In February 1947 in Tucson, Arizona, Willis, a left-handed pitcher who had spent 13 seasons in the minor leagues, caught the attention of Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau immediately.
According to one newspaper account, Boudreau, on the first day of workouts, “did a double take as his eye caught the last man out (onto the practice field). He was a roly poly fellow with an overhanging ledge of flesh.”1
The Indians had acquired the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Willis during the offseason through the Rule 5 draft, but Boudreau was getting his first glimpse of Willis.
“Who is that guy,” Boudreau inquired incredulously, “one of the new stockholders?”2
Willis, who had won at least 20 games three times and 18 games twice in the minor leagues, made himself known.
On the second day of camp, Willis suffered a leg injury. Boudreau suggested he take a few days off to recuperate.
“Not me,” said Willis. “I’ve been waiting for 15 years for a chance to make it to the big leagues, and no pulled muscle is going to interfere. I’ll be out there.”3
Willis was called the pitching standout of the first intrasquad game of camp, on March 5. A newspaper report said, the “unstreamlined southpaw pitched four perfect innings.”4
The account said Willis “throws a very good screw-ball, the pitch that breaks away from right-handed hitters and in to left-handers. He throws a curve that starts from somewhere around first base. His fast ball will not make you think of Bob Feller, but it isn’t drifting tumbleweed, either.”5
Willis made Cleveland’s Opening Day roster.
Willis was born to E. and Daisy Willis on January 17, 1908, in Nacogdoches, Texas. His father, a native of Missouri, worked as a filer at a sawmill. Lester had four older brothers, Roy, Louis, Aubrey, and George.
After graduating from Smithville (Texas) High School, Willis attended the College of Marshall in Marshall, Texas (now East Texas Baptist College). He was a three-sport star, playing football, basketball, and baseball. When he wasn’t pitching for the baseball team, he played in the outfield. In 68 games for Marshall, he batted .343.
His former coach, Clarence Hamel, reminisced about Willis’s career at Marshall.
“In three years with the College of Marshall, he lost only one game,” Hamel told a Shreveport, Louisiana, sportswriter. “That was to the Stephen F. Austin Teachers at Nacogdoches. It was a 13-inning affair, and the contest was decided, 13-12, when a batted ball went through a hole under the fence for a home run.”6
Hamel went on to say that Willis “won honors as an ‘iron man.’” He added, “I remember one afternoon at Ruston one of our hurlers took sick before a game with Louisiana Polytech and Willis asked permission to work both games. He won them, 6 to 4 and 6 to 2. He went to bat four times in one game and hit a home, a triple and two doubles.”7
Willis made his professional debut in 1931 with McAllen of the Rio Grande Valley League, which was in its first year of existence.
The four-team Class-D league did not complete its season, but Willis had a good rookie season, despite missing several games in May after suffering a head injury when he ran into a fence. McAllen finished with the best record (55-37) in the league before it disbanded on July 29.
According to the Louisiana sportswriter, Willis won 16 games and lost 6 “and played a major part in his team winning the championship.”8
Willis was the winning pitcher in two of the three games of the league’s championship series with La Feria. The series, originally scheduled for a best-of-seven, was called off after three games, likely because of poor attendance.
In the opener, Willis pitched a three-hitter with 15 strikeouts in a 5-2 victory. In the second game he went 2-for-5 while playing left field in McAllen’s 9-2 victory. In the deciding game, he entered the game in relief in the seventh inning and was the winning pitcher in McAllen’s 14-13 victory.
Willis began the 1932 season with Shreveport of the Texas League. The season got off to a noteworthy start when Willis pitched seven scoreless innings in an exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox in Shreveport. He gave up three runs in the eighth inning in the Sports’ 9-3 victory.
The team’s stay in Shreveport was short-lived. After the Sports ballpark was destroyed by a fire on May 4, the Sports (9-21 at the time) played one game in Longview, Texas, before finishing the season in Tyler, Texas. For the season, Willis was 0-6 with a 4.06 ERA in 27 appearances for the Sports, who were 57-93.
Willis went to spring training with Tulsa of the Class-A Texas League in 1933, but in late April the club released him. He split the 1933 season between Baton Rouge and Jackson of the Class-C Dixie League. He went 2-10. In 1934 he split the season between two Class-C teams, El Dorado of the East Dixie League and Joplin of the Western Association. He was 0-2 with Joplin and 5-11 with El Dorado.
After going 7-29 the previous three seasons, Willis had a breakthrough season in 1935. He went 20-7 with a 3.22 ERA to help El Dorado win the East Dixie League title. He completed 23 of 24 starts and was named to the league’s all-star team. The Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League, who had a working agreement with El Dorado, recalled Willis in late August and he went 0-1 in three appearances with the Cats.
In 1936 he went 20-8 with a 3.25 ERA for Pine Bluff of the Class-C Cotton States League despite missing two weeks in August when he fractured a fractured thumb on his pitching hand in a play at the plate. He tied for the league lead in victories as Pine Bluff finished third with a 77-62 record.
Willis returned to Pine Bluff in 1937 and put together the best season of his career. He went 22-8 with a 2.79 ERA and a league-leading 200 strikeouts (in 274 innings) to lead the Judges to the Cotton States League title. The Judges (87-51) finished 10 games ahead of second-place El Dorado.
After that season, Willis was purchased by Memphis, a St. Louis Cardinals farm team. In March 1938, he was one of 74 Cardinals minor leaguers declared free agents by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who declared that the Cardinals were covering up players by controlling farm teams in the same leagues.
In April 1938 Willis signed with Louisville of the American Association. He went 9-21 while pitching a team-high 239 innings for the Colonels, who were 53-100. He spent the 1939 season with Milwaukee of the American Association, going 6-8 for the Brewers.
In April 1940 Milwaukee sold Willis to Memphis of the Southern Association. He spent the next three seasons with the Chickasaws. In 1940 he went 18-14 for the Chicks (79-72), who lost to Atlanta in the first round of the Southern Association playoffs.
Willis and the Chicks slumped in 1941. Willis was 14-15 as Memphis finished 69-85. He was 8-9 in 1942.
Willis missed the next three seasons while he worked a defense job at a laundry in his hometown of Jasper, Texas. He rejoined Memphis for the 1946 season and put together an outstanding season. He went 18-7 with nine shutouts and a 2.37 ERA for the Chickasaws. In one stretch he threw four consecutive shutouts and 37⅓ consecutive scoreless innings.
In late August Willis pitched a 3-0 no-hitter against league-leading Atlanta in Memphis. He retired the first 25 hitters he faced before an error with one out in the ninth kept him from recording the first perfect game in the Southern Association in 29 years.
“I knew I was right about the third inning,” Willis said. “I just wheeled ’em in there and took the consequences.”9 After the error, Willis retired the final two hitters to complete the no-hitter.
Willis, who struck out seven, said, “I didn’t worry about a no-hitter. Ralph McNair (the catcher) knew what to ask for and I had it to give this time.”10
Despite winning 28 of 32 games in one stretch and finishing with 90 victories, the Chickasaws (90-63) finished 5½ games behind Atlanta.
In the first round of the Southern Association playoffs, Willis pitched Memphis to victories in Games One and Four over Chattanooga to help Memphis take a 3-1 lead in the series. In a 6-0 victory in the series opener, Willis tossed a five-hit shutout and contributed a solo homer and three RBIs. In Game Four, he pitched a complete game in a 5-3 victory. Memphis won the series 4-2 (with one tie).
In the finals, Atlanta outlasted Memphis, winning the series in seven games.
On November 1, 1946, Willis was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the Rule 5 draft.
He made his major-league debut against the Detroit Tigers on April 28 — the ninth game of the season for the Indians — in Cleveland. He entered the game in the top of the ninth inning in relief of starter Red Embree with the Tigers leading 3-0.
Willis struck out Dick Wakefield, who had two hits in his first three at-bats, for the first out before Hoot Evers doubled. The next hitter, Eddie Mayo, reached on an error by second baseman Joe Gordon. Evers tried to score on the play but was thrown out at the plate by Gordon. Pat Mullin grounded out for the third out of the inning.
After pitching 3⅓ innings without allowing a run in his four appearances, Willis pitched three scoreless innings — his first save by today’s save rule — in the Indians’ 8-4 victory in the first game of a doubleheader against the White Sox on May 30 in Chicago. He also got his first major-league at-bat, grounding out in the eighth inning against Joe Haynes.
Two days later, against the New York Yankees in Cleveland, Willis retired two hitters for his seventh consecutive scoreless appearance.
That streak ended on June 3, when Willis gave up a solo home run to Jerry Priddy in the top of the ninth inning and was the losing pitcher in the Indians’ 6-5 loss to the Washington Senators. His first major-league decision was highlighted by his only major-league hit.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, in his second major-league at-bat, Willis singled to center off Senators starter Bobo Newsom.
Willis did not allow a run in his next four appearances. After 11 relief appearances, in which he allowed just one run in 12⅔ innings, Willis made back-to-back starts. They were his only two starts of the season.
On July 6, in the first game of a doubleheader at Chicago, he allowed three runs — one earned — in six innings in the Indians’ 3-2 loss to the White Sox.
In his second start, in the second game of a home doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s,Willis allowed four earned runs and eight hits in 4⅔ innings. He did not get a decision in the Indians’ 5-4 victory.
In back-to-back relief appearances against the Yankees on July 15-16 in Cleveland, Willis was roughed up for five runs in four innings.
He regrouped over his next five appearances — allowing just one earned run in eight innings — before being victimized again by the Yankees, who were en route to a pennant-winning 97-victory season.
On August 21 Willis allowed two runs in two innings in a 9-3 loss to the Yankees in Cleveland. Two days later, he entered the game in the second inning. With the Yankees leading 5-0, he retired the first hitter he faced — Joe DiMaggio — before allowing 14 hits and six runs (three earned) in 6⅔ innings in the Yankees’ 13-6 victory. His longest outing of the season would turn out to be his final major-league appearance.
In early September, the Indians sold his contract to Memphis. But Willis, nursing a sore shoulder, did not make any appearances for Memphis.
In 22 appearances for the Indians, Willis was 0-2 with a 3.48 ERA. He allowed 58 hits in 44 innings. In five appearances against the Yankees, he allowed 10 earned runs and 26 hits in 13⅓ innings. As a hitter, Willis was 1-for-11.
In the spring of 1948, there were reports that Memphis was counting on Willis to join the team. A wire service report in late March said he was one of six players “still missing from spring training camp.”11
Two weeks later, another report said Willis was one of a “quartet of experienced hands who may yet report.”12
In late April, an update said the status of Willis “was still unchanged.”13
No formal announcement was made, but Willis had retired. He remained in Jasper, Texas, the rest of his life, running his laundry and cleaning business. He got involved in local government, serving on the Jasper City Council and as Jasper’s mayor. Jasper, a town of about 4,000 in the first half of the twentieth century, is the birthplace of another former Cleveland Indian, Max Alvis.
Willis died on January 22, 1982, five days after his 74th birthday, in Jasper.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, familysearch.com, Newspapers.com, Retrosheet.org, and statscrew.com.
1 Frank Gibbons, “Les Willis Catches On with Tribe,” Dayton (Ohio) Herald, March 6, 1947: 36.
6 Joe R. Carter, “Raspberries and Cream,” Shreveport Times, April 4, 1932: 9.
8 Carter. Note: The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd Edition, lists Adrian Johnson of Harlingen as the league leader in wins (14). Willis’ bio on baseball-reference.com does not mention his 1931 season with McAllen.
9 “Wimpy Willis Knew He Was Pitching No-Hit, Run Game,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, August 28, 1946: 14. The story mentioned that it was the third no-hitter of Willis’s career, saying he had thrown one in 1936 and one in 1937. But neither no-hitter is mentioned in The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd edition.
10 “Wimpy Willis Knew He Was Pitching No-Hit, Run Game.”
11 United Press, “Too Many Missing,” Nashville Tennessean, March 24, 1948: 22.
12 Birmingham News, April 7, 1948: 28.
13 Associated Press, “Birmingham and Little Rock Set Southern Mark for Left on Bases,” Nashville Banner, April 24, 1948: 6.