The ‘Shakespeare’ of Shortstops

By Tony McClean
Updated: November 19, 2007

Willie Wells
willie wells

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Long before ARod, Ozzie, Derek, and Nomar, there was Willie Wells.

Willie Wells was a clutch hitter and an extraordinary fielder called the “Shakespeare of Shortstops.” His glove was known for a hole in its middle, which Wells claimed, made his fielding easier.

Born on October 10, 1905 in Austin, Texas, Wells was a talented shortstop who was discovered on the Texas sandlots in 1925 and joined the St. Louis Stars of the first Negro National League. Wells established an outstanding reputation with a lifetime batting average of .358.

During his Negro League career, Wells played for the Stars, the Chicago American Giants, the Newark Eagles, and had a reputation as a fierce competitor. At a time when batting helmets were very unusual with the Newark Eagles, he suffered a concussion, but he put on a construction helmet for added protection.

In 1929, Wells went to Cuba and played in the integrated Cuban league. He competed and stood out against Cuban players and white major leaguers and was named the league’s most valuable player in that season.

Wells was an eight-time selection for the East-West Classic, the Negro Leagues’ all-star game, including the first game in 1933. In that game, Wells played second base for the East while Jackie Robinson, then of the Kansas City Monarchs, played shortstop for the West.

When Robinson joined the major leagues in 1947, Wells worked with Robinson to help him on playing second base.

Wells also served as a player-manager for the Chicago American Giants in the early 1930s and became renowned as the player-manager of the Newark Eagles in the 1940s. Among some of his Newark players were Monte Irvin (Giants), Larry Doby (Indians), and Don Newcombe (Dodgers) who went on to star in the major leagues.

Later in the decade, Wells played in the Mexican League and excelled against the white major leaguers. In 1941-42, he played in Puerto Rico and also competed in the California winter league, where a team of stars from the Negro Leagues played.

He also played frequently on the Satchel Paige All-Star team, a group selected by Paige that barnstormed against white major leaguers following the World Series.

After his career ended, Wells worked in New York for a number of years before returning to Austin. He had two children, one of whom, Willie Wells, Jr., also played briefly in the Negro Leagues, including one year with his father.

At the time of his death on January 22, 1989, Wells was considered the greatest Negro Leaguer that wasn’t in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

However in 1997, the Hall’s Committee on Baseball Veterans inducted Wells into the shrine at Cooperstown, New York.

NOTE: The African-American Registry contributed to this story.