The Runner Sports

Salute To 42: Willie Wells, Rev. Downs, And The Texas Influence On Jackie Robinson

Throughout Major League Baseball, Saturday, April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day. Every player on every team will wear Robinson’s #42, a tradition that began on April 15, 2004, honoring the anniversary of his big-league debut.

MLB also universally retired his number in 1997, meaning no player may ever wear that number again. The ten-year veteran Brooklyn Dodger is the first pro athlete to be so honored, and no other pro sports league has ever honored an athlete in such a way.

Negro National League Shortstop Willie Wells

A member of the baseball halls of fame in the United States (inducted 1997), Cuba, and Mexico, Willie James Wells (pictured above) was born in Austin, TX on August 10, 1906, and attended then all-black Anderson High School, still in use today. He briefly attended Samuel Huston College in Austin (known since 1952 as Huston-Tillotson College, before attaining university status in 2005, as Huston-Tillotson University) prior to being called up to the St. Louis Stars in the NNL.

Wells passed away in Austin 83 years later, in 1989, but not before making an indelible mark on baseball in general, and Jackie Robinson, in particular.

The only woman elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Effa Manley, called Willie Wells, “The finest shortstop, black or white.”

Cool Papa Bell recalled Wells: “Of the shortstops I’ve seen, Wells could cover ground better than any of them. Willie Wells was the greatest shortstop in the world.”

“The Shakespeare of Shortstops”

Wells, the first power-hitting shortstop, was a mentor to younger players, including Jackie Robinson and Monte Irvin (both 13 years Wells’ junior). Irvin once related: “Wells showed me everything he knew. We talked about hitting—he was a really good curve ball hitter—about moving around on different pitchers, especially left-handers, moving up in the box, moving back, trying to throw the pitcher off, trying to take a peek back to see how the catcher is holding his target in a close game.”

Irvin passed away in Houston in January 2016, as the oldest living former Negro National League player, the oldest living Chicago Cub (1956), and New York Giant (1949-1955, pre-San Francisco move).

Wells was a forward-thinking innovator in his own right, as he is considered one of the first professional ballplayers to wear a batting helmet, fashioning a construction helmet hard hat for protection after a 1942 beaning by Ray Brown (some accounts assert it was Baltimore’s Bill Byrd’s spitball beaning that preceded Wells’ hard hat innovation). Also, the date of that beaning and subsequent “helmet” donning by Wells is occasionally disputed, as some have pinpointed the incident as having occurred on August 26, 1937.

Incredibly, his glove was known for a hole in its middle, which the right-handed Wells claimed made his fielding easier. A consummate 5-tool player, he could hit for average and power, run, and was a wide-ranging defensive shortstop with a remarkably accurate arm. He made up for a lack of arm strength by perfecting a quick release on his throws deep in the hole.

Tigers Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer went even further, calling Wells “the kind of player you always wanted on your team; he played the way all great players play – with everything he had.”

Portrait of Willie James Wells

Wells, above, posing while a member of the NNL’s Newark Eagles

Empathy For “The Devil”

Wells began playing ball on the sandlots of central Texas and, while playing with the San Antonio Black Aces in 1923, he was discovered by both Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants, and St. Louis Stars‘ owner Dr. George Keys. Wells chose to sign with the Stars, and began playing with the St. Louis team the next year. In 1928 for the Stars, Wells hit 27 home runs in 88 games.

His hitting continued to improve and impress, as he earned consecutive batting titles in 1929-30 with averages of .368 and .404, respectively. With Wells leading the way, the St. Louis Stars won Negro National League championships in 1928, 1930, and 1931.

In the winter of 1929, Wells went to Cuba and played in the integrated Cuban League, where he competed and excelled against Cuban players and white major leaguers, alike. That same year, he was the MVP in the Cuban League.

Wells spent several years with the NNL’s Newark Eagles, and hit a combined .371 in his four-year tenure with the team at the end of the 1930s.

Willie Wells was selected eight times for the East-West Classic, the Negro Leagues’ All-Star Game, including his first in 1933, and the 1945 game (in Venezuela), 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 Brooklyn Dodgers’ AAA Montreal Royals farm team in 1946, Wells worked with him on his second base position, helping him perfect his double-play footwork, including the pivot.

Also in the 1940s, the 5’8″, 160-pound Wells played in the Mexican League for a few years, where he again excelled as an outstanding player against white major leaguers who were also playing in the Mexican League.

Wells acquired some happy memories playing south of the border, where he said that he experienced democracy, acceptance. and freedom. Wells was nicknamed El Diablo by Mexican fans for his blazing intensity. “The Devil” nickname followed him back to the states.

After retiring from baseball, Wells worked at a New York City deli for 13 years before moving back to Austin in 1973 to help care for his aging mother. After she passed away, he continued living in the same house where she raised him, until he died from congestive heart failure in 1989.

Image result for willie wells austin house

Wells, above, at his south Austin home, a year before his passing

Shortly before his death, Wells reflected on his life well-lived: “I didn’t want to do anything but play baseball. That was my life and it was good to me. Baseball is still nothing but hit the ball and catch the ball. I just wanted to be the best. I never wanted to lose.”

As you remember and celebrate Jackie Robinson, include the magnificently gifted and giving Willie Wells, who selflessly added much to our appreciation of #42.

Click here for a look at the colorful, 20-foot Willie Wells mural painted by Austin artist Tim Kerr, installed in January 2012, overlooking Wells’ old house off South Congress Ave.

The Unlikely Texas Intersection of Willie Wells, Jackie Robinson, and Reverend Downs

Jackie Robinson, born in Cairo, Georgia, but raised in Pasadena, CA, was a three-sport star at that L.A. suburb’s John Muir High School. Going largely unnoticed, athletically, he enrolled at Pasadena Junior College, where he added track to his high school sports resumé of basketball, football, and baseball.

Gaining a scholarship to UCLA (and ultimately lettering in his four sports, the first to ever do so), Robinson also played pro football for the L.A. Bulldogs in 1941. During this time, he became athletic director for a local youth program, and even taught Sunday School at a church pastored by a Reverend Karl Downs.

The spiritually influential Downs had a decidedly positive impact on Robinson (who grew up without a father at home), and providence would bring the two together again half-way across the country in just a few dozen months.

Rachel, Jackie’s eventual wife, identified Downs as one of the most important male figures in Robinson’s life in the book that she wrote with Lee Daniels, called Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait: “Jack said Karl’s intervention—he called it a ‘rescue’—changed the course of his life.”

Robinson served his country for a couple years, starting in 1942, at Ft. Hood, Texas in Killeen, 70 miles north of Austin. As a second lieutenant, he was assigned to a tank battalion, and received an honorable discharge, in 1944, after refusing to sit in the back of a military bus.

By this time, Reverend Downs had become president of Samuel Huston College, the very same school Willie Wells attended 20 years earlier! It didn’t take long for Robinson to find Pastor Downs, and Austin became the future legend’s home for a time, being assured of home-cooked meals and spiritual guidance by the Pastor and his wife.

This Huston-Tillotson University article by Linda Y. Jackson picks up the story: “Downs needed a men’s basketball coach, and Robinson was sitting across the dinner table. Little did Downs know that the invitation would be short-lived and historic.

“Samuel Huston’s basketball team under Robinson was undefeated while playing long, tough road schedules as part of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Upon returning from one of those road stretches, Robinson noticed a letter in his pile of mail from the Kansas City Monarchs. He couldn’t turn down the opportunity to play for the most successful baseball team in the Negro League. His stay at Samuel Huston and in Austin was over.”

“There was very little money involved, but I knew that Karl would have done anything for me, so I couldn’t turn him down,” Robinson wrote of the coaching job in his 1972 autobiography, published months before his death at 53.

Memories of Jackie Robinson’s 1944-45 college basketball coaching career have faded in Austin (and photos are non-existent), but some residents (according to this March 30, 2016 Austin American-Statesman article) remembered playing for him:

“He was a disciplinarian coach,” said D.C. Clements of Waco. “He believed we should be students first and athletes second. If you cut a class or anything like that, he would put you off the team or give you some laps. He was a great coach and a great teacher. He was way ahead of his time.”

Harold “Pea Vine” Adanandus, the Dragons’ trainer during Robinson’s time as a coach, remembers the day Robinson accepted an offer to play baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs, the most successful team in the Negro Leagues at that time:

“We met up in Jackie’s office, and he was sorting his mail,” said Adanandus, another Waco resident. “He had received a letter from the Monarchs. He showed me the letter, and they wanted him to play ball. They offered him a $500 bonus and $250 a month. He asked me, `Vine, what would you do?’

“‘I said, ‘Well, Jackie, I didn’t even know you played any baseball.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I play a little.'”

On the weekends Jackie visited while still serving, Pastor Downs helped him deal with the racial targeting and harassment he was experiencing in the army. These lessons proved invaluable for the man who would make baseball and cultural history when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, earning NL Rookie of the Year honors, and eventually, six World Series rings.

Jackie’s Texas friend and mentor, Pastor Downs, married Robinson and his sweetheart, Rachel Annetta Isum, on February 10, 1946, at the Independent Church in L.A.:

The war delayed the marriage of Jackie & Rachel, presided over by Rev. Downs.

Two years after officiating the Robinsons’ wedding, Downs passed away suddenly, at 36, following an operation at an Austin hospital.

The Huston-Tillotson baseball team currently plays a few miles from the university, at Downs Field.

The fiercely loyal Jackie Robinson returned to Huston-Tillotson College in 1970, serving on the Board of Trustees, where he signed the restated Articles of Incorporation.

On April 15, 2016, Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University joined Major League Baseball in honoring Jackie Robinson with a special resolution. That same day, Austin mayor, Steve Adler, declared that Friday as Jackie Robinson Day in the Texas capitol.

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Related: Salute to 42: MLB Honors Jackie Robinson

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Here I am, meeting with Nolan Ryan at Dell Diamond in Round Rock, TX. One of us is trying to convince the other to take his 90 mph fastball, and get back into the game.

Needless to say, I've decided to spend my golden years, instead, crooning Sinatra at nursing homes, while reflecting on a life well-lived in the classroom, spinning rock'n'roll in '70s radio stations, and peddling wax in the record biz.

I'm a Houston native, having attended 'Stro games in Colt Stadium, the beloved Astrodome, and Minute Maid.

Join me at TRS for full Astros coverage, minor league peeks, player profiles, interviews, MLB historical perspective, and surprises!
Brad Kyle