Willie James Wells (1906-1989)

Willie Wells, 1988
© Martha Grenon/The Austin Chronicle, Fair use image

Willie James Wells, who gained the baseball nickname “The Devil,” was a baseball player who played shortstop during his baseball career playing for a record eleven Negro Baseball League teams in the United States as well as in Mexico and Cuba. Wells was born on August 10, 1906 in Austin, Texas to Lonnie Wells and Cisco White. As Wells was growing up, he visited Austin’s Dobbs Field where many African American baseball teams played. Wells attended Anderson High School in Austin, Texas where he played baseball. James Raleigh Biz Makey, a Negro League Baseball player who was playing for the San Antonio Black Aces at the time took a Wells under his wing. Makey would allow Wells to attend the team games for free and sit on the bench with the team.

After graduating from high school in 1924, Wells briefly attended Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) but dropped out after the St. Louis Stars in St. Louis, Missouri, offered him a contract to play for the team for $300 per mouth. In 1924, Well debut for the St. Louis Stars and played with the team until 1931. During his time with the Stars, he hit 27 home runs in 88 league games which was a single season record. He also won the Best Player in the Negro League titles in 1928, 1930, and 1931.

Wells eventually played for other Negro Baseball League teams during his career including Chicago American Giants (1929, 1933-1935), Detroit Wolves (1932), Kansas City Monarchs (1933), Homestand Grays (1937), Newark Eagles (1936, 1938-39, 1942, 1945), Birmingham Black Barons (1941), New York Black Yankees (1945-46), Baltimore Elite Giants (1946), Indianapolis Clowns (1947), and Memphis Red Sox (1948). Wells also played in the Mexican League including Veracruz (1940-41, 1944), Tampico (1943), and Mexico City (1944). Wells was a 10-time Negro Baseball League All-Star (1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1939, 1942, 1942, and 1945. He was also a 2-time Cuban League MVP Award winner in 1929/1930 and 1939/40 for the Petroleros de Cienfuegos (Cienfuegos Oilers) and Almendares. Wells managed the Newark Eagles (1942 and 1945) and Indianapolis Clowns (1947).

Willie James Wells retired from baseball in 1948. After retiring, he worked at a New York deli briefly before returning to Austin, Texas to take care of his sick mother. Wells died on January 22, 1989 from congestive heart failure in Austin, Texas at the age of 82. Wells was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Austin, Texas but was re-interred in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas.

In 1997, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also introduced into the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame and the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. Wells was married to Lorene Sampson and the couple had two children together. Wells daughter Stella Lee Wells, started a foundation in memory of him named the Stella and Willie Well Scholarship Foundation.