Bell, James Thomas ("Cool Papa")
BELL, James Thomas ("Cool Papa")
(b. 17 May 1903 in Starkville, Mississippi; d. 7 March 1991 in St. Louis, Missouri), Negro League outfielder enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame who may have been the fastest player in baseball history.
Bell was one of five sons and two daughters of Jonas Bell, a Mississippi farmer, and Mary Nichols. He began playing baseball as a young boy on local sandlots. There was no high school for black youth in Starkville, so in 1920 he went to St. Louis, Missouri, where he could live with his four older brothers and go to school. Bell attended high school for two years while working part-time for the Independent Packing Company and pitching for the semiprofessional Compton Hill Cubs and East St. Louis Cubs.
In 1922 Bell got a contract to play for a professional team, the St. Louis Stars, for a salary of $90 a month. A lefthander, Bell earned his colorful nickname, "Cool Papa," when he was a rookie by striking out the famous Oscar Charleston in the clutch. A teammate complimented him by calling him Cool. Manager Bill Gatewood thought the name sounded incomplete and added the Papa.
While still a young pitcher, Bell injured his arm and was moved to the outfield in 1924. To make the most of his speed, he learned to switch-hit. A rail-thin five-foot, eleven-inch speedster, he had little power but accumulated high totals of doubles and triples because of his speed. He often went from first to third on a sacrifice bunt.
In a game against a major league all-star team, Bell drew attention by continuing home when he saw that nobody was covering the plate. St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor Bob Broeg later explained how the extraordinary play happened: "He did it in a post-season black-versus-white series in which Murray Dickson pitched and Roy Partee caught for the major leaguers. On first base, Bell was off and running when the batter, Satchel Paige, laid one down. The third baseman charged in, which prompted Bell to zoom past second to third. And when Bell noted that Partee was running down the line to cover third, [he] dashed home ahead of the return throw. The year was 1948 and Bell was 45 years old."
Bell claimed to have circled the bases in twelve seconds in a timed test. Satchel Paige, a noted raconteur, said that when he roomed with Bell, the latter could turn off the light switch and jump into bed before the light went out. Bell said later that it was a true story; the switch was defective and didn't douse the light instantly.
Bell was an excellent hitter despite his lack of power and 150-pound frame. His published batting averages during his ten years with the St. Louis Stars varied from .312 to .362. (The Stars won Negro National League championships in 1928, 1930, and 193l.) He played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1933 to 1936, for whom he batted between .317 and .362. In 1937 Bell joined Paige and other Crawfords in the Dominican Republic where the dictator Rafael Trujillo built a powerhouse baseball team to enhance his popularity. He was with Trujillo's team that year when it won the Denver Post tournament for independent teams. He hit .450 and had five extra base hits and eleven stolen bases in thirteen games.
Bell rejoined the Crawfords in 1938 but was soon lured to Mexico, playing with integrated teams in Tampico, Torreon, Veracruz, and Monterrey and earning $450 a month, his top salary in a twenty-four-year playing career. In the 1940 season, he led the Mexican League in runs (119), hits (167), triples (15), home runs (12), and runs batted in (79).
In 1942, at the age of thirty-nine, Bell returned to the United States and joined the Chicago American Giants. He went to the Homestead (Pennsylvania) Grays the following season. There he teamed up with power hitters Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Jud Wilson, Sam Bankhead, Vic Harris, and Jerry Benjamin to win three straight National Negro League titles and two Negro World Series.
When he was forty-three years old, Bell retired from professional baseball and joined the semipro Detroit Senators. He returned to the pros in 1948 when Tom Baird and J. L. Wilkinson of the Kansas City Monarchs hired him to manage their second team. When the team played in Monarchs territory, it was called the Kansas City Stars or Travelers. Outside the Midwest, the team used the Kansas City Monarchs name. In his three seasons as a manager, Bell tutored Ernie Banks and Elston Howard, among other future major leaguers.
After retiring from baseball for a second time, in 1951, Bell became a part-time scout for the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles). He also took a job as custodian and night security man at St. Louis City Hall and worked there until 1973. The street where he lived was renamed James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue in the late 1970s, when Bell began to be recognized, belatedly, for his contributions to baseball.
Bell was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. With considerable understatement, his plaque reads: "Contemporaries rated him the fastest man on the basepaths." In fact, contemporaries had trouble believing their eyes when they saw him run. Bill Yancey of New York's Lincoln Giants remembered: "The first time Cool Papa came to New York with the St. Louis Stars, he hit a ball into right field.… I went out to get the throw, and I looked up as Cool Papa was slowing up going into third. And I said to myself, 'That sonofagun didn't touch second.' Next time up he hit another ball about the same place. I watched this guy run. Well, he came across second base and it looked like his feet weren't touching the ground!"
Bell and Clarabelle Thompson Bell had married on 8 September 1920. They had no children but were extraordinarily close. Clarabelle died on 20 January 1991, and just over a month later, Bell suffered a heart attack. He died on 7 March 1991 at St. Louis University Hospital and was buried in Saint Peter's Cemetery in St. Louis.
As a Hall of Fame ballplayer, Bell had a career worthy of discussion in numerous sports columns and articles. Overviews of his career are in Dick Clark and Larry Lester, eds., The Negro Leagues Book (1994), and James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994). Robert W. Peterson, Only the Ball Was White (1970), contains information about Bell, including recollections of his contemporaries. Among the best articles about Bell is James Bankes, "Flying Feet: The Life and Times of Cool Papa Bell, the Fastest Runner Baseball Has," Baseball History (Fall 1996).
Robert W. Peterson