 with averages of .368 and .404. With Wells paving the way, the St. Louis Stars won championships in 1928, 1930 and 1931.
After the latter season, both the Stars and the NNL folded and Wells soon settled down with the Chicago American Giants. In Chicago he led the American Giants to consecutive pennants in two different leagues, capturing the Negro Southern League title in 1932 and the first flag of the new NNL in 1933. That year he was selected to the West squad’s starting line-up in the first annual East-West All-Star classic. Altogether, Wells played in eight All-Star games and recorded a .281 batting average and a .438 slugging percentage.
Wells continued his heroics and in September of 1934, Dan Daniels wrote in the NY World Telegram, “… Wee Willie Wells of the Chicago American Giants … is hitting .520, fielding 1.000 and stealing bases almost as regularly as Cool Papa Bell.”
In 1936 the superstar shortstop left Chicago for the Newark Eagles, where he joined thirdbaseman Ray Dandridge, providing a pair of gold gloves on the left side of the infield. The catalytic star continued playing with the Eagles for the remainder of the decade, batting .357, .386 and .346.
Wells also starred in Latin American leagues, compiling a .320 lifetime average in Cuba. In his farewell season, he hit .328 to lead his team to the Championship, earn a spot on the All-Star team, and win the League’s MVP Award. Wells began the new decade in Mexico, where the master shortstop became affectionately known as “El Diablo.” Records there show batting averages of .345 and .347 in 1940 and 1941, while playing with Veracruz.
In 1942 he returned to Newark as a player manager. As a manager, he was respected by his players. Leading by example, Wells had a sensational season, hitting .361. He was also slected to Cum Posey’s annual All-American dream team and was identified as one of the top five players in the game.
In 1943 he returned to Mexico and a year later, he replaced Rogers Hornsby as manager of the Mexico City ballclub. Wells stayed in Mexico for two more years before he again returned to the U.S., and although past his prime, the “Devil” still retained enough magic in his bat to hit for averages of .320 and .297 in 1945-46. The latter season, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Dodgers organization, Wells helped tutor him on the art of making the pivot at secondbase.
For the remainder of the decade, Wells played with the New York Black Yankees, Baltimore Elites, Memphis Red Sox, and Indianapolis Clowns. In the early ’50s, Wells traveled to Canada to assume the duties as playing manager with the Winnipeg Buffaloes, spending most of his final years in baseball in that country. He returned to the U.S. in 1954 as manager of the Birmingham Black Barons. When he finally hung up the spiked shoes, he left behind some impressive credentials. Against regular Negro League competition, he recorded a lifetime .334 batting average and against major leaguers in exhibition games he hit for a .392 average.
St. Louis Stars, Detroit Wolves, Homestead Grays, Chicago American Giants, Cole’s American Giants, Newark Eagles, New York Black Yankees, Baltimore Elite Giants, Indianapolis Clowns, Memphis Red Sox
Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughn and Ozzie Smith except that Wells was a much superior hitter. Another middle-infielder of comparable talents is Joe Morgan.
For Additional Information:
Dandy, Day and The Devil, by James A. Riley