Editor’s note: Thursday is the 26th anniversary of the death of Hall of Famer and Negro League legend Willie Wells. In honor of the day and of the man, the following is a short essay by my dear friend Rodney Page, the son of an unsung black baseball legend in his own right — New Orleans promoter, team owner and executive Allen Page. Allen Page and Willie Wells were themselves close friends, and in this commentary, Rodney, who now lives in Willie Wells’ hometown of Austin, speaks of himself meeting Wells and being privy to an amazing conversation between Willie and Allen. Many thanks to Rodney for doing this and digging deep into his memory and his heart.
A Personal Story – A Forever Memory
“Good – Better – Best.” Those were the words Stella Wells said her father, Willie Wells, often spoke. “You always do your best!” was the strongest memory of her father’s words. Those were the words spoken to me on a personal visit I shared with then-91-year-old Stella Wells, the only daughter of Willie Wells, on June 17, 2013 in Austin, Texas. Keeping her father’s memory alive drives her life. Her stories and memories of her dad inspired me greatly that day. That inspiration continues in my life on a more frequent basis as I continue to research and uncover much about my father, Allen Page, and his contributions to Negro League baseball and his overall legacy.
Willie Wells and Allen Page will always be connected in my heart and mind as a result of a day in the heat of June 1977 (unfortunately I do not remember the exact date) when I took my father, Allen Page, to visit Willie Wells at his home on Newton Street in Austin.
My dad was passing through Austin from Los Angeles on his way to Mississippi to visit his birthplace and kin. There had been recent newspaper articles about Willie Wells and his Negro League baseball exploits, and I assumed that he and my father knew each other, and yes, they did.
The knock on the doorframe was barely a tap as the door and windows were open. It was a very quaint house without air condition. It was the home of a Negro League legend. More importantly, it was the home of a man of great presence, intelligence and wisdom. That day has instilled in me one of the strongest, most powerful memories of my life, as I draw on it so often. It also gave me a glimpse into a very real and rich Negro League history from the perspectives of two of its major contributors.
Willie Wells came to the door, shirtless, and when he and my dad saw each other they cried like babies with the joy of seeing each other for the first time in almost 30 years. If tears could speak, I can only imagine what they might have said in that moment. What a poignant moment that I’ve revisited many times since. They immediately began reminiscing about a time that had passed. The names and stories flowed. Time seemingly stood still for them and for me. So many names, so many stories. I will offer a few as memory serves.
Of course they spoke of Satchel Paige, reliving the tale of Satchel calling in the fielders and then striking out the batter. And, yes, much discussion and laughter concerning Satchel’s famous hesitation pitch. They also spoke specifically about the character that Satchel was known to be. Another highlight was the remembrance of Cool Papa Bell and the tale that he was so fast that he could turn off the light switch and be in bed before the light went out. As you might suspect, great laughter and joy.
They went on to speak of Josh Gibson, syphilis and his death. Mules Suttles, Buck Leonard, Buck O’Neil, Judy Johnson, Alex Pompez and so many others were topics of conversation. The oral history was and continues to be so rich and memorable. Willie Wells went on to speak of his playing down in Mexico and how he and the others were treated with so much respect, and like real men. Unfortunately, they were both keenly aware of the treatment they had often received in America. My high school baseball coach, Pat Patterson, a Negro Leaguer himself, also spoke of the different feeling and treatment in Mexico.
Of course, the topic of Jackie Robinson came up, and the oral history was spoken and confirmed. My father brought it to the front that Willie Wells was a much better player than Jackie, but he was too old to be chosen to break the color line. The history continued with the fact and confirmation that Willie Wells helped groom and prepare Jackie Robinson to make the leap to the major leagues and break the color line. All of this was shared and discussed in very matter-of-fact manner with no anger or animosity toward anyone. Even then, I was struck by the calm, resolve and acceptance of both men. Acceptance yes, resignation and/or fatalism – no!!! Both were men of great dignity!
I remember so clearly that the conversation progressed to the point of Willie Wells mentioning that he was not bitter about not making it to the major leagues and not having the opportunities that others were afforded in America. He realized with so much clarity and wisdom that he was ahead of his time. He was accepting of his place and time in life. The man was filled with so much intelligence, so much wisdom. He was a very deep, thoughtful soul.
His wisdom truly came to the front when he shared a profound statement with my father. He said: “You know Page, young people today don’t realize that you gain privilege in life by being responsible; today, young people want privilege before demonstrating responsibility.”
Wisdom of the ages, true and relevant today every bit as much as it was then. Wow! And those words of Willie Wells live on in and through me as I have shared them often in teaching, coaching, mentoring and inspirational speaking. Responsibility before Privilege – provides me with a familiar and constant mantra. They also give me opportunity to share about the richness of the Negro Leagues and some truly outstanding and significant human beings, let alone ball players.
What a day, what a visit! That day has proven to be one of the richest and most meaningful of my life. For me personally, that day/visit continues to grow in significance, impact and deep meaning.
Willie Wells. El Diablo. What a man, what a soul. May your wisdom, intelligence and dignity be honored as much as your baseball prowess. May your memory live on. Indeed, you were ahead of your time as were so many of your contemporaries. For me, for that one day, you were right on time!
With great respect and appreciation – and always Responsibility before Privilege,
Jan. 20, 2015