Happy for Cool Papa
Cool Papa Bell had been retired from baseball two years when he played in a post-season exhibition game in 1948 against a collection of major leaguers, including Cleveland Indians ace Bob Lemon.
The game took place in Los Angeles two complete baseball seasons after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, a step forward for black players but one that did little for Bell, who had labored in relative obscurity for twenty-four years in the Negro leagues and now was past his prime.
White ballplayers knew of Bell and played against him during his heyday. Tales of his speed made him an urban legend before such a term existed. According to such legend, Bell once hit a line drive up the middle and the ball hit him as he slid into second base. And Bell had such speed he could turn out the light in his hotel room and be under the covers before it got dark. Fact or fiction, a curiosity about Bell prevailed in the crowd that night in Los Angeles.
Despite Bell’s age and rust, he doubled off Lemon during his first trip to the plate. Next time up, he singled off the All-Star and stood on first remembering what he’d learned from having seen Lemon pitch in the past. He was a "one-look guy." Stare hard at the runner then make the pitch.
Lemon did what Bell thought he would, setting off an extraordinary chain of events.
Bell took off knowing that the hitter would be bunting. After seeing that the sacrifice had been put down, he headed to second. Rather than slide, he rounded the bag and noticed the third baseman had not returned to cover the base after racing in to field the bunt. Bell took off for third.
“[The] catcher had the ball, saw me going for third and started running toward me,” Bell told me with a chuckle. “So I went around the base, put a little juke on him and headed home.”
Remember, this was 1948. Baseball wasn’t about stealing bases and black faces.
“I think I gave that crowd something to think about,” Bell said.
Back in the day, I would read anything I could get my hands on about the Negro leagues. The players maintained a mythical quality. Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige were among the top names. But James "Cool Papa" Bell fascinated me most. Eventually, I interviewed him in St. Louis for stories for Inside Sports and Sports Heritage magazines. My brother Buddy accompanied me, serving as the photographer for the assignments.
Bell sat in an easy chair inside a run-down home on a St. Louis street bearing his name. From time to time he would glace through the blinds to check for vandals outside.
The dark face and wrinkles brought to mind the texture of a well-worn catcher’s mitt. Above where he sat a picture hung of Bell and his wife, Clara Bell Bell. In the photo Cool Papa dressed sharp and the photo exuded his youth.
“That’s 1928 when we first got married,” Bell said. “We went to Cuba for our honeymoon.”
Bell liked to laugh and chuckled loudest when recounting that one of the tales about his speed was actually true.
“We always were sleeping in these old run down hotels,” Bell said. “There was a three-second delay in the switch. I turned the switch off and the light didn’t go out. Second time, the light didn’t go out. And my bed was right there. Finally, I turned it off again. Get in bed. And the lights went out. Satchel [Paige] saw it.”
Bell grew up in Starkville, Mississippi, and attended school through fifth grade. He got his nickname when he first started playing in the Negro leagues.
“They thought I’d be excited playing in the Negro Leagues, but they said I was playing like a veteran and they said, ‘Hey look he’s playing it cool,’” Bell said. “Then they started calling me ‘Cool’ like that. Bill Gatewood said, ‘We need to add something to it’ and I became ‘Cool Papa’.”
Playing in the Negro leagues proved to be an adventure. Players could find themselves in Yankee Stadium one day and out in the middle of a cow pasture the next.
“One time our bus broke down next to a farm,” Bell said. “A man came out and told us, ‘I’ve been seeing you boys out here all night, I know you must be hungry.’” Bell laughed. “He said he’d been roasting some corn, ‘You all have some corn.’ We done already ate up half of the man’s corn. We said thank you. I’ve seen some funny things in my life.”
Bell also played in Mexico, where at times they played games on donkeys.
“The pitcher would ride this little donkey and the donkey sat on this Mexican boy who was playing with us,” Bell said. “The man said, ‘Get up! Get up!’ He wouldn’t move. Finally, another fella says, ‘That donkey don’t know what you’re saying, he’s Spanish.’ So he said what he had to say in Spanish and the Donkey took off.”
The mention of Mexico brought to mind Bill Veeck, which moved Bell to laughter.
“If it’d been up to Bill Veeck we’d of played in the major leagues,” Bell said. “He was color blind. Bill saw me play down in Mexico and told me the way I played down there, ‘I could afford to pay you $75,000 up here.’ And that was a lot of money back in those days. He didn’t say he was going to do it, but that he could afford to do it because I would have been worth it.”
Bell told me he could go from home to first in three seconds and, “I’d go from home plate to third in eight; could circle the bases in eleven.” In 1933, he stole 175 bases. Unfortunately for Bell, the lack of consistency in how Negro league statistics were accounted for hurt the legitimacy of the players' records.
Bell’s tactics on the bases varied.
“I’d get big leads, walking and stationary leads,” he said. “When I was on third, I’d go home when the catcher would lob the ball back to the pitcher. I’d slide both ways until I sprained my leg. If you slide head first you were a screwball. Break your nose. I played a lot of years until I finally knew I was too old to continue playing when they started making double-plays on me.”
Asked if he’d seen any comparable runners to him, he scratched his head.
“I don’t know,” Bell said. “I broke all the records running on dirt. You can run faster on Astroturf.”
Now that Major League Baseball is acknowledging the Negro leagues, Bell will certainly gain recognition. Though it's unlikely his 175 stolen bases will get recognized as the single-season record, just like Josh Gibson's 900 home runs won't likely make him the career home run leader. Most believe Bell's and Gibson's totals are accurate. Unfortunately, only portions of those totals were accrued during actual league games. The rest came in exhibitions and barnstorming games.
My visit with Bell took place in 1987. We stayed in touch until his death in 1991. During our conversations, I never heard him lament about not playing in the major leagues. He considered himself fortunate to have played professional baseball. His signature said as much. Underneath "Cool Papa Bell" he always wrote, "He is blessed to have smelled the roses."
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