Bell, James Thomas (“Cool Papa”)

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Bell, James Thomas (“Cool Papa”)

(b. 17 May 1901 in Starkville, Mississippi; d. 7 March 1991 in St. Louis, Missouri), fabled Negro League outfielder widely considered the fastest man ever to play professional baseball.

Bell and his seven siblings were raised on a farm about two miles from Starkville, a farming community of 2,700 on the outskirts of the Mississippi blues country. (It was around the time of Bell’s birth that white anthropologists “discovered” the Delta Blues in rural Mississippi.) Bell’s father, Jonas Bell, sharecropped cotton and corn. His mother, Mary Nichols (who was three-eighths Native American), did odd jobs, including taking in laundry. Bell attended Starkville’s one-room elementary school for blacks but left school in the seventh grade.

In 1920 Bell joined the many African Americans escaping the impoverished South for urban centers of the Midwest, bringing their music and their baseball with them. Bell moved to St. Louis because, he later said, “you could just live better and make more money.” Four of his older brothers already lived in St. Louis, where they played for a black semiprofessional team, the Compton Hill Cubs, on Sundays and holidays. Soon the wiry Bell (who was five feet, eleven inches tall and weighed 145 pounds) was playing for the team too as a knuckleball pitcher while also earning a respectable $21.20 per week laboring at the Independent Packing Company and attending Sumner Evening School (from which he probably did not graduate) at night. The team disbanded in August 1921, and in 1922 Bell joined another semiprofessional team, the East St. Louis Cubs, making $20 per week for pitching on Sundays. On 3 May 1922 he signed with the St. Louis Stars, a major power in the Negro National League, for $90 a month. He reportedly earned his famous nickname as a rookie with the Stars when he calmly struck out the feared slugger Oscar Charleston in a high-pressure situation. The players began calling him “Cool,” which manager Bill Gatewood later modified to “Cool Papa.” Bell pitched and played the outfield occasionally until 1924, when, at Gatewood’s urging, he made two changes that would be crucial to his later success: he began playing center field exclusively, and he learned to switch hit. (Although a left-handed thrower, Bell had always batted right-handed.) Bell eventually became a defensive star in center field, known for playing unusually shallow because his speed enabled him to reach most balls hit over his head.

Soon after switching positions, Bell’s base running brought him renown as the fastest player in baseball. Because Negro League teams neither played traditional schedules nor kept accurate statistics, the exploits of their players survive mostly in anecdotal tales of dubious veracity. The stories about Bell’s blazing speed are among the most colorful. He was said to have once been hit by his own batted ball as he slid into second base. Another tale, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige’s favorite, said Bell was so fast he could shut out the lights and get into bed before the room got dark. Bell himself claimed to have stolen 175 bases in 200 games during the 1933 season. Such exaggerations notwithstanding, there is ample evidence to document Bell’s disruptiveness on the base paths. In the 1934 East-West all-star game, he drew a leadoff walk in the eighth inning, then stole second and scored on a weak hit for the only run in a 1–0 victory. Many years later, on 24 October 1948, the forty-seven-year-old Bell scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt in an exhibition game against a major league all-star team.

Bell played ten seasons with the Stars, which by the late 1920s had become the premier franchise in the Negro National League. Led by the trio of Bell, shortstop Willie Wells (Bell’s closest friend), and first baseman Mule Suttles, St. Louis won championships in 1929 and 1930. The Stars disbanded in 1931 along with the Negro National League, however, and Bell spent the rest of his career moving from team to team in the often financially unstable Negro Leagues. From 1933 to 1938 he played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a conglomeration of superstars often considered to be the greatest black team ever. In addition to Bell, the team’s lineup included Josh Gibson at catcher, playing manager Oscar Charleston at first base, Judy Johnson at third base, and pitcher Satchel Paige. In 1943 Bell joined the Homestead Grays and helped them to three consecutive championships.

On 8 September 1928, Bell married Clara Belle Thompson. They honeymooned in Cuba, where Bell had signed a contract to play winter ball. On 3 January 1929 he became the first player in Cuban League history to hit threejonrones (home runs) in one game. He led the league in both homers and stolen bases that season, the first of four winters he spent in Cuba. Latin America was a popular destination for many African American players, who were drawn to the Caribbean leagues by warm weather, high salaries, and a relative lack of racism. Bell played so often in Latin America that he eventually became fluent in Spanish. In 1937 Bell and other Negro League stars were lured to the Dominican Republic by exorbitant salary offers from the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who used his personal baseball team as a publicity tool to preserve his political power. From 1938 to 1941 Bell also played in the Mexican League, where he earned his highest salary of $450 a month.

In 1948 Bell became playing manager of a Kansas City Monarchs farm team, where his charges included the young shortstop Ernie Banks. In 1951, when Bell was fifty years old, the St. Louis Browns offered him a major league contract, but Bell declined, saying he was too old to play his best. He retired from baseball later that year, after playing for twenty-nine summers and twenty-one winters.

Talented as he was, baseball did not make Bell rich. Left without a pension, he immediately found work as a custodian at City Hall in St. Louis. He was eventually promoted to night watchman there, a job he held until his retirement in April 1973. On 12 August 1974 Bell received baseball’s highest honor when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He was the fifth Negro League star to be elected to the Hall, where his Stars uniform, and his sunglasses, remain on permanent display. In the ensuing years Bell lived on Social Security, his small pension from the city of St. Louis, and a stipend from the baseball commissioner’s office. He and Clara continued to reside in a modest home on St. Louis’s Dickson Avenue, which was renamed James “Cool Papa” Bell Avenue in 1987.

On 20 January 1991, after sixty-two years of marriage, Clara Bell died. A month later Bell was hospitalized after a heart attack, and he died in St. Louis on 7 March 1991. He was survived by their only child, Connie Bell Brooks, and was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis. His will specified that he have twelve pallbearers at his funeral, six black and six white.

Bell impressed most who met him as a gentle, dignified, and soft-spoken man, and he left behind a legacy of unparalleled achievement on the baseball diamond. Given the lack of statistics, the degree of Bell’s greatness will likely always be debated. But he was clearly one of the most important figures to emerge from baseball’s Negro Leagues. The anecdotal stories that contributed so much to Bell’s legend are an essential part of African American oral tradition and a grim reminder that segregation caused a talent so great to be appreciated by so few. “So many people say I was born too early,” Bell said shortly before his death. “But that’s not true. They opened the doors too late.”

No full-length biography of Bell exists, and factual information about him is hard to come by. The best source is the collection of research files maintained by the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, which contain newspaper articles, correspondence, interviews, and the scrapbook Bell kept of his playing career. Two other essential works of oral history contain chapters on him: John Holway, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues (1975), and Donald Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real: Baseball from the Twenties to the Forties Told by the Men Who Played It (1975). The Negro Leagues Book (1994), edited by Dick Clark and Larry Lester, is the definitive source for information on the black teams’ rosters and statistics. An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Mar. 1991). An extensive interview with Bell was done by the Oral History Program of the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 1971.

Eric E. Enders