A couple weeks back, I argued that the St. Louis Cardinals should honor more players from the Negro League St. Louis Stars at Busch Stadium. This was true before, but even more so in light of MLB designating the Negro Leagues as official “major leagues.”
The Cardinals have established a precedent where retired numbers and/or statues are reserved for players who have reached the National Baseball Hall of Fame. They’ve chosen to extend that honor beyond Cardinals players by including statues of Cool Papa Bell (Stars) and George Sisler (Browns).
Willie Wells should be added to that group.
While James “Cool Papa” Bell is one of the most famous Negro League players, Willie Wells was by all accounts an even better player. He was the all-time leader in WAR among Stars players, with the 4th highest total in all Negro Leagues history and the top among shortstops.
Born in Austin, Texas, Wells began his career with the newly christened St. Louis Stars as a 19-year-old in 1924. He played his first eight years with the club, ending when the team folded. But those were the most productive years of his career, and Wells led the Stars to 3 league pennants.
There is a widely-held myth that the records of the Negro Leagues are largely incomplete and unreliable. That was the a big part of the flawed (and frankly racist) reasoning of a 1969 special committee with originally denied “official major league status” to the Negro Leagues. The statistics are actually quite complete and comparable to what we have for American and National League teams of those years. To the extent that there are gaps - and most often these involve fewer games actually being played - those were the result of the segregated and disadvantaged atmosphere the leagues were forced to operate in.
The Seamheads Negro League Database is a fantastic tool for those of us who can read a stat line and see the player behind the numbers. When you read Willie Wells stats, the player you see is extraordinary.
In his years with the Stars, Wells posted slash lines of .351 / .434 / .611. Compare that with Joe Sewell - widely regarded as the best MLB shortstop of the 1920s. Over almost exactly the same years with Cleveland, Sewell’s line was: .312 / .391 / .413.
Wells hit for the kind of power at the shortstop position that the white leagues would not see until Ernie Banks in the 1950s. In 1927, Wells would lead the Negro Leagues with 29 HRs in just 96 games.
How ahead of his time was Wells? The Similarity Score tool at Seamheads identifies his Top 3 comps as: Corey Seager, Nomar Garciaparra and Carlos Correa.
Despite his prodigious tools at the plate, Wells was at least as notable for his defense. It was his range and sure hands that earned him the nickname “El Diablo” while playing in the Mexican Leagues. Cool Papa Bell said Wells could cover ground better than any player he had ever seen. Defensive numbers from that era are limited for all players, but Wells value in terms of runs as a defender rank him 7th all-time in the Negro Leagues.
After the St. Louis Stars folded, Wells bounced around various teams and leagues in the US and Latin America in his 25-year career. He is a member of the Mexican and Cuban baseball Halls of Fame.
In 1945, a 40-year-old Wells was still widely considered the best at his position, but a young shortstop named Jackie Robinson was selected instead for an All-Star tour of Venezuela. Robinson had just signed a contract to join the Montreal Royals, AAA affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. By some accounts, it was Branch Rickey himself who pushed to get Robinson added to the All-Star squad. With only one year of professional baseball experience, Rickey reportedly wanted Robinson to get more at-bats before joining the Dodgers organization.
Legend also has it that Wells himself coached the young Robinson in the art of how to turn the double-play, as well as the footwork required to move from shortstop to 2nd base. Details are sketchy, but Robinson ended his military career stationed at Fort Hood and spent a season as head coach of the Sam Huston college basketball team in Austin. Wells maintained a home in Austin throughout his life, and attended the college himself before playing baseball full-time.
Regardless of their personal connections, Wells is one of many Negro League greats who played an amazing career that ended just as Robinson opened the door to the white major leagues.
After retiring from baseball as a player and coach, Wells spent 13-years working in a New York City deli before returning to Austin to care for his aging mother. He continued to live there - in the house where he had grown up - until his death in 1989. He was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
If the Cardinals are truly committed to honoring Hall of Fame players from all of St. Louis baseball history, they should absolutely find a way to commemorate the great Willie Wells.