Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, called Willie Wells: “The finest shortstop (SS), black or white.” David Schoenfield, ESPN Senior Writer, opined that Wells was #10 in his Top Ten greatest Negro Leaguers of all-time, based on performances in the Negro Leagues. Table I includes these ten players, plus those Schoenfield listed as honorable mention.
Table I: Top 10 Negro Leaguers of All-Time (Consensus Ranking by David Schoenfield)
|#1 Satchel Paige-Pitcher||Command was a key asset. Paige is the “frame of reference” here.|
|Oscar Charleston-OF/1B||Bill James: “Charleston was equal to or better than Cobb, Ruth, and Speaker.»|
|Joshua Gibson-Catcher||Monte Irvin: “I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron. They were tremendous players but they were no Josh Gibson.”|
|John Henry Lloyd-SS||Babe Ruth: “Lloyd is my choice as the greatest baseball player…”|
|Buck Leonard-1B||Buck Leonard: “I only wished I could have played in the big leagues when I was young enough to show what I could do.”|
|Turkey Stearnes-OF/1B||Recent research indicates that Stearnes hit the most home runs in Negro Leagues history, not Mule Suttles or Josh Gibson.|
|Mule Suttles-1B/OF||Willie Wells: “Suttles hit one in [Estadio Tropical] in Cuba that carried over the heads of the soldiers on horseback riding, [doing] crowd control duty behind the fence, a total of about 600 feet.”|
|Ray Dandridge-3B||Ray Dandridge: “Ozzie’s the onliest guy I’ve seen who’s got my style.”|
|James “Cool Papa” Bell-CF||Satchel Paige: “Bell once he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second.»|
|#10 Willie Wells-SS||Monte Irvin: “You should have seen Willie Wells play shortstop: as good as Ozzie Smith and a better hitter.»|
|Leon Day-P||Larry Doby: “You talk about Satchel. I didn’t see anyone better than Day with a 90-to-95 MPH fastball and great curve.”|
|Martín Dihigo-OF/2B/P||Al Campanis: “The best baseball player I have ever seen in my life.” Inducted in five Baseball Hall of Fames: Cooperstown, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela.|
|Monte Irvin-OF||Outstanding in Negro Leagues, PRWL and Cuban Winter League.|
|Judy Johnson-3B||A member of the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords — maybe the greatest 1920-1946 baseball team — with Paige, Gibson, Charleston and Bell.|
|Biz Mackey-Catcher||Switch-hitter; perhaps best defensive Negro Leagues catcher.|
|Cristobal Torriente-CF||Five-tool talent who pushed Oscar Charleston to LF as teammates. with the 1923-24 Santa Clara Leopards, Cuban Winter League.|
|Smokey Joe Williams-P||Some considered him better than Paige.|
https://www.espn.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/55331/ten-greatest-negro-leaguers-of-all-time A mythical line-up with Bell-CF, Lloyd-SS/2B, Charleston-LF, Gibson-C, Stearnes-RF, Suttles-DH, Leonard-1B, Dandridge-3B, Wells-2B/SS, and Paige-starting pitcher, is impressive!
This blog will highlight Willie Wells’s pro baseball career in Cuba, Mexico, the Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL), Canada, California Winter League and the Negro Leagues. It updated or corrected some prior stats, including his .361 batting AVG for the 1941-42 Aguadilla Sharks in Puerto Rico, per Jorge Colón Delgado’s research, instead of .378, seen in multiple sources. Wells’s outstanding batting figures in Negro League’s East-West All-Star Games were made possible thanks to Larry Lester’s research. The Seamheads.com database was used for Wells’s Negro Leagues hitting statistics. Past research by John Holway was the source of Wells’s ,353 batting AVG and five HR in 116 career barnstorming AB versus white major league pitchers. It also includes a section on Wells’s special friendship with Jackie Robinson.
One interesting tidbit is Wells’s place of birth. Was it Austin, Texas, or Shawnee, Oklahoma?
James A. Riley has Wells born in Austin, Texas, August 10, 1905. Wells passed away in Austin, at age 83, on January 22, 1989, of congestive heart failure. What is unquestionable is the respect earned by Wells throughout his baseball career. Charlie Gehringer, Cooperstown Hall of Famer, after his Detroit Tigers career, called Wells “the kind of player you always wanted on your team; he played the way all great players play—with everything he had.” Various sources note Wells made up for a lack of arm strength by perfecting a quick release on throws from deep in the hole.
Wells’s Friendship with, Connection to, and Mentoring of Jackie Robinson
Brad Kyle’s April 13, 2017 article, in the above-mentioned link, documents Wells’s special connection to Jackie Robinson. Wells attended Samuel Huston College in Austin, Texas, originally established in 1876 under the Methodist Episcopal Conference, but now known as Huston-Tillotson University. It just so happened that Jackie Robinson served in the U.S. Army at Ft. Hood, Texas, 70 miles north of Austin, in Killeen. Robinson was honorably discharged in 1944. Prior to serving in the Army, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College and UCLA, and became athletic director for a local youth program, and taught Sunday School at a church in Southern California pastored by Reverend Karl Downs.
Fast forward to 1944. Reverend Downs was now President of Samuel Huston College. Downs offered Jackie Robinson the 1944-45 basketball coaching job at Samuel Huston, competing in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). And Robinson, for a time, lived in the Downs household, enjoying home-cooked meals. While in Austin, Robinson received a letter from the Kansas City Monarchs, with an invitation to play for their 1945 baseball team.
Willie Wells, playing with the 1945 Newark Eagles, played against Robinson in the Negro Leagues East-West All-Star Game. Wells tutored Robinson on how to pivot from second base, in turning the double play, which helped Robinson immensely with the 1946 Montreal Royals. And Wells was happy for Robinson, in November 1945, when the future Brooklyn Dodgers star was chosen to travel to Venezuela with the American All-Stars, to showcase his skills. (Wells was initially considered to play with these All-Stars, but organizers opted to insert Robinson on this team, in a month-long series.) History has shown that caring and unselfish human beings like Willie Wells and Reverend Karl Downs were two unique individuals with a Samuel Huston College connection who made a difference in Jackie Robinson’s career.
Negro Leagues Sensation
Wells was simply outstanding in every facet of the game with the 1924-1931 St. Louis Stars and other ballclubs (Detroit Wolves, Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Cole’s American Giants, Newark Eagles, Chicago American Giants, Baltimore Elite Giants, Indianapolis Clowns and Memphis Red Sox). Wells helped the Stars win Negro National League (NNL) titles in 1928, 1930 and 1931. Most of his Negro Leagues HR—125 of 146, or 85.6 percent—were hit for St. Louis. From 1928-30, he blasted 100 HR in 1,100 league AB, for 50 HR per 550 AB! Wells and Cool Papa Bell were fan favorites as St. Louis Stars teammates. His Negro Leagues playing career concluded with the 1948 Memphis Red Sox: eight hits in 17 AB, for a .471 AVG!
In 10 Negro Leagues All-Star Games, Wells went 13-for-40, a .325 AVG, with seven doubles, the most ever hit by a player in these contests, plus one triple. Per an August 4, 2020 text from Larry Lester, Wells scored seven runs in these 10 games; drove in seven; had three walks, one sac; with a .364 OBP, .550 SLG, and .914 OPS. From 1936-39, Wells was part of Newark’s “Million Dollar Infield,” one of the best IF of all-time, per John Holway. It had Mule Suttles (1B), Dick Seay (2B), Ray Dandridge (3B) and Wells (SS). Dandridge was compared to Brooks Robinson, and Buck O’Neil noted, “this boy, Ozzie Smith, could field with Wells, but he couldn’t hit with him.” Coincidentally, Dandridge and Wells were bow-legged. Holway wrote: “You could drive a train through their legs,” per players’ comments, “but not a ground ball.”
Wells was one of the first pro baseball players to wear a batting helmet. Billy Byrd had beaned him with a pitch in a Baltimore-Newark game, motivating Wells to start wearing a coal miner’s helmet, modified to fit around his head. (The Pittsburgh Pirates were the first big league team to require batting helmets for its players in 1953, well before Wells used his batting helmet.)
California Winter League and Exhibition Games versus White Major Leaguers
Wells wintered in California when not playing seven winter seasons in Cuba and one in Puerto Rico. His .301 AVG in the California Winter League is documented in Table II, thanks to research done by William F. McNeil. Holway is cited for Wells’s 41 hits in 116 AB, against big leaguers, in exhibition games with a .353 AVG and five HR in 116 AB.
Table II: Willie Wells Career Hitting—Negro Leagues, California (CA) Winter League (WL),
Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada
& Seamheads.com Negro Leagues database information. # Negro Leagues All-Star Games,
per Larry Lester. ^ Games versus white major leaguers, per John Holway.
Table III: Top Six Negro Leaguers Batting AVG versus
white big leaguers (100+ AB) and most HR
|Cool Papa Bell||152||52||.342|
|Player||AB||HR||HR per 550 AB|
Source: John Holway.
Table IV: Top Six Lifetime HR Leaders, Negro Leagues
|Player||AB||HR||HR per 550 AB|
Source: Seamheads.com database.
Cuban Winter League
Wells performed admirably for the 1928-29 and 1929-30 Cienfuegos Elephants; 1935-36 Santa
Clara Leopards; and 1936-40 Almendares Scorpions. This “integrated” league featured the best Negro Leaguers, some white Stateside players, along with light-skinned and dark-skinned Cubans. As noted in Table II, Wells had a .320 career AVG in Cuba, with 352 hits in 1,099 AB. His SB and RBI totals are incomplete. The 1929-30 Cienfuegos team (32-19) won the title over Santa Clara (21-21), Almendares (23-26) and Havana (20-30). Cool Papa Bell, Wells’s teammate, was the league MVP. But Wells, with a .322 AVG, and Alejandro Oms—league batting champ—with a .380 AVG for Santa Clara, were also deserving. (Satchel Paige went 6-5 for Santa Clara.)
With 1935-36 Santa Clara, Wells’s .356 AVG was second to teammate Martín Dihigo’s .358. The 34-14 Santa Clara Leopards were one of the best pre-World War II Winter League teams with a double-play duo of Wells and Horacio “Rabbit” Martínez; Oms (.311 AVG) and Dihigo (when not pitching) in the OF; Bill “Thou Shall Not Steal” Perkins catching; and pitchers’ Dihigo (11-2), Heliodoro Díaz (8-4), Marino Rodríguez (8-4) and Leandro Forbes (4-0).
Aguadilla Sharks (1941-42)
Wells signed his 1941-42 contract for $65 per week, plus all living expenses. Quincy Trouppe, who played for the 1941-42 Guayama Witches (Brujos), witnessed Wells signing this agreement. The 21-22 Sharks finished fourth, behind Ponce (30-13), Guayama (29-15), San Juan (24-20); and ahead of Caguas (21-23), Santurce (21-23), Mayagüez (19-25) and Humacao-Arecibo (10-34). Wells’s .361 AVG (53-for-147) was good for sixth. (Top five were: Joshua Gibson-.480, Willard Brown-.409, Perucho Cepeda-.377, Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre-.372 and Sammy Céspedes-.364.) Gibson’s .480 AVG (59-for-123) is the best-ever in league history. Wells’s 17 doubles tied him for second-best, with four others, behind Monte Irvin’s 18 two-baggers.
Josh Gibson’s two HR in the second League All-Star Game for the Northeast team of Caguas, Humacao, Santurce and San Juan players, propelled them to an 8-3 win, and a sweep, on January 1, 1942. (They won the first game, 7-3.) Wells played both games for the Southeast team of Aguadilla, Guayama, Mayagüez and Ponce stars. The Southeast squad featured Coímbre, Sam Bankhead and Raymond Brown of Ponce; Leon Day and Wells with Aguadilla; Trouppe and Barney Brown—the League MVP—with Guayama; and Mayagüez’s Buster Clarkson. Conversely, the Northeast team had Josh Gibson, Luis Raúl Cabrera, Vidal López and Ray Dandridge, the Santurce quartet; Monte Irvin, Bill Wright, Gerardo Rodríguez and Freddie Thon Sr., the San Juan quartet; Willard Brown and Jud Wilson with Humacao (pre-Arecibo); plus, Billy Byrd, Roy Campanella, Céspedes, Luis R. Olmo and Manolo García from the Caguas Criollos. Josh Gibson—in his prime—plus the others are a “Who’s Who” of outstanding players.
Record of Willie Wells in Puerto Rico https://beisbol101.com/willie-wells/
While in Puerto Rico, Wells alerted Abe Manley that he would be a player-manager for the 1942 Newark Eagles, with a $315 monthly salary. Bill Wright, 1941-42 San Juan OF, told the author he had a “deep respect” for Willie Wells, prior to 1941-42. Wright had a storied baseball career in Mexico. So did Wells, albeit for a shorter timeframe. But first, Wells is one of 15 PRWL and Negro Leagues players inducted in Cooperstown. This list excludes Oscar Charleston, 1976 Cooperstown inductee, a 1946-47 PRWL umpire.
Table V: Cooperstown Inductees who played in PRWL and Negro Leagues
|Player||PRWL Team(s) and Seasons||Cooperstown Induction|
|Roy Campanella||Caguas: 1940-42; Santurce: 44-45; San Juan: 45-46||1969|
|Satchel Paige||Guayama: 1939-41; Santurce: 47-48||1971|
|Joshua Gibson||Santurce:1939-40, 41-42, 45-46||1972|
|Walter “Buck” Leonard||Mayagüez: 1940-41||1972|
|Monte Irvin||San Juan: 1940-42, 45-47||1973|
|Willie Mays||Santurce, 1954-55||1979|
|Hank Aaron||Caguas, 1953-54||1982|
|Ray Dandridge||Santurce: 1941-42, 1953-54||1987|
|Leon Day||Aguadilla: 1940-42; Santurce: 1949-50||1995|
|Willie Wells||Aguadilla: 1941-42||1997|
|Larry Doby||San Juan: 1946-47||1998|
|Hilton Smith||Ponce, 1947-48||2001|
|Raymond Brown||San Juan: 1938-40, 44-45; Santurce: 1940-41, 46-47; Ponce: 1941-42||2006|
|Willard Brown||Humacao-Arecibo: 1941-42; Santurce: 1946-54, 56-57||2006|
|Ernest “Jud” Wilson||Humacao-Arecibo: 1941-42||2006|
Mexican Independent League, 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1944
Wells initially barnstormed in Mexico, 1932-33, and loved the country. He could stay at the best hotels; eat at the finest restaurants; and feel appreciated. (Leon Day told the author that Wells was appreciated in Aguadilla, too. When Day was inducted in Cooperstown—1995—his plaque had Aguadilla Sharks cap). In 1940, Bell enjoyed playing with the Veracruz Azules (Blues) for skipper Martín Dihigo. Veracruz (61-30) won the league crown by six games over the Mexico City Red Devils (57-38). While Cool Papa Bell won the Triple Crown, .437-12-79, with the Tampico Cotton Growers, Wells tied Bill Wright for the league lead with 30 doubles. Wells, in 84 games, scored 95 runs; drove in 57, and batted .345, with 17 SB for manager Lázaro Salazar.
The following  season, he and Josh Gibson helped Veracruz (67-35) romp to the pennant over second-place Mexico City (52-47). Bill Wright (.390) won the batting title with Mexico City, but Wells got on base frequently for Gibson to drive him in. Wells scored 102 runs in 100 games, with a .347/.428/.516 slash line, and .944 OPS! He walked 57 times; cracked 29 doubles, six triples and nine HR. His 77 RBIs and 14 SB complemented Gibson’s league-leading 33 HR and 124 RBIs. As noted earlier, Wells was player-manager for the 1942 Newark Eagles.
Wells was Tampico’s 1943 player-manager, before being replaced by Santos Amaro. The 41-48 Tampico Alijadores finished fourth of six teams. Wells batted .295 in 87 games, with four HR, 51 RBIs and 10 SB. Bill Wright claimed the Triple Crown, with a .366-13-70 performance for Mexico City. (Veracruz’s Ray Dandridge tied Wright with 70 RBIs.) In 1944, Wells split time with first-place Veracruz (52-37), and last-place Mexico City (28-62). Wells witnessed controversy when player-manager Rogers Hornsby had issues with team owner Jorge Pasquel. Hornsby—who made two pinch-hitting appearances for Veracruz—claimed he had to pay his own expenses on road trips. Hornsby resigned and Pasquel replaced him with pitcher Ramón Bragaña, who won 30 of Veracruz’s 52 victories! (Hornsby later managed the 1950-51 Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico, and appreciated his $10,000 salary for three months of work.) Wells produced 10 HR and 52 RBIs in 83 total games. He scored 63 runs; stole nine bases; and hit .294, at age 39.
Monte Irvin and others noted Wells was called “El Diablo” (The Devil), since he “always came up with the big play.” Opposing players would say, “Don’t hit it shortstop because ‘The Devil’ is playing out there.” Wells was listed at 5’9” and 170 pounds.
The Man-Dak (Manitoba-Dakota) League beckoned in 1950. Wells was player-manager for the Winnipeg Buffaloes, league post-season champions. He had a .304 batting AVG, 34 hits/112 AB; 22 runs and 22 RBIs. With Winnipeg, he managed Leon Day, his 1941-42 Aguadilla teammate, and Willie Wells Jr., his son. Many ex-Negro Leaguers played in the Man-Dak League. Wells Sr. records were NA: 1951 Winnipeg Buffaloes; 1952 and 1953 Brandon Greys.
Final Thoughts and Acknowledgments
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee elected Wells (Negro Leagues), Nellie Fox (1950s) and Tommy Lasorda (1970s), for 1997 Cooperstown Induction. Wells was the second Negro Leagues shortstop inducted, following Pop Lloyd (1977). There will be 26 shortstops enshrined, including Derek Jeter, as of 2021.
With thanks and appreciation to Eduardo B. Almada, Jorge Colón Delgado, Leon Day, Jorge Figueredo, John Holway, Monte Irvin, Larry Lester, William F. McNeil and Bill Wright.