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Willie Wells - Negro League Star

Not many people are aware that a baseball legend was born and raised and learned to play the National Pastime right here in the sandlots of Austin.  If it were not for a “gentleman’s agreement” between Major League Baseball owners during the first four decades of the 20th century, then perhaps, more people would know “El Diablo.”  A tall skinny infielder who would later be known as baseball’s first power hitting shortstop never got his opportunity to play in the big leagues.  But Willie James Wells (1906 – 1989) would be considered one of the great ballplayers of all time and in 1997 was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. 

Wells was born and raised in Austin, Texas, and in 1925 was signed by the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League.  Prior to 1947, Willie Wells and other Negro League ballplayers were barred from playing in Major League Baseball by an that “gentleman’s agreement” by the owners, which prohibited black ballplayers from playing.  But it did not stop black entrepreneurs and ballplayers from pursuing their dreams of playing baseball.  Fellow Texan Rube Foster started the Negro League in 1920 and Willie Wells would later become one of its biggest stars.

Wells struggled in the beginning, but once he learned to hit a curveball he became one of the best hitters in the Negro Leagues.  At the same time, he earned a bit of a nasty reputation for his aggressive on-the-field play.  He would sharpen his spikes and when he would slide into second, third or home he would take fielders out with his razor sharp spikes.  Besides being aggressive on the basepaths, Wells was a tough fielder as well.  Before taking the field, Wells would put little pieces of brick and rock in the backside of his glove.  When baserunners would slide headfirst into second, they would be met with a pretty intense tag.  The result was usually a bloody mouth or some busted teeth.  Wells quickly gained the nickname of “El Diablo” or “The Devil.” 

Wells reputation as a fierce competitor was well earned, but it was not his most lasting achievement.  Because “El Diablo” was so competitive when he would get up to the plate he would oftentimes get hit in the head by opposing pitchers.  One morning upset by the previous days “beaming,” ventured to a construction site and modified a hard hat.  Willie Wells became one of the first players in organized history to wear a batting helmet during games.

Upon his retirement from baseball, Wells lived in New York City for a period before moving back to his hometown of Austin.  While in Austin, Wells lived in relative obscurity among the more affluent white community.  However, during the 1970s Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame began to recognize former Negro League greats such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and “Cool Papa” Bell, one of “El Diablo’s” roommates.  Wells began to gain more recognition for his playing days. 

Negro League ballplayers like Willie Wells were some of America’s first and most prominent Civil Rights leaders.  They were stars and role models in black communities all over the United States.  Although the Negro Leagues were a successful business in many regards and the ballplayers routinely competed against Major League talent in inter-league games, the goal of every Negro League player was to someday play in the Major Leagues.  Willie Wells never fulfilled that dream but he was finally inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.  Willie Wells died in 1989.  He once said, “They won’t recognize me until I’m dead.” 

Jason Walker

Link to an interview with Buck O'Neil on the Negro Leagues here.