Today in 1991, Cool Papa Bell passed away. What remained was a legacy as one of the most storied players in the game’s history.
James Thomas Bell was born May 17, 1903 in Starkville, Mississippi. You may imagine that environment and time for a part-Indian, mostly black child. He went to live in St. Louis in his teens, mostly so he could go to school. Wasn’t long before his athletic ability began to shine, starting in sandlot ball and working up to semi-pro play–always in all-black teams, of course, the legacy of that old Iowan bigot Cap Anson’s setting of the color bar in ‘major league’ baseball. (It was not always present. It was established. Given more decent human beings in the game, it might not have been.)
Cool Papa began as a pitcher and got his nickname that way, calmly fanning the famous Oscar Charleston in the clutch. Most pitchers who hurt their throwing arms, as Bell did, are done with baseball. Not Cool Papa Bell; the injury might have been the best thing that could happen to him. He taught himself to switch-hit, which is not easy to do well past the early teens, and began taking advantage of the one thing he did better than hit a baseball.
Cool Papa Bell could flat-out run. Like nobody’s business. In a game where speed meant a lot, and where many good players could pour it on, his brand of velocity, audacity and baserunning savvy stood above others.
Even if half the stories about his speed are fiction–which is debatable–the other half would certify him one of the speediest baserunners of all time. He played for the St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays (the most famous among many other Negro League* teams) from 1922-1946. No, I didn’t botch that dating. He retired from playing baseball at 43, an age where the only major leaguers still playing are junkball or knuckleball pitchers (or today, aging DHs). Negro League statistics are at times incomplete, but according to the records we have, his career average was .341. Against white teams in exhibition games, he hit .391. If you are familiar with baseball, that tells you plenty. If you aren’t, those numbers by themselves are automatic Hall of Fame stuff, no screwing around, first ballot solid lock. Those are Cobblike numbers, except that Ty Cobb would have eaten Cool Papa’s dust in a race. Cobb, flaming racist and overall jerk that he was, would have hated and deserved that snack.
Baseball enthusiasts will spot the obvious relationship between Cool Papa’s baserunning speed and his batting average. But that’s how it is: many great hitters would have had less success but for their speed: Carew, Garr, Henderson, Collins, both Griffeys. The problem defending against Cool Papa Bell was that he would reach first base safely on infield grounders, even when cleanly fielded. This is abnormal. On any sharply-hit, well-fielded infield grounder (they used to retire me even if the fielder bobbled the thing; in fact, he could stop to take a chew and still throw me out), the defense is supposed to put the batter out. Didn’t work that way with Cool Papa. He was like a fuse burning toward explosive charges, causing everyone to hurry just because. This must surely have created many runs simply because of the need for haste and the possibility he might do something impossible. Had he played his full career in the white major leagues, he might well have put up the sorts of numbers that can’t be surpassed, on the level of Cy Young’s 511 pitching wins.
Let’s get to the stories and quotes, already, since those are the best part. I can’t say whether they are all true, though some might not be. Hardly matters. Their collective existence tells us what his contemporaries thought of Cool Papa Bell’s speed.
- He once stole 175 bases in under 200 games–a pace exceeding that of the greatest base thieves of all time: Brock, Wills, Henderson, Cobb.
- One teammate said, “If he bunts and it bounces twice, put it in your pocket.”
- When he would hit the ball back to the pitcher, the infield would urge the hurler to hurry. Normally, the pitcher has all week to throw out the batter.
- In an exhibition game against white major leaguers, he once scored from first base on a bunt. The bunter? None other than Satchel Paige, the only Negro Leaguer of whom more great stories are told than Cool Papa Bell.
- He was once clocked rounding the bases in twelve seconds. That’s 120 yards–but track sprinters get to run straight. Cool Papa did it making the necessary three 90º turns. A bit of basic math and physics here will tell you how frighteningly fast this man was: very few even today can run 120 yards in 12 seconds going straight ahead.
- It is said he once scored from second–on a sacrifice fly. Could be done, especially if the outfielder’s arm wasn’t anything to celebrate. Against a Clemente or a Furillo? Probably not, but against an average left fielder, possible.
- It is also said he once stole two bases on one pitch. Possible due to sheer shock and daring, coupled with a real good jump and a right-handed pitcher with a motion that didn’t much discourage base stealing.
- Satchel Paige loved to tell the story of Bell hitting the ball through the mound up the middle, then being called out because the batted ball hit Bell in the butt. That one might be a stretch, but it deserves credit for entertainment.
- Evidently the story about Cool Papa turning out the lights and getting into bed before it got dark is based on an amusing fluke. The motel room light didn’t go off immediately due to a short, so he just reconciled himself to sleeping with the light on. It winked off after he got into bed.
- Paige said in his book, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever: “If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.”
- Bell, speaking for himself: “I remember one game I got five hits and stole five bases, but none of it was written down because they forgot to bring the scorebook to the game that day.”
- And: “They used to say, ‘If we find a good black player, we’ll sign him.’ They was lying.”
- And: “They say I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late.”
The white major leagues’ integration came too late for Cool Papa Bell, though he did decline an offer from the Browns. A warm and unselfish gentleman with a charming, ready smile, Cool Papa Bell remained a well-liked figure around baseball for years after his playing days ended. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. This day he is twenty-two years gone, but his legend will live as long as baseball is played. Anyone steeped in the game’s history knows the name and its fame.
Here’s to Cool Papa Bell, who enriched the game just by participating.
* For non-students of the game, ‘Negro League’ is the correct proper noun, and not considered demeaning. It conjures names of great ballplayers, of whom Bell, Charleston and Paige were among the most famed.
Special thanks to Donald M. Holman, a renaissance man with a fantastic photographic eye, for some cultural guidance. This post is better for his thoughts. You can enjoy samples of his work, and inquire about purchases, at Images by Holman.