Thursday, October 29th, 2020

Negro League Strat-O-Matic Cards: MVP Willie Wells

July 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Baseball History

I recently ordered the new Strat-O-Matic Baseball Negro League All-Stars set.  This set assembled 108 of the great Negro Leagues players of all time and, thanks to backbreaking research, collected their statistics for league games over each player’s “peak” period (i.e. their top five to seven years). 
These stats are adjusted for length of schedule; most Negro League teams played 70 or 80 league games a year, with a lot more barnstorming or non-league games in the schedule.  Similarly the stats are adjusted for ballpark effects, as the various Negro Leagues were played in a succession of stadiums large and small, new and very old, with some players like Josh Gibson spending most of their career, for example, in cavernous Griffith Stadium. 
A fellow baseball blogger Scott Simkus spearheaded the research that made the production of this set possible.  He also wrote the biographical pamphlet that is included if you order the actual card version of the game (as opposed to just the computer edition).Each player is then given one Strat-O-Matic card, projected over a single MLB-style 154-game season, so that they can square off evenly against their Major League contemporaries in any format you see fit to create.
My Barnstorming Tourney — Negro League All Stars vs 1934 All Stars
For my first set of games with these cards, I set up a barnstorming tournament of Negro Leagues stars who were at their career peaks in 1934, including Gibson, Martin Dihigo and someone with the evocative name of Turkey Stearnes. Opposing this team I used the 1934 National League All-Star team, as augmented by four American League pitchers: Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing and Mel Harder (who played in the All-Star Game that year), and Schoolboy Rowe (the ace of the 1934 AL champion Detroit Tigers pitching staff).  I gave each team exactly 25 players.
My tournament lasted 24 games, three in each National League ballpark.  I set my schedule to begin two days after the World Series ended, allowing for no off-days.  I arranged the schedule in geographical order, starting in Boston and then working south and west to St. Louis, where the final game concluded on November 3, 1934.  I was expecting someone like or Josh Gibson (see above left) to dominate the series offensively; I was expecting Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige (actual barnstorming veterans who I named as managers of their respective squads) to win 4-5 games apiece.
I was wrong.
The tournament taught me a lot about some Negro Leagues players I’d never heard of before, and also a lot more about baseball circa 1934.  Most of the NL stadiums that year were minuscule.  As a result, the games I played in the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field featured much higher scores than those I located in the larger, more pitcher-friendly Braves and Forbes Fields.  Paige struck out 12 NL stars in a complete-game win at Forbes but didn’t fair well overall.  Dean met his Waterloo in Sportsman’s Park (his real-life home park), allowing 10 runs in his final start of the tournament.
Willie Wells – Barnstorming MVP
Who surprised me the most by contending for MVP of this series?  A man I’d never heard of before ordering the Strat-O-Matic set.  A Negro Leagues shortstop who first caught my attention with a walk-off home run off Lefty Gomez in the Polo Grounds in the fourth game I played.  He played in all 24 games for me, hit an eye-popping .398, with 6 homers and 28 RBI — nearly winning the barnstorming Triple Crown.
His name?  Willie “Devil” Wells. Turns out Wells played in organized ball all over North America in four different decades.  He pioneered the use of a batting helmet and taught Jackie Robinson how to play second base.  His biography, as set forth on the Negro League Baseball Players Association website, is simply extraordinary, and we’ll reprint it in full:
Willie (Devil) Wells, baseball player in the Negro Leagues, was once called “the greatest living player not in thebaseball Hall of Fame,” though he was elected to the hall posthumously. He was born in Austin on October 10, 1905. 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. He established an outstanding reputation with a lifetime batting average of .358 in games for which there are confirmed records. In the Negro Leagues he played for the Stars, the Chicago American Giants, the Newark Eagles, and other teams. Wells had a reputation as a fierce competitor. At a time when batting helmets were very unusual, he chose to play for the Newark Eagles after suffering a concussion, but he put on a construction helmet for added protection. He 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. In 1929 Wells went to Cuba and played in the integrated Cuban league, where he competed and excelled against Cuban players and white major leaguers. In 1929 he was the most valuable player in the Cuban league. Wells was selected eight times for the East-West Classic, the Negro Leagues’ all-star game, including the first game in 1933 and the 1945 game, in which he played second base for the East and Jackie Robinson, then of the Kansas City Monarchs, played shortstop for the West. When Robinson joined the major leagues, Wells worked with him on his second base position.

Wells was a player-manager for the Chicago American Giants in the early 1930s and became famous as the player-manager of the Newark Eagles in the 1940s, at which time they were one of the very best black teams. He took particular pride in the success of Newark players Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, and Don Newcombe in the major leagues. In the 1940s Wells played in the Mexican league, where he again excelled and demonstrated that he was an outstanding player against the white major leaguers, who also played in the Mexican league. In 1941-42 he played in Puerto Rico. Wells was well known for his play in the California winter league, where a team of stars from the Negro Leagues competed. He also played frequently on the Satchel Paige All-Star team, a group of players selected by Satchel Paige to barnstorm against white major league players after the World Series. When his playing career ended he 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. Wells died of heart failure in Austin on January 22, 1989. His obituary was carried in the New York Times. In 1997 he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, by the hall’s Committee on Baseball Veterans.

Learn more about Willie Wells

Willie Wells: ‘El Diablo’ of the Negro Leagues by Bob Luke, Willie Wells was arguably the best shortstop of his generation. As Monte Irvin, a teammate and fellow Hall of Fame player, writes in his foreword, “Wells really could do it all. He was one of the slickest fielding shortstops ever to come along. He had speed on the bases. He hit with power and consistency. He was among the most durable players I’ve ever known.” Yet few people have heard of the feisty ballplayer nicknamed “El Diablo.” Willie Wells was black, and he played long before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Bob Luke has sifted through the spotty statistics, interviewed Negro League players and historians, and combed the yellowed letters and newspaper accounts of Wells’s life to draw the most complete portrait yet of an important baseball player. Wells’s baseball career lasted thirty years and included seasons in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada. He played against white all-stars as well as Negro League greats Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neill, among others. He was beaned so many times that he became the first modern player to wear a batting helmet. As an older player and coach, he mentored some of the first black major leaguers, including Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe. Willie Wells truly deserved his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Bob Luke details how the lingering effects of segregation hindered black players, including those better known than Wells, long after the policy officially ended. Fortunately, Willie Wells had the talent and tenacity to take on anything–from segregation to inside fastballs–life threw at him. No wonder he needed a helmet. (from product description)

Dandy, Day, and the Devil, by James Rile.  Based on exhaustive research and personal interviews, this seemingly out-of-print publication is a trilogy examining the lives and careers of Negro League stars of Ray Dandridge, Leon Day and Willie Wells. Forward by Hall of Famer and former Negro League and Major League star Monte Irvin. I hasn’t yet tracked down this book, but I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t turn out to be one of the best baseball books I’ve ever read.  With a title like that, and based on interviews with those three men, who must have had extraordinary stories to tell, I really can’t wait to find a copy. 

Again, many thanks to Scott Simkus and Strat-O-Matic for putting together this great card set.  BoB will be profiling other Negro League players of note.


One Response to “Negro League Strat-O-Matic Cards: MVP Willie Wells”
  1. BC says:

    Willie Wells was the best short stop to play in the Negro league.He could field and hit with power.He was actually one of the best of alltme including major league short stops.The Negro League was a talented league with some of the greatest players and pitchers of alltime.Buck Leonard a 1st baseman was the Lou Gehrig and catcher Josh Gibson was the Babe Ruth of the Negro league.Many people thought centefielder Oscar Charleston was the greatest centerfielder of them all with his power and speed and his fielding ability.Satchel Paige was said to be the greatest pitcher of all time he was such a dominant pitcher and could strikeout the best of them one day Satchel walked up to Josh Gibson and said to him one day im going to let you know who is the better the worlds greatest pitcher or you the worlds greatest hitter.One day the two met and Satchel told Josh Gibson remember when i told you there would be a day when we meet to see who is the best between the worlds greatest pitcher against the worlds greatest hitter Josh said sure i remember Satchel said well this is the time.Satchel through a hard fast one and Josh swung and missed then Satchel threw two more hard ones as Josh Gibson swung and missed all three.Satchel said nobody hits Satchel that was the end of that story.

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