Cool Papa BellJul 31st, 2010 | By BHS | Category: Sports
1903-1991 Cool Papa Bell was a baseball player who was renowned for his speed and prowess on the field. He was a legendary fixture in the so-called “Negro Leagues” during the first half of the 20th Century.
Bell was born on May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Mississippi. The son of Jonas Bell, a farmhand with Native American ancestry, and Mary Nichols, his given name was James Thomas Bell. Raised in rural Oktoc, just outside of Starkville, Bell spent his youth working the fields and playing with his four brothers and two sisters in the open countryside. From an early age, he set himself apart with a natural athleticism and an ability to win foot races. A single schoolhouse provided elementary and middle school education, and Bell attended through the eighth grade. As a young teenager, he began playing baseball with farmers and laborers in weekend sandlot contests.
Bell’s older brothers had relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, and when the time came for him to enter high school in 1920, he moved there and roomed with his siblings. The same year, he met and married Clarabelle Thompson. They remained together for the duration of their lives. After two years of high school, Bell dropped out in order to take a job working at a packing and shipping company, and to pursue a career in baseball. Having developed into a skilled, left-handed pitcher, Bell played for the St. Louis Cubs and the Compton Hill Cubs before landing a slot on the roster of the St. Louis Stars. Early in his career, he pitched against the Negro National League’s best hitter, Oscar Charleston, and struck him out. Because he was calm under pressure, the Stars’ manager, Bill Gatewood, dubbed Bell “Cool Papa.”
Three years into his tenure with the Stars, Bell suffered an arm injury and was unable to pitch competitively. Despite the fact that he had been an exceptional pitcher, the injury resulted in the realization of even more impressive talents. Bell became an outfielder, and soon was startling fans and fellow players alike with his ability to move across the field and snatch even the farthest fly balls from the air or stop speeding ground balls. He generally played center field, and stayed close to the second baseman, but when a ball was hit to the fence line, Bell’s speed was sufficient for him to race back and meet it. He also became a skilled batter, and coupled with his explosive running, made him a feared opponent to any team taking the field against him.
Hey Batter, Batter
Bell remained with the Stars for the next several years. His skills grew steadily, and concurrently, the Stars developed into a team to be reckoned with. In 1926, Bell led the league in stolen bases and managed an impressive batting average of .362. In 1928, the Stars won the National League pennant. They lost the title the following year, but came back to win it again in 1930 and 1931 before finally succumbing to the financial pressures of the Depression. The National League itself, along with the Stars and other teams, collapsed in 1932. Bell, like many other players, filled whatever positions and rosters were available on still extant teams. He played for three teams in all during the 1932 season.
In 1933, Bell joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords and cemented his legendary reputation for speed. The team played 200 games that season, and he stole 175 bases, sometimes taking two at a time. One sensationalist story about his speed, later co-opted by Muhammad Ali, said that Bell was so fast he could turn off the light switch in his bedroom and be under his bed covers before the room darkened. Such stories served to drive home the point that Bell had been timed running the full course of bases at 12 seconds flat, making him the fastest base runner ever timed. When the Negro National League reformed, Bell became a key player for the Crawfords, leading the team to championship victories in 1935 and 1936. During annual all-star games between different leagues, Bell was always tapped as a starting player, and was sent to represent the team at interleague playoffs and demonstration events.
Tempted by good salaries and less racial discrimination, Bell took an opportunity to play in the Dominican Republic in 1937. He joined a team that represented the notorious dictator Rafael Trujillo, and later claimed that Trujillo had threatened to have the entire team shot if it failed to win the national championship. The team won, and Bell lived to play for the next four years in Mexico, winning one championship and leading the Mexican leagues in batting and stolen bases. On his return to the United States, he played with a succession of teams, and earned several more titles while playing for the Homestead Grays.
Beginning in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball by starting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bell undertook a string of appointments as a manager. For the next four years, he managed, and played for, the Detroit Senators, the Kansas City Stars, and a Kansas City Monarchs farm team. He retired as a player in 1951, and for the next 20 years, divided his efforts between working as a talent scout and as a security guard. In 1974, Bell was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He spent his remaining years in St. Louis where he died on March 7, 1991.
Bell was a part of the baseball generation that brought about full recognition that black players were every bit the equal of their white counterparts. He played with Jackie Robinson, as well as other baseball greats and Hall of Famers such as Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige. His speed, endurance, and talent remain legendary.