Cool Papa Bell
Bell, James "Cool Papa"
James "Cool Papa" Bell
American baseball player
Negro league baseball lore is full of colorful tales, several of which revolve around the exploits of speedster James "Cool Papa" Bell. Teammate Satchel Paige once claimed that Bell was so fast that he could switch the light in their hotel room and jump into bed before the light went out. Rumor also had it that Bell had once been called out because he got hit by his own drive while rounding second base. Like many legends, these tales contain kernels of truth. Clocked at running the bases in thirteen seconds, Bell routinely stretched singles into doubles or triples; he stole bases at will and he covered centerfield with ease, taking away base hits from many batters. Bell played ball with a handful of Negro league teams in the United States and several teams in Cuba, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, where African American players were heartily welcomed. Although Bell retired shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, he accepted his role in history. Even so, he was among the African American ball players who measured themselves against white Major Leaguers in exhibition games. When asked on what level he thought most Negro league teams were compared with the Major Leagues, he did not hesitate. "We could have played right along with them," he replied in a video clip at the Major League Baseball Web site.
James Thomas Nichols was born May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Mississippi, to Jonas Bell and Mary Nichols. Bell grew up playing sandlot baseball and in 1920, he
moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and took his father's name. He found work at the Independent Packing Company (later renamed Swift), and when not working he played semiprofessional baseball with the Compton Hill Cubs, part of the St. Louis City League. In this auspicious year he also married Clarabelle Thompson, with whom he would share more than fifty years of marriage. Two years later when the Compton Hill Cubs played an exhibition game against the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League (NNL), Bell was too good of a prospect for the Stars to resist. With his left-handed curve and fade-away knuckle balls, he could dominate batters.
He snapped up the chance to pitch for the Stars, and at age nineteen made his professional baseball debut as a pitcher. The slender six foot tall youngster took the mound with rare poise for one so young and made a name for himself when he struck out slugger Oscar Charleston at a crucial point in a game. The name was "Cool Papa." Bell recalled at MLB.com, "They thought I was going to be afraid of the crowds. We had eleven, twelve, fifteen thousand people—more than the Major League had. I went out there like a veteran. I was a pitcher then and so like nothing is exciting, nothing like that. So they said you're looking cool out there. They started to call 'Hey Cool, Hey Cool.' So our manager [Bill Gatewood] said this 'Cool' isn't enough of a name for you, so he added 'Papa.' So that's how that was born."
After Bell injured his pitching arm, he moved to center field. With his speed and agility, he covered the often irregularly shaped playing fields with ease. He stole base hits and sacrifice flies from batters. He could compensate for his weakened arm with a quick release and accurate throw that prevented runners from trying for an extra base. Bell was also Cool Papa at the plate, but he was always ready to explode on the base paths.
Negro league pitchers took great liberties with the ball, causing it to fly in unpredictable ways. "In our league they threw the spitter, the screw ball, the emery ball, shine ball—that means Vaseline ball: there was so much Vaseline on it, it made you blink your eyes on a sunny day. Then they threw the mud ball—the mud on its seams made it sink. The emery ball would break either up or down, but if a sidearmer threw it and didn't know what he was doing, it could sail right into a hitter," Bell told John Holway in Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues. Even so, Bell often made contact, and not just contact—he knew how to place the ball where he wanted it. His lifetime batting average was an impressive .343.
Bell's speed—he could round the bases in a mere thirteen seconds—made him extra dangerous at the plate and on base. He could run out the bunt; he could get extra bases on slapped hits that for most players would be a single. In almost every game he played he stole at least one base. In 1933 Pittsburgh Pirate star Paul Waner told this story about his experience with Bell's speed, printed in Phil Dixon's The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History, "He was on first base and the next batter hit a single to center. This fellow Bell by that time was rounding second base and watching me as I ran. He never stopped. I made a motion, thinking to get him at third. As I started the throw I saw I was going to be too late. So I stopped … but he didn't. He kept on for home plate. By the time I could get the ball away, he had slid in there, was dusting himself off and walking calmly away." Satchel Paige's catcher Frazier Robinson in Voices from the Negro Leagues described Bell's base-stealing ability. "The only way I threw him out, he would telegraph when he was gonna steal. I knowed when he was goin'. If he'd take a big lead he wasn't goin' nowhere, but the minute he stood on that base—didn't take no lead—you better hurry up and get rid of that ball. And he could run! A lot of times he'd be thrown out but he knew how to slide. He'd trick the second baseman or the shortstop. … He didn't hit the long ball but he could get on that base—bunt and drag the ball. He'd run over you if you get in his way." Run over opponents he did. During the ten years that the switchhitting Bell played with the St. Louis Stars, he led the team to league titles in 1928, 1930, and 1931.
|1903||Born May 17 in Starkville, Mississippi, to Jonas Bell and Mary Nichols|
|1920||Moves to St. Louis, Missouri to attend high school, work, and play semiprofessional baseball; marries Clarabelle Thompson|
|1922-28||Plays center field for the St. Louis Stars in the Negro National League|
|1933-37||Plays center field for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the Negro National League|
|1938-42||Plays in the Mexican League|
|1942||Plays with the Chicago American Giants in the Negro National League|
|1943-45||Plays center field for the Homestead Grays in the Negro National League|
|1948-49||Plays and manages the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League|
|1951||Scout for St. Louis Browns (now Baltimore Orioles)|
|1951-60||Custodian for St. Louis City Hall|
|1961-73||Night watchman for St. Louis City Hall|
|1974||Elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame|
|1991||Dies March 7 at St. Louis University Hospital; buried in St. Peter's Cemetery, in St. Louis|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1928, 1930-31||Negro League championship with St. Louis Stars|
|1933||Named 11 times to East-West All-Star teams, beginning this year|
|1940||Triple Crown in Mexican Leagues|
|1943-44||Wins World Series with Homestead Grays|
|1974||Inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame|
"Plays for Love of Game"
Bell played baseball almost continuously for thirty-four years, playing in both summer leagues in the United States and winter leagues in California, Cuba, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. "It was good times," Bell recalled to Fallstrom. "I just played for the love of the game. I didn't intend to play that long, it just happened." When the NNL fell prey to the Great Depression, Bell joined the Detroit Wolves, an East-West League team, but the team disbanded before the season was over. Bell then played the remainder of the season with the St. Louis Monarchs and played winter ball in Mexico in 1933. The lure of Mexico was strong for several reasons. Though Bell had been paid $90 per month to play for the St. Louis Stars, playing south of the border was even better. He played winter baseball in Cuba from 1928 to 1930, the Dominican Republic in 1937, and in Mexico from 1938 to 1941. Not only did Bell earn a high of $450 per month touring Mexico with the Tampico, Torreon, Veracruz, and Monterrey clubs, he received the respect that black players lacked in the United States. In Cuba, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, dark-skinned and light-skinned players played on the same teams and against other "integrated teams." It was the norm, as were good accommodations and interracial socializing. "Everyone was the same down there. We could go in any restaurant, stay in hotels, and oh, the fans? They loved us," Bell remarked in Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues, by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick McKissack, Jr. Blacks also got the chance to measure their skills against those of white players when exhibition teams of players from the Major Leagues, often organized by star players, came south. Bell accumulated impressive statistics in the Latin American leagues as well. According to Negro League player Buck Leonard, as quoted in Black Diamond, "He was a hero down there. He did so well, a lot of the boys thought they'd take a look for themselves."
When Bell came back to the United Sates in 1942 he joined the Chicago American Giants. The following year he began a rewarding stint with the Homestead Grays. With Bell in centerfield, the Grays twice won the World Series championship against the Birmingham Black Barons, in 1943 and 1944. At age forty-three, Bell retired from professional baseball. For a short time he played semiprofessional baseball with the independent Detroit Senators. Then in 1948 he hired on to coach the B team of the Kansas City Monarchs (also called the Kansas City Stars or Travelers). Thus Bell passed on his knowledge to future generations of players, some of whom (such as Ernie Banks ) would eventually join integrated Major League Baseball teams after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
Inducted into Hall of Fame
After retiring from baseball, Bell received offers to play with Major League teams, but he declined them. "I got letters from everybody, every team," Bell told Associated Press reporter R.B. Fallstrom. "I said, 'I'm through.' I broke every record there was and I still could hit but my legs were gone. I used them up." Bell worked at St. Louis City Hall as a custodian and security guard for twenty-one years and he and his wife lived on Cool Papa Bell Avenue in north St. Louis for more than thirty-five years. There the Bells kept a collection of Negro league memorabilia and Cool Papa was happy to regale visitors with stories of old-time baseball. In 1974 Bell was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the first players to be so honored in a belated effort to recognize the ability of deserving Negro league players. "Contemporaries rated him the fastest man on the base paths," reads Bell's plaque in the Hall of Fame. Indeed. Bell once explained that in a match-up against Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens , Owens could win the straight one-hundred yard dash, but it was he, Bell, who was the faster rounding the bases. Once the two sprinters were supposed to race between games of a doubleheader in Cleveland, Ohio, but when the time came, Owens declined. "He said he left his track shoes at home," Bell said in a video clip at the Major League Baseball Web site. "I didn't have any track shoes." When Bell learned that he was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he said that his election was his highest honor, but his biggest thrill "was when they opened the door in the majors to black players," wrote Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. of the New York Times.
|CHI: Chicago Giants; DET: Detroit Wolves; KC: Kansas City Monarchs; PIT: Pittsburgh Crawfords; STL: St. Louis Stars; WAS: Washington Homestead Grays.|
In his later years, Bell suffered from glaucoma. Clara preceded him in death on January 20, 1991, and Bell suffered a heart attack in February and passed away at University Hospital in St. Louis on March 7. He was interred at St. Peter's Cemetery in St. Louis. Yet Bell's feats linger still. In 1996, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Negro league baseball, Bell and two other Hall of Fame players from the Negro leagues were featured on limited edition boxes of Wheaties cereal and on "historic" baseball trading cards. Many baseball fans were pleased to see even such late recognition. For his part, the unassuming Bell had simply played the game he loved within the confines society placed on him. "When I was young, all I wanted to do was play," Bell is quoted as saying by Dixon. "And, thank the Lord, I got the chance to play for half my life, even if it wasn't in the majors. … I didn't think about major league baseball. It wasn't just baseball then; it was everywhere. I don't feel regrets. That's how it was when I was born. I had to live in that time."
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Legacy Awards
In 2001, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) established the Legacy Awards, to recognize and honor the best Major League baseball players, managers and executives with awards given in the name and spirit of Negro Leagues legends. "The Legacy Awards were created by the Museum to pay homage to America's unsung heroes and to insure that their contributions to the game of baseball and the advancement of American society are never lost," said Bob Kendrick, the NLBM's director of marketing, on MLB.com.
The Legacy Awards include the Satchel Paige Award (presented to the pitchers of the year), the Josh Gibson award (presented to the home run leaders), the Cool Papa Bell Award (presented to the stolen base leaders), the Buck Leonard Award (presented to the batting champions), the Oscar Charleston Award (presented to the most valuable players), the Andrew "Rube" Foster Award (presented to the executives of the year), the C.I. Taylor Award (presented to the managers of the year), the Larry Doby Award (presented to the rookies of the year), the Hilton Smith Award (presented to the relievers of the year), the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award (presented to an individual for career excellence in the face of adversity), and the John "Buck" O'Neil Award (presented to a local or national corporate/private philanthropist for outstanding support of the museum). Players from both the National League and the American League are honored in each category.
Past recipients of the Legacy Awards include Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens (Satchel Paige Award), Sammy Sosa (Josh Gibson Award), Ichiro Suzuki and Luis Castillo (Cool Papa Bell Award), Larry Walker (Buck Leonard Award), Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds (Oscar Charleston Award), John Schuerholz (Andrew "Rube" Foster Award), Tony LaRussa (C.I. Taylor Award), and Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson (Jackie Robinson Award).
Clark, Dick and Larry Lester, Eds. The Negro Leagues Book. Birmington, AL: Society for American Baseball Research/EBSCO Media, 1994.
Dixon, Phil with Patrick J. Hannigan. The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History. Mattituck, NY: Amereon House, 1992.
Gardner, Robert and Dennis Shortelle. The Forgotten Players: The Story of Black Baseball in America. New York: Walker & Company, 1993.
Holway, John. The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History. Fern Park, FL: Hastings House Publishers, 2001.
Holway, John B. Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988.
Holway, John B. Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Kelley, Brent. Voices from the Negro Leagues: Conversations with Fifty-two Baseball Standouts of the Period 1924-1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1998.
McKissack, Patricia C. and Frederick McKissack, Jr. Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York: Scholastic, 1994.
McNeil, William F. Baseball's Other All-Stars: The Greatest Players from the Negro Leagues, the Japanese Leagues, the Mexican League, and the Pre-1960 Winter Leagues in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2000.
McNeil, William F. Cool Papas and Double Duties: The All-Time Greats of the Negro Leagues. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001.
Ribowsky, Mark. A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884-1955. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1995.
Banks, James. "Flying Feet: The Life and Times of Cool Papa Bell, the Fastest Runner Baseball Has." Baseball History (fall, 1996).
Fallstrom, R.B. "James 'Cool Papa' Bell Takes Things as They Come." Associated Press (February 10, 1990).
Fallstrom, R.B., "Cool Papa Bell." Associated Press (March 8, 1991).
"James 'Cool Papa' Bell Still Keeps Cool at 86." Jet (March 5, 1990): 48.
"Profiles of Prominent Negro-Leaguers: James 'Cool Papa' Bell." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (February 4, 2001): D10.
Rhoden, William C. "Cool Papa's Legacy Lives with a Statue in St. Louis." New York Times (September 17, 2001): C18.
Thomas, Robert McC., Jr. "James (Cool Papa) Bell, 87, Dies; Legendary Star of the Negro Leagues." New York Times (March 9, 1991): 11.
"Speed to Burn: Bell Was the Fastest Player Ever." Major League Baseball. http://www.MLB.com/ (October 1, 2002).
Sketch by J. Lesinski
Bell, James “Cool Papa” 1901–1991
James “Cool Papa” Bell 1901–1991
Professional baseball player
One of the most legendary of all the Negro League baseball players, James “Cool Papa” Bell played centerfield and batted lead off for three great black baseball dynasties—the St. Louis Stars in the late-1920s, the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1930s, and the Homestead Grays in the 1940s. What most set Bell apart from the rest of the players of his era was his speed. Negro League legend and storyteller extraordinaire Satchel Paige was perhaps most responsible for Bell’s legend. When the two were roommates with the Crawfords, Paige said that Bell could turn out the light and be in bed before it got dark. He said that once Bell hit a single up the middle, but was called out because the ball hit him in the back as he was sliding into second.
Bell was born James Thomas Nichols on May 17, 1901, near Starkville, Mississippi. He grew up in a farming community with his two sisters and five brothers. His father, Jonas Bell, was a sharecropper. Bell attended school until the seventh grade. He then moved to St. Louis, where it was easier to make a living and where he could live with some of his brothers. Bell also joined his brothers to play baseball. His first semi-pro team was called the Compton Hill Cubs.
At the age of 20, Bell stood five-feet-eleven inches and weighed only 145 pounds. He played centerfield and was a solid hitter, but he was more known as a knuckleball pitcher. In 1922 Bell worked at the Independent Packing Company for $21.20 a week and earned $20 a week to pitch on Sundays. That spring Bell tried out for the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League. He made the team and received a healthy salary increase to $90 a week.
Bell earned his famous nickname “Cool Papa” for two parts of his personality. “Cool” came after the youngster struck out Negro League Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston late in a game when his teammates thought he would be too scared even to throw the ball near the strike zone. Stars manager Bill Gatewood added “Papa” because of Bell’s maturity. He began to play centerfield more often, a move that allowed him to take advantage of his unmatched speed, quick bat, and his sure fielding glove. Gatewood eventually persuaded him to give up pitching completely and to become a
At a Glance…
Born james Thomas Nichols on May 17, 1901 in Starkville, MS; son of Mary Nichols and Jonas Bell (a sharecropper); died on March 7, 1991, in St. Louis, MO; married Cara Belle Thompson, 1928 (died 1991); children: Connie Bell Brooks.
Career: Signed with the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League as a pitcher, 1922; became the club’s center fielder and leadoff hitter, 1923-31; played for the Detroit Wolves and the Kansas City Monarchs, 1932; Pittsburgh Crawfords, 1933-36; played in the Dominican Republic for President Rafael Trujillo’s team, 1937; played in the Mexican League for Tampico, Torreon, Vera Cruz, and Monterrey, 1938-41; Chicago American Giants, 1942; Homestead Grays, 1943-46; coached Kansas City Monarchs’ top farm team, 1948-50; returned to St. Louis and worked as a night watchman and custodian until retirement, 1973.
Awards: Played in every East-West all-star game except for the years he was playing out of the country, 1933-44; elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, 1974.
switch hitter. Though he had a mediocre arm, he was so fast that he could play very shallow in the outfield to make up for this deficiency.
But Bekk really made his mark on the basepaths. Every time he got on base he would automatically steal second and usually third. If a teammate got a hit while Bell was on base, he would score. In 1948, at the age of 46, Bell is said to have scored from first on a sacrifice bunt during an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians.
During his time with the Stars, Bell’s legend had only begun to grow and Bell’s blazing speed changed the game. Opposing managers usually brought the infield in so that they would have a chance to throw him out on an infield hit. Bell explained the effect he had on a game in Shaun McCormack’s book Cool Papa Bell: “We played a different kind of baseball than the white teams. We played tricky baseball. We did things they didn’t expect. We’d bunt and run in the first inning. Then when they would come in for a bunt we’d hit away. We always crossed them up. We’d run the bases hard and make the fielders throw too quick and make wild throws. We’d fake a steal home and rattle the pitcher into a balk.”
It was said that if Bell hit a ball that took two hops in the infield, he was almost always safe. Legend has it that Jackie Robinson switched from shortstop to second base because he could not throw Bell out. Though it is impossible to accurately reconstruct all of Bell’s accomplishments, his statistics survive from a 1940 season playing for Torreon of the Mexican League. In 89 games Bell led the league in runs (119), hits (167), triples (15), home runs (12), and runs batted in (79).
All in all, Bell spent ten years with the Stars. When the team added Willie Wells at shortstop and Mule Suttles at first base, St. Louis became a Negro National League power challenging the Kansas City Monarchs and winning the league championship in 1928, 1929, and 1930. The St. Louis Stars were swept away by the Depression in 1931. Bell moved on to the Detroit Wolves, but that team was also pulled under by the horrible economic conditions.
Bell married Clara Belle Thompson in 1928, the woman with whom he would spend the next 62 years of his life. The two honeymooned in Cuba, where Bell began the first of four winters playing baseball there. In his first season he became the first player to hit three home runs in one game and led the league in home runs and stolen bases.
In 1933 Bell moved to another Negro League power—the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The team already featured four future Hall of Famers—Satchel Paige, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, and Josh Gibson. With Bell leading off, the team won championships in 1933, 1935, and 1936. In 1937 Bell followed his teammate Paige and seven other Crawfords in a journey south of the border to play in the Dominican Republic as members of President Rafael Trujillo’s team. Negro League players often played outside the United States because the pay was better and the living conditions were better for blacks in Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico.
Despite the increase in salary, playing for the Dominican dictator had its drawbacks. The Crawfords were under guard when they were not playing baseball, and Trujillo threatened to have them shot if they did not win the championship—win they did. The club also played in the international Denver Post Tournament, during which Bell hit .450 and stole 11 bases in 13 games. The Forgotten Leagues website reports that a Denver Post sports editor wrote: “All these years I’ve been looking for a player who could steal first base. I’ve found my man: his name is Cool Papa Bell.”
Bell started the 1938 season with the Crawfords in Pittsburgh but then went to play in Mexico until 1941. He played with Tampico, Torreon, Vera Cruz, and Monterrey and earned $450 a month, $200 more a month than the brightest stars of the Negro Leagues would earn. Bell came back to the United States in 1942 to play for the Chicago American Giants, but then he got a better offer and joined the Negro League’s last great dynasty—the Homestead Grays. The team captured three consecutive league crowns and beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro League World Series in 1943 and 1944. In 1945 the Grays lost the series to the Cleveland Buckeyes.
Bell played baseball until the age of 45 and retired after 24 years in the game. He participated in every East-West all-star game from 1933 to 1944, except for the years he was playing ball in Mexico. Bell hit .400 over the course of several seasons and estimates of his lifetime batting average range from .345 to .391.
In 1948 Bell coached the Kansas City Monarch farm team, tutoring such future major league stars as Ernie Banks and Elston Howard. Bell was also offered another job as a player for the St. Louis Browns, the major league franchise who employed a one armed player and once sent a dwarf up to bat in order to draw a walk. Though it had been his dream to play major league baseball, he realized that he was too old to compete at the level he would like to, and he did not want to be just another attraction.
After two years in Kansas City, Bell moved back to St. Louis and got a job as a custodian at the St. Louis City Hall. He worked the next 21 years there before retiring from his night watchman position in 1973. One year later Bell became the fifth Negro League player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His street was also renamed James Cool Papa Bell Avenue. In 1991 Bell’s wife, Clara, died. Just one month later, Bell himself entered the hospital after a heart attack. He died on March 7, 1991 at the age of 89.
After his death he was honored as a true American sports icon in 1996 when he appeared on a box of Wheaties to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Negro Leagues. His daughter, Connie Bell Brooks, told Ed Barmakian of The Star-Ledger that the recognition was for many more players than just her father: “If Pop were alive, I know he would say that even though he’s on the box, he’s representing all men who played in the Negro Leagues. I hope that all those who see Pop on the box will feel included.” Despite the fact that he received little recognition and less money to play the game as one of the best ever, Bell was never bitter about his lot in life. In McCormack’s biography Bell gave thanks for his time in the Negro Leagues: “Because of baseball, I smelled the rose of life. I wanted to meet people, to travel, and to have nice clothes. Baseball allowed me to do all those things, and most important, during my time with the Crawfords, it allowed me to become a member of a brotherhood of friendship which will last forever.”
McCormack, Shaun, Cool Papa Bell, Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2002.
The Star-Ledger, February 17, 1996.
The Forgotten Leagues, www.theforgottenleagues.com/coolpapabell.htm
—Michael J. Watkins
Bell, James A.
James A. Bell
Growing up in the working-class black community of south central Los Angeles, James Bell might have believed that the greatest success he could hope for was to land a steady job with the Post Office, like his father. Yet Bell recognized that an opportunity existed for another kind of future, with more rewarding work and room for advancement. He became one of the few young men from his neighborhood to graduate from college, and went on to positions of increasing responsibility in the business world. After almost thirty years working in the world of business finance, he was promoted to one of the top jobs in a major corporation when he became chief financial officer with aerospace giant The Boeing Company. Then, early in 2005, Bell was appointed interim president and chief executive officer when a scandal took down his predecessor. Despite his ever-increasing business responsibilities, Bell placed great importance on another responsibility of success: supporting and encouraging other African Americans seeking business careers.
Bell was born in Los Angeles on June 4, 1948. His parents, Mamie and Clyde Bell, had come from Oklahoma, seeking the wider opportunities that California seemed to offer African Americans. Clyde Bell worked for the Post Office, and Mamie was a clerk for the County of Los Angeles. They lived and raised their family in the black neighborhood called South Central. Young James spent his youth in the security of his close-knit extended family, enjoying family trips to the park or beach and playing football and baseball with friends.
Bell was an avid reader who liked school and did well in his studies. One of his elementary school teachers, an African American named Mr. Kelly, gave Bell special encouragement by assuring his young black students that they could accomplish anything if they worked hard and had confidence in themselves.
During Bell's junior year of high school in 1965, the arrest of a black driver by California Highway Patrol officers sparked five days of intense rioting in Watts, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles. The riots went on for six days and, when they were over, thirty-four people were killed and hundreds injured. The neighborhood was devastated by fires set by rioters. Though the civil rights movement had previously seemed far away to a schoolboy in southern California, the Watts riots brought the anger and bitterness of the black community very close to James Bell. Though he recognized the feelings of frustration and despair that lay behind the rioters, he felt that they had only succeeded in burning down their own neighborhood. He determined to look for more constructive approaches to change in his own life.
Another major influence in Bell's early life came when he was elected to the office of student body president during his senior year of high school. As part of the student government, he participated in student council events with other schools, where he met students whose experience and expectations were quite different from his own. For the first time, Bell was exposed to other students who assumed they would attend college and go on to rewarding careers. In his own neighborhood, many young African Americans assumed that the best career they could hope for was a secure job. Bell, however, had done a variety of part-time jobs, from cleaning players' shoes at the golf course, to cleaning office buildings, to working in the Post Office, and he had not enjoyed them. Not wanting to settle for a secure but boring job that offered little hope of advancement, James Bell decided to go to college.
His grades were good enough to earn him a partial scholarship to California State University at Los Angeles. The scholarship paid his tuition for the first year, and Bell continued to work to pay for the rest of his college education. He chose accounting as his major, because he felt it was a concrete business skill that would allow him to get a good job upon graduation.
During his senior year of college, the Rockwell International Corporation sent recruiters to the CSU campus. Based in southern California, Rockwell was a large corporation with many sections, including an aerospace and defense division. After speaking to the recruiters, Bell went to Rockwell to explore the possibility of employment, though he did not plan to apply for a job. To Bell's surprise Rockwell offered him a position in their Atomics International Accounting Organization, and he joined the company in 1972.
His first year at Rockwell did not go smoothly. Bell found it difficult to make the transition from the life of a student to a stressful business career. His first performance appraisal was full of negative feedback about his work. However, some of his more experienced supervisors and co-workers took an interest in the young accountant, and helped him adjust to his new career. With the advice and support of these mentors, Bell made an important change in his attitude. Rather than merely going to work each day, he began to pursue a career.
Bell worked at Rockwell for twenty-four years. He performed various functions in the accounting department, including work with accounting, corporate audits, cost policy making, and cost estimating. Beginning in 1984, he supervised the team responsible for combining the financial activities of the Atomics International and Rocketdyne Divisions of the Rockwell Corporation.
In 1996, the Boeing Company bought the aerospace and defense division of Rockwell. Boeing, based in Seattle and Chicago, had expanded from its roots as an airplane manufacturer into a large, multi-faceted corporation. Bell moved smoothly into the new company, becoming vice president of contracts and pricing. He continued to advance his career at Boeing, combining his financial expertise with excellent management skills. When he became corporate controller in 2000, he was also required to develop company processes for following the many rules about how businesses must report their finances to the government.
At a Glance …
Born James Aaron Bell on June 4, 1948, in Los Angeles, California; married Mary Howell August 22, 1981; two children: Sean and Champagne. Education: California State University at Los Angeles, BA, accounting, 1971.
Career: Rockwell International Corporation, Atomics International Accounting Organization, accounting, corporate audit, cost policy, and cost estimating, 1972-86, director of accounting, 1986-92; Rockwell International Corporation, Space Station Electric Power System Program, director of business management, 1992-96; Boeing Company, vice president of contracts and pricing, 1996-2000, senior vice president of finance and corporate controller, 2000-03, acting chief financial officer, 2003-04, executive vice president and chief financial officer, 2004-05, interim president and chief executive officer, 2005–.
Selected Memberships: Los Angeles Urban League; Urban League of Chicago; New Leaders for New Schools; Joffrey Ballet; World Business Chicago.
Addresses: Office— Boeing World Headquarters, 100 N. Riverside, Chicago, IL 60606.
In 2003 Bell was promoted to acting chief financial officer at Boeing when a scandal involving then-CFO Mike Sears rocked the company. Bell's performance was so strong—and the trust in him so complete—that in 2004 the position was made permanent. Boeing president and chief executive officer Harry Stonecipher spoke of Bell's qualifications in a much-quoted press release from the Boeing Web site, "James Bell is a superior financial leader," Stonecipher said. "He is a proven, highly skilled manager who has intimate knowledge of our strategy and champions fiscal transparency. James will be a key member of our leadership team."
Bell was lifted even higher in the company early in 2005, when yet another scandal rocked the company. Early in March, the corporate board asked for the resignation of Harry Stonecipher when it was discovered that he had had an adulterous relationship with a Boeing executive, thus violating the company's code of conduct. Bell was immediately named interim president and chief executive officer. It was not immediately known how soon the board expected to make a permanent appointment.
In addition to advancing his executive career, Bell has continued to value his relations with his own close-knit family. He places great importance on education for young African Americans and works with an organization called New Leaders for New Schools to help train and develop more black school principals. He also works as a mentor within the Boeing organization, encouraging blacks in their career development, much as he was encouraged during his early years at Rockwell.
Black Enterprise, April 2004.
Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2004.
Seattle Times, November 25, 2003; January 7, 2004; March 7, 2005; March 8, 2005.
"Biographies: James A. Bell," Boeing, www.boeing.com/companyoffices/aboutus/execprofiles/bell.html (March 7, 2005).
"Boeing Names James Bell Chief Financial Officer," Boeing, www.boeing.com/news/releases/2004/q1/nr_040106a.html (December 15, 2004).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with James Bell on December 15, 2004.