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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 469

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This is the grave of Willie Wells.

Born in 1906 in Austin, Texas, Wells grew up in the city and became an outstanding baseball player. Of course, the major leagues were closed off to black players during his career, so he started playing in the Negro Leagues in 1923, first a year with the minor league Austin Black Senators in the Texas Negro League and then in 1924 with the St. Louis Stars of the Negro League. He played in St. Louis from 1924 to 1931, when the franchise dissolved. In 1926, Wells set the single-season Negro League home run record, with 27. He moved to the Chicago American Giants from 1932-35 and then the Newark Eagles from 1936-39. It was in Newark that he was part of the legendary Million Dollar Infield, with Ray Dandridge, Dick Seay, and Mule Suttles. In the offseason, he often went to Cuba to play in their league that took place in the winter and was a big star there too. He was a two-time Cuban League MVP, for the 1929-30 and 1939-40 seasons.

Wells was an excellent defensive shortstop as well, known for his powerful arm. Cool Papa Bell later remembered, “The shortstops I’ve seen, Wells could cover ground better than any of them. Willie Wells was the greatest shortstop in the world.” White players were plenty complimentary as well. Charlie Gehringer said Wells was, “the kind of player you always wanted on your team, he played the way all great players play – with everything he had.”

In 1940, Wells moved to Mexico to play. He was beloved there, known as “El Diablo” to his fans because he played so hard. He also found Mexico a huge relief from the racism he experienced in the United States. Now, I can tell you personally that Mexicans can be as racist toward black people as any population on the planet, but the legal structures and violence toward African-American people are far less salient there. He talked about the freedom and sense of democracy he felt there that he never felt at home. He played in Mexico for two years and returned to the U.S. in 1942. His nickname returned too, and he was known as The Devil to his fans from this point forward. He was a player manager for Newark in 1942, but then went back to Mexico for the 1943 and 1944 seasons.

Wells came back to the U.S. in 1945 and played for a variety of teams through 1948, ending his U.S. playing career with the Memphis Red Sox. He then went to Winnipeg to be the player-manager for Winnipeg Buffaloes of the Western Canadian Leagues. He stayed there until he finally retired from playing in 1954. At that point, he returned to the U.S. to manage the Birmingham Black Barons. But the Negro Leagues were dying by this time thanks to the integration of the game. Wells never benefited from this though, one of many players marginalized to obscurity and poverty compared to his equivalent stars in the American League and National League. Wells was also the first player to ever use a batting helmet, which he adapted from a construction helmet after he received a concussion being hit by a pitch when he played for Newark. He was a 10-time all star, ranging from 1933 to 1945.

After his career, Wells moved to New York and worked in a deli before returning to Austin to take care of his aging mother. He was elected to the Cuban and Mexican baseball Hall of Fame. In 1997, after his death, Wells was also elected by the Veterans Committee to the Baseball Hall of Fame, one of many Negro League stars to receive that recognition after they had died. Wells died in 1989.

Willie Wells is buried in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions and I am tremendously grateful. If you would like this series to cover additional Negro League stars, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Cool Papa Bell is in Normandy, Missouri and Josh Gibson is in Pittsburgh. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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