Willie Wells: "El Diablo" of the Negro Leagues

Willie Wells: "El Diablo" of the Negro Leagues

Willie Wells: "El Diablo" of the Negro Leagues

Willie Wells: "El Diablo" of the Negro Leagues

Synopsis

Willie Wells was arguably the best shortstop of his generation. As Monte Irvin, a teammate and fellow Hall of Fame player, writes in his foreword, "Wells really could do it all. He was one of the slickest fielding shortstops ever to come along. He had speed on the bases. He hit with power and consistency. He was among the most durable players I've ever known." Yet few people have heard of the feisty ballplayer nicknamed "El Diablo." Willie Wells was black, and he played long before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Bob Luke has sifted through the spotty statistics, interviewed Negro League players and historians, and combed the yellowed letters and newspaper accounts of Wells's life to draw the most complete portrait yet of an important baseball player. Wells's baseball career lasted thirty years and included seasons in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada. He played against white all-stars as well as Negro League greats Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O'Neill, among others. He was beaned so many times that he became the first modern player to wear a batting helmet. As an older player and coach, he mentored some of the first black major leaguers, including Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe. Willie Wells truly deserved his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Bob Luke details how the lingering effects of segregation hindered black players, including those better known than Wells, long after the policy officially ended. Fortunately, Willie Wells had the talent and tenacity to take on anything- from segregation to inside fastballs- life threw at him. No wonder he needed a helmet.

Excerpt

By Monte Irvin

Baseball has been good to me for seventy years. I played with and against some of the greatest players in the history of the game—Josh Gibson, Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige, Bob Feller, Mule Suttles, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Ray Dandridge, Mickey Mantle, Leon Day, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Frank Robinson, and Martin Dihigo, to name only a few. Willie Wells belongs in that group, but you don’t often hear his name. That’s why I’m pleased that Bob Luke decided to tell Wells’s story.

I knew Wells. I played with him as a member of the Newark Eagles, one of the Negro league’s most prominent teams. I visited him while I was playing with the New York Giants, and he was working in a deli in the Wall Street section of New York City. We went to the fiftieth major-league all-star game in Chicago together in 1983.

Wells really could do it all. He was one of the slickest fielding shortstops ever to come along. He had speed on the bases. He hit with power and consistency. He was among the most durable players I’ve ever known. He was still winning games with home runs as a player-manager in Canada at the age of forty-seven.

He was smart. He was known as the “Shakespeare of Shortstops.” He knew where most balls would be hit before the pitch was thrown. He understood the game better than most and knew how to teach the fine points of the game to others, including myself. He was generous with his knowledge. He’d talk baseball to anyone—teammate, opponent, young kid—anywhere: on the field, in hotel rooms and lobbies . . .

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