October 5, 2004

OCTOBER 5, 2004

Negro Leagues star Wells reburied with honor

Austin native now rests among the state's heroes

via news wires

AUSTIN - Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Wells, a Negro Leagues star known for his power hitting and fierce competitiveness, has been buried at the Texas State Cemetery.

Wells died in 1989 and was interred at another Austin cemetery until last weekend. On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry and a host of sports and political leaders honored Wells in a ceremony that was both solemn and humor-filled.

"For folks who love baseball, this is a powerful moment," Perry said. The lives of Wells and other black players who weren't allowed to play with whites in the major leagues underscore the importance of perseverance, the governor said.

"May we all strive to follow the example that they gave us," he said.

A pitcher's nightmare

Wells — nicknamed "El Diablo," "The Devil," by fans when he played in Mexico — was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. He was born in Austin and played in the city's sandlots before joining the St. Louis Stars in 1925.

He played shortstop for several Negro Leagues teams, appearing in eight All-Star games. He's among the league's leaders in home runs, triples, doubles and stolen bases. In the 1940s, he was a player-manager for the Newark Eagles and coached young players who ended up in the majors after baseball became desegregated in 1947.

Wells was known for his fielding and powerful hitting, which led to opposing pitchers attempting to bean him. He is credited with being a pioneer in the use of a batting helmet. He would modify hard hats or coal-miner hats to protect himself from beanings, according to state cemetery research.

Singing Wells' praises

John "Buck" O'Neil, a player and manager in the Negro Leagues before he became the first black coach in the majors with the Chicago Cubs, cracked jokes at the ceremony and persuaded everyone to join hands and sing.

O'Neil called Wells one of the greatest players ever. He said players in the Negro Leagues stayed in nice hotels and ate good food — but at black-owned establishments. "Actually, it was a good life. But segregation was a horrible thing," he said.

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin called Wells "an African-American who would not take no for an answer."

Among those at the ceremony were Wells' daughter, Stella Wells; University of Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido; former Texas football coach Darrell Royal; and some Negro Leagues players.

'Our honor to do it'

Wells' resting place is not far from the grave of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and the graves of Confederate Civil War generals.

The cemetery, a mile east of the Capitol, is the burial site for people deemed to have made a significant contribution to Texas.

"Very few people get in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but to have a native Austinite who was born down the street from here ... it's just our honor to do it," said Harry Bradley, cemetery superintendent.