Willie Wells

Wells was the best Negro League shortstop during the 1930s and early 1940s. He had great range and sure hands, and he compensated for a weak arm with knowledgeable positioning and a quick, accurate release. Former teammate Monte Irvin said Wells “always came up with the big play. The opposition would say, `Don’t hit it to shortstop because the Devil is playing out there.’ ” While playing in Mexico, Wells became affectionately known as El Diablo.

Early in his career, Wells made himself a good, aggressive, clutch hitter. As a St. Louis Star, he won batting titles with a .368 mark in 1929 and a .404 mark in 1930. He helped the Stars to championships in 1928, 1930, and 1931. When the franchise broke up, he played with Detroit, Homestead, and Kansas City before sparking the Chicago American Giants to the 1933 championship. That year, he played in the first East-West all-star game. He went on to appear in eight such contests, batting .281.

Wells’s stellar defensive play earned him a spot in the Newark Eagles‘ “million-dollar infield” in the late 1930s; he batted .386 in 1937. He spent seven winters in Cuba, and hit .328 for the pennant-winning Almendares club to be named league MVP in 1939-40. He recorded a lifetime .364 mark in Negro League competition, and hit .410 against major leaguers in exhibitions. His keen baseball mind and experience made him an excellent teacher and a highly respected player-manager. He continued to top the .300 mark as a batter through the 1940s, and managed into the 1950s.

In his prime, Wells’s hot bat and aggressive play made him a frequent beanball target, and he was a pioneer in his use of a batting helmet. But he never backed off, fighting back with his bat and his spikes. He could run and he’d move you out if you got in his way,” said Hall of Famer Judy Johnson. Wells acknowledged that he was filled with a Ty Cobb type of intensity and competitiveness.