Willie Wells and the lost history of black baseball in Austin
He's just another one of the boys of summer. Between games of dominoes at Marshall's Barber Shop on East 12th Street, the slight, 72-year-old black man peers up from under his horn-rimmed glasses at the reporter who has tracked him to his favorite stomping ground.
"You wouldn't know me if you weren't a newspaperman," mutters Willie Wells.
He's right, too. Austin's Eastside, 1977, is a long way from the streets of Mexico City and Havana in the Thirties and Forties. Back then, Willie Wells was the most fearsome shortstop ever to play the game of baseball. His batting stroke was deadly, his fielding prowess unmatched, his competitive streak legendary. "El Diablo," they called him.
From the sandlots of Austin to New York and Chicago to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Canada, Willie Wells distinguished himself as the best shortstop of his era, and possibly the greatest middle infielder this side of Honus Wagner. Wells was also an innovator, pioneering the use of batting helmets, and training Jackie Robinson to play second base as he prepared to break baseball's color line. Yet after he retired, Wells' career washed away like the dirt off his jersey. He never played Major League Baseball, because he wasn't allowed.
After his retirement, the only folks who recognized Wells' achievements during his lifetime were the newspapermen who ventured out every few years to "discover" the forgotten Negro League star. Occasionally sportswriters would push for the inclusion of Wells and some of his fellow preintegration black stars into the Hall of Fame, but considering that the immortal Satchel Paige was only inducted in 1971, it was a dim hope. The founding father of the Negro Leagues, Rube Foster, wasn't even enshrined until 1981.
"I think they'll put more of us in there," Wells tells the reporter, Danny Roberts, in the Aug. 7, 1977 edition of the Austin American-Statesman. "Just let me see it while I'm living."
Willie Wells died on Jan. 22, 1989, a victim of congestive heart failure. He was living in the same South Austin house he grew up in, at 1705 Newton, just west of South Congress. He didn't live to see baseball's Valhalla in Cooperstown, N.Y., nor did he qualify for a pension. Instead, he lived out his final days in relative obscurity, drawing only a meager social security check.
"El Diablo," as he was known in the Mexican leagues -- "the Devil" forever afterward here in the states -- wasn't just overlooked by baseball itself. Here in his hometown, he was equally anonymous. His legacy, and that of his contemporaries, has been lost to the passage of time, swallowed whole by the ugly demon of racism.
If that beast had a face, it would be the mustachioed mug of Adrian "Cap" Anson. The lifetime captain of the Chicago White Stockings and the 19th century's biggest star reportedly drew the major-league color line in 1887 when he refused to play an exhibition game against the Newark, N.J., team that featured a black pitcher, George Stovey. The rest of the majors emulated Anson, and there emerged a "gentleman's agreement" against allowing blacks in either the majors or minors. From that point forward, the best black players of the day were relegated to the all-black Negro Leagues, which were financially unstable and kept dubious statistical records that appeared only in the small African-American newspapers of the day.
For years, the National Baseball Hall of Fame ignored the accomplishments of black stars who played before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. It wasn't until 1971 that the Hall of Fame created a special committee to elect Negro League players. Even then, they were given a "separate but equal" display, which was only integrated into the main body of the Hall after press, fans, and players alike became outraged at the announcement.
After an original nine were enshrined between 1971 and 1977, more Negro Leaguers were inducted in the Nineties, for a total of 18, as compared to more than 200 non-Negro League plaques. El Diablo finally saw the light of day with his 1997 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His daughter Stella journeyed to Cooperstown to accept.
"He never was bitter," says Stella Wells, 81, about her father. "He was glad to see people. He was one of those people who was always glad to see anybody who made progress in life."
Though Willie Wells grew up across from a church, baseball was his religion. Instead of tossing his nickel into the Sunday collection basket, the youngster regularly took a trolley up to Dobbs Field near Lake Austin Dam, home of the Texas Negro League's Austin Black Senators. There, he watched games and played ball in the sandlots, eventually developing into the best young shortstop in Austin.
Born on Aug. 11, 1905, Wells attended Brackenridge Elementary, later starring at both baseball and football at Anderson High School. His love of hardball and the Black Senators led to Wells being the team's unofficial/unpaid batboy, and he soon got to know some of the best ballplayers in the country. The Texas Negro League was regarded as a minor league to the Negro National League, though this was an era when some of the best players, black or white, often stayed with minor-league clubs due to financial or geographic considerations.
After graduation, Wells played with the Black Senators in 1923-1924, attracting the eye of two prestigious Negro League teams in town for spring training: The St. Louis Stars and the Chicago American Giants, managed by National Negro League chieftain Rube Foster. Both clubs clamored for his services, and Wells eventually signed a $300 contract with the Stars to appease his mother, who pointed out that St. Louis was only a day's train ride away from Austin. Wells was on his way to stardom, or as close to it as a black athlete could get at that time.
And what of the enigmatic Black Senators, Austin's only legitimate professional team in the Twenties and Thirties? Unfortunately, few records survive, due largely to their being ignored by the Statesman and other major press. Not a single photograph is on file at the Austin History Center.
What is known is that the Senators fielded a ballclub as early as 1920 in the Texas Negro League, which was composed of mainstays from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, and a revolving cast of teams from Fort Worth, Galveston, Shreveport, Wichita Falls, Little Rock, and Oklahoma City.
The Austinites appeared in many exhibition games against nonleague competition and often played south of the border, where the players were treated as first-class citizens. Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith, best known as Satchel Paige's personal reliever and very nearly his equal, pitched for the Senators in 1931 on his way up the Negro League circuit. The Black Senators team lasted into the Fifties, but by 1947, the white, Class B Austin Pioneers were the principal game in town.
According to Negro Leaguer Roy White of Adkins, Texas, there was another local team in the late Forties called the Austin Black Pioneers, who White played with before joining the Boston Braves system a year later. Little else has surfaced about the Black Pioneers. This is hardly surprising, given the dim backdrop history has afforded these forgotten warriors.
The ball whizzes past Wells' head so fast and so close, even the crowd flinches.
"He's trying to put me in the hospital!" exclaims the figure onstage at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum's Texas Spirit Theater. The actor is Carsey Walker Jr., and he brings Wells back to life in the one-act The Willie Wells Story, running through Sept. 1 in conjunction with the museum's new exhibit, "Play Ball! Texas Baseball."
The scene is a re-enactment of a July 7, 1942 contest between Wells' Newark Eagles and the Baltimore Elite Giants. Wells was such a fearsome presence at the plate that opposing pitchers regularly threw at his head, believing they could rattle the 5-foot-7, 162-pound shortstop. Elite Giants spitballer Bill Byrd once knocked him unconscious in a game at Yankee Stadium. In a rematch against Byrd three days later, Wells came up to the plate in a construction workers' hardhat.
"This funny-looking thing on my head? This is a batting helmet," declared Walker's Wells. "I invented it."
Then, he socks the next pitch into the wild blue yonder. It's unclear whether Wells actually homered in the game, but it wouldn't have been unlikely. Wells was a prodigious power hitter for his size. In 1929, he took advantage of the short, left-field porch in St. Louis to crack a Negro National League-record 27 home runs in only 88 games, batting .368. The next year, Wells hit .403, adding 14 dingers. In exhibition play against all-star teams of white major leaguers, Wells hit .392 for his career.
In the field, Wells compensated for an arm weakened by an old pitching injury with expert positioning, tremendous range, and a lightning-quick release. He was a demon on the diamond, like Ty Cobb, unafraid to play rough and dirty when the situation called for it. That's how he earned the nickname of "El Diablo" when he starred in the Mexican Leagues in the Forties. Wells, who had by then developed a strong track record as a player-manager, spent much of his remaining career in Mexico, Cuba, and even Canada. Wells eventually achieved a rare Triple Crown: induction in the Mexican, Cuban, and American baseball halls of fame.
"One of the main reasons I came back to Mexico is because I've found freedom and democracy here, something I never found in the United States," Wells told baseball integration advocate Wendell Smith in the May 6, 1944, Pittsburgh Courier. "I was branded a Negro in the States and had to act accordingly. They wouldn't even give me a chance in the big leagues because I was a Negro, yet they accepted every other nationality under the sun."
Upon his return to the States, Wells knew he was too old to cross over into the major leagues, but he did his part to help eradicate the color line once and for all. On the eve of Jackie Robinson's 1946 debut into organized baseball for the Montreal team, Wells tutored the soon-to-be Brooklyn Dodger on the art of making the double-play pivot at second base.
When El Diablo's day finally came, it was a bit like a funeral. Everyone was there but Willie Wells himself on Feb. 6, 1998, when the city of Austin honored the shortstop's August 1997 induction into the Hall of Fame. Buck O'Neil, the Negro Leagues great and its most visible remaining ambassador, joined Stella Wells and local politicians for a ceremony on what was declared Willie Wells Day. Congress Avenue, near his home of so many years, was renamed Willie Wells Avenue, and large banners were hung in celebration. For one day, at least, Willie Wells was king of Austin.
"I'm so proud that he has really been recognized," says Stella Wells, her voice brimming with delight. "It really makes a big difference now."
As guardian of her father's memorabilia, the lifelong Austinite has been an invaluable resource for both the "Texas Baseball" exhibit and The Willie Wells Story. She beams at her father's accomplishments and at mention of the friends he made along the way, such as close friend and fellow Hall of Famer "Cool Papa" Bell. She is pained by one fact, however: She never got to see her dad play.
As difficult as it was for the Negro Leaguers to travel across the country in second-rate buses, encountering racism on a daily basis, bringing the wife and kids along was simply out of the question.
"They wouldn't let us go anywhere," laments Stella. "It was too tough."
Willie Wells' journey was long and perilous, but at the end of it, he found peace. A 1988 interview with the Chronicle's R.U. Steinberg (Talking with Willie Wells), given months before his death, finds the good-natured 82-year-old grateful for his life in and outside of the game. His words from a 1977 article, on the other hand, hit closer to home.
"Ignorance is pitiful! If you are ignorant and stupid, you are sick -- white, black, green, I don't care."
Willie Wells was a victim of ignorance all his life. Now, thanks to the Bob Bullock museum, which has made Wells the focal point of its exhibit, a ray of light has finally been shed on this Devil in the dark.