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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

El Diablo gets his due

by Clay Coppedge

Austin native Willie Wells was one of the best shortstops to ever play professional baseball but he was also one of generations of players who performed in relative obscurity because of Major League Baseball's long-standing "gentleman's agreement" that kept Black players out of the big leagues.

Wells first played for the semi-pro team the Austin Black Senators in 1923 and caught the attention of Negro League superstar and entrepreneur Rube Foster (another Texan) and St. Louis Stars scout Bill Wallace. Wells' mother informed both men that her son, a graduate of the original L.C. Anderson High School in Austin, had no time to play professional baseball because he was going to attend college. When Foster and Wallace both promised that her son would be able to attend classes in the off-season, she told Willie to sign with the Stars because St. Louis was closer to Austin than Chicago.

Nothing in Wells' rookie season foreshadowed the outstanding career he would have. Like many otherwise promising prospects, Wells was befuddled by professional curveballs. Players on the opposing team would start razzing Wells every time he came to the plate. "Hey, Wells, here comes the curveball." He looked for all the world like just another good-field, no-hit disappointment.

Willie went back to Austin and enrolled at what is now Huston-Tillotson College, figuring his baseball career was already over, when he got a call to play winter ball in California. This time Willie made up his own mind and hit the road for the Golden State. He later recalled how he had watched his mother take in washing and ironing to make a living and thought, "Now I can help her." He went to California against her wishes.

In California, a man named Hurley "Bugger" McNair taught Wells to hit the curveball by tying his ankle to a stake at home plate to keep him from bailing out on the pitch, and then fed him nothing but curveballs until he learned to recognize and hit them. When Wells showed up for spring training the next season and pitchers' eyes lit up when they saw him coming to the plate, he responded to their breaking balls by smashing them all over and out of the park.

"He could hit to all fields, hit with power, bunt and stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples," longtime Negro league player and manager Buck O'Neil said of Wells. "But it was his glove that truly dazzled…Old-timers in St. Louis who saw Willie play for the St. Louis Stars still have not seen his equal."

For a short time, Wells played with fellow Texan Newt Allen at second base. Together they formed the best double-play combination in baseball. Former Negro League player Bill Drake recalled that Allen wouldn't even look at first when he made the pivot at second on a double play. "He'd throw the ball to first under his left arm."

Baseball was a pretty lousy way for a lot of African Americans to make a buck, at least in the United States. Some, like Willie Wells, played ball in Cuba and then winter ball in Mexico when Mexican millionaire Jorge Pasqual stocked his team with several Negro League all-stars in order to win the Mexican League championship.

Wells played for Vera Cruz in 1940 and 1941, hitting .345 the first year and .347 the next. Fans loved him. They called him "El Diablo"—the Devil— for the way he handled the shortstop position. He lived in an affluent neighborhood, was paid well, and wasn't discriminated against because of the color of his skin.

"I've found freedom and democracy here, something I never found in the United States," Wells told the Pittsburg Courier. "I was branded a Negro in the United States and had to act accordingly. Everything I did, including playing ball, was regarded by my color. Well, here in Mexico I am a man. I can go as far in baseball as I am capable."-

Wells, who is also widely credited with introducing the batting helmet to baseball and modifications to the glove, went pretty far with the game despite the barriers. He played professionally for 28 years and even got to team with his son, Willie Wells, Jr. at second base, for the only father-son double play combination in pro baseball history. He retired in 1954 with a .364 average against other Black teams (though records from the Negro Leagues are far from complete) and .410 against major leaguers.

After leaving the pro game, he went to Canada as a player-manager for the Winnipeg Buffaloes of the Western Canadian League before returning to the U.S. to manage the Birmingham Black Barons. He moved to New York City and worked in a deli until returning to Austin to take care of his aging mother. Reporters sometimes came around, wanting to talk about his days in baseball. He'd say he'd had a beautiful career and the money had actually been pretty good— about $25,000 a year for playing ball for 12 months.

Asked about his chances of ever getting into the baseball Hall of Fame, Wells was optimistic. "I think they'll put more of us in there," he said of him and his fellow Negro League players. "Just let me see it while I'm living."

It wasn't to be. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, eight years after he died in Austin of heart failure. He's also a member of the Cuban and Mexican baseball halls of fame.

In 2004, Wells' remains were reinterred from the small Evergreen Cemetery to the Texas State Cemetery in East Austin. And in January of this year, Anderson High School renamed its baseball field "Willie Wells Field."

It has taken a long time—too long— for major league baseball and his hometown to recognize his greatness, but El Diablo is finally getting his due.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 10, 2022 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Those Desolate Icarians 7-8-22
  • Boy With X-Ray Eyes 6-8-22
  • Woody Guthrie and the End of the World 5-15-22
  • Last Town Crier 4-8-22
  • Rough Riding on the Butterfield Trail 3-6-22

    more »

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