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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

Star of Stars
Wells could field and hit for power
By Bill Ladson/MLB.com


Many old-timers in St. Louis consider Willie Wells a better shortstop than Ozzie Smith.
Born: August 10, 1905, Austin, Texas
Died: Jan. 22, 1989, Austin, Texas
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Hall of Fame induction: 1997

Long before Cal Ripken Jr. set the standards for shortstops by combining dazzling fielding with home-run power, Willie Wells was doing the same things in the Negro Leagues.

For example, while having great range and displaying an accurate arm with the St. Louis Stars in 1926, Wells, known as "The Devil" because he found so many ways to beat opponents, set a Negro Leagues record for home runs in a season with 27. His big swing didn't hurt his batting average during his career, as he hit .334 during his 25 years in the Negro Leagues.

Wells also was a legend in Mexico because of his hitting prowess and became affectionately known as "El Diablo."

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"If I had to pick a shortstop for my team, it would be Willie Wells," Negro League legend Buck O'Neil said in his autobiography in 1996. "He could hit to all fields, hit with power, bunt and stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. But it was his glove that truly dazzled. ... Great as Ozzie Smith is, old-timers in St. Louis who saw Willie play for the St. Louis Stars still haven't seen his equal."

Wells' talents were first noticed by Rube Foster, manager of the Chicago American Giants, and St. Louis Stars owner Dr. George Keys, while Wells was playing in San Antonio, Texas. Wells had to choose between the two teams and decided to sign with the Stars, and it proved to be the right decision. He guided the Stars to three Negro League championships, in 1928, '30 and '31. Wells' best season during the championship years came in 1930, when he hit a staggering .401.

Unfortunately, not too long after the '31 season, Wells had to find new employment, for the Stars folded. In 1932, he played for four teams -- the Detroit Wolves, Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs and Coles' American Giants, and really didn't find a home until he joined the Newark Eagles in 1936. In between those years, Wells did help the Giants capture consecutive pennants in two different leagues. They won the Negro Southern League title in 1932 and the Negro National League flag the following season.

With the Eagles, Wells became a pioneer and all-around player. In '36, after being thrown at often by opposing pitchers, he became the first player in baseball history to wear a batting helmet. And during a four-year stretch from '36 to '39, Wells hit no lower than .346 and became a member of the "million-dollar infield" that also featured Ray Dandridge.

By 1942, manager was added to his duties with the Eagles, but he bolted to Mexico for two years after having a dispute with Eagles co-owner Effa Manley. Wells returned to the Eagles in 1945, but he was past his prime and left again after the season. From 1946 until his last year in 1954, Wells played for five Negro League teams and even had a three-year stint in the Canadian League. In 1946, Wells even found time to teach Brooklyn Dodgers minor leaguer Jackie Robinson how to make the pivot at second base.

Wells' post-career did not include baseball. He worked in a delicatessen in New York for over a decade before moving to Austin, Texas, to care for his mother.

Wells lived until 1989 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Bill Ladson is an editor/producer for the MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.