Negro Leagues legend and Hall of Fame shortstop Willie Wells ranks 93rd on our list of The 100 Greatest Ballplayers of All-Time. This is part of our series on those special players in the top one hundred.
Most fans of baseball history know the name of Rogers Hornsby, who many still consider the greatest second baseman of all-time. He isn’t, but Hornsby is a legend, and one of the great right-handed batters to ever step into the batters box.
The number of people who know anything about Willie Wells is much smaller. But Wells was probably every bit as great at hitting a baseball as Hornsby was. Like “The Rajah,” Wells was also a middle infielder. In fact both men started their professional careers as shortstops. Like Hornsby, Wells won multiple home run titles. Both men were right-handed hitters who liked to pull the ball. Both men were raised in Texas, and both men played their first pro ball in Texas and Oklahoma. Hornsby was born eight years before Willie, but the two men played baseball at the same time for about two decades. At the same time, but not under the same circumstances.
Willie Wells could never challenge his skills against the likes of Hornsby because he was a negro, and negroes in the 1920s had to eat their lunch away from white people, had to educate their kids in different schools, and had to play their baseball in separate leagues. But Wells could have, and would have outplayed Hornsby at their peak. Because Willie was a two-way player.
Wells was such a picture-perfect infielder that it was he, as a veteran in the 1940s, who taught young Jackie Robinson to make the pivot on the double play. It was Jackie’s first foray into professional baseball in the American negro leagues, and while Wells was into his fourth decade by the time he was a teammate to Robinson, he poured out his baseball knowledge to help Jackie and other young black players.
How good was Wells? He is thought to be the first negro leagues player to hit four home runs in a single game. His arm was so good that he frequently planted himself a few feet into shallow left field, knowing his rocket throws could still nab the runners at first base. Wells won at least four home run titles in the States, and in a 90-game season we know he batted over .400 for the St. Louis Stars when he was 25 years old. He went south to play in the Mexican League for several winters, and he was so good the fans in that country nicknamed him “El Diablo.” In the U.S., his opponents called him “Devil” because he hounded them with his play, and because he had a dark temper that surfaced at times of stress.
“Wells was the best at crossing over second base and fielding the ball,” Satchel Paige said. “His momentum carried him almost to first base himself.”
Like Hornsby, Wells served as a successful player-manager at times. He was respected for his leadership and no-nonsense approach to managing games. Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, was especially fond of Willie, whom she hired twice to manage her team during World War II.
For the roughly 1,000 games featuring Wells that we have reliable records for, he hit .330, with an on-base over .400, and a slugging over .500, something only 22 players have ever accomplished. Willie is the only shortstop to do it. He ranks among the greatest shortstops ever, whether you heard of him or not.
He’s notable for something else too, and frequently he’s mentioned for it: developing the first practical batting helmet. It happened in the 1920s and it came about because he was so good. Opposing pitchers threw at him to make him less comfortable at the plate. Reportedly, Willie went to the batters box one day wearing a modified construction workers helmet.
Wells was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997, eight years after he died. While alive, he steadfastly argued that the negro leagues he played in where filled with players who could have been stars in white leagues, if just given a chance.
He could have been bitter, but Willie Wells just kept telling people about black ballplayers. Kept telling people how much fun and how good the leagues were. He was right, but he also forgot to toot his own horn, because that wasn’t his style. But if Willie had gotten the chance to play on the same field as Hornsby, it may be his name in the discussion among the great right-handed hitters of all-time. And it should be anyway.