Cool Papa Bell is considered to be the fastest man ever to play professional baseball. His achievements, in the Negro Leagues and in Latin America, earned his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1974. His Hall of Fame plaque reads in part, “… Contemporaries rated him fastest man on the base paths.”
James Thomas Bell was born May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Mississippi, the son of Jonas Bell and Mary Nichols. Reared in the nearby Oktoc community, James had two sisters and four brothers. His mother sharecropped with her brother on their father’s land, but the young James “never did have any intention of farming,” he later said. “All I had in mind – we used to play ball around, and I just had baseball on my mind.”
He did, however, work in the creamery at The Agricultural and Mechanical College in Starkville (now Mississippi State University) and at its agricultural experiment station where he learned to grade cotton.
In 1920, the 17-year-old Bell left Starkville for St. Louis, Missouri, to live with his brothers and attend high school. He planned to go to night school, but he lived near a park and instead of classes played baseball in the park with people in the neighborhood. Bell said in a May 1974 interview for The Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Southern Mississippi that since “school started before the sun went down, I didn’t go to school. But later on I did go to school after I was grown. I went to two years of high school in evening school …”
Here is an excerpt from the 1974 interview with Bell, which was conducted in Starkville by Chester Morgan. Listen to interview
Morgan: When you went to St. Louis, what was the immediate reason? A job, is that why you left here?
Bell: Yes. The thing of it was my mother always said that she wanted us to go as far in school as we could. She said that we didn’t need a whole lot of education right here at that time, a lot of people didn’t need it at that time. But you might live in the days that you need an education, for you to live. In my time, she said – I thought that she was an old mama, but she was around forty-two years old when I left – she said, “Well, I didn’t have a chance to go to school or to have much schooling.’‘ Sometimes they would go two months and a half or three months according to the weather. They lived in the country too. She said, “I just hope that you will go and live in a bigger city where you will have more opportunities to go to school.’‘ So we got large enough so we could go [away].
St. Louis Stars
Baseball was Bell’s main interest and he joined his brothers on an amateur St. Louis baseball team. In 1922, the slender speedster signed as a left-handed pitcher with the St. Louis Stars in the Negro Leagues, beginning a professional baseball career that would last nearly thirty years as a player and as a coach. Bell played his last game a year before Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier in 1947. By 1960, all major league teams had been integrated.
Bell got his mature sounding nickname, “Cool Papa,” as a 19-year-old rookie. The legendary switch-hitting centerfielder had started his career as a left-handed pitcher. On a road trip, his teammates awakened him in a train berth to tell him that a newspaper story reported that the teenager unexpectedly would be the starting pitcher in the upcoming game. That news did not make Bell nervous, and after winning the ballgame by one run (contributing a home run in the process) and striking out Oscar Charleston, the best hitter at the time, his teammates called him “Cool.” Bell told baseball writer John Holway, “They said that ‘he’s so cool he don’t get excited.’” St. Louis Stars Manager Bill Gatewood said, “We’ve got to add something to it. We’ll call him Cool Papa.” Thus was born the legendary name.
After the St. Louis Stars (1922-1931), Bell played with the Detroit Wolves (1932), Kansas City Monarchs (1932 and 1934), Homestead Grays (1932 and 1943-1946), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1933-1937), Memphis Red Sox (1942), Chicago American Giants (1942), Detroit Senators (1947), and Kansas City Stars (1948-1950). Bell left the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1937 and spent five years in Latin America with stints in the Cuban, Dominican, and Mexican leagues. Bell also supplemented his income by playing in integrated winter baseball leagues in California.
Bell’s speed as an outfielder and around the bases inspired numerous stories, some real and others exaggerated. According to Robert Peterson in Only the Ball Was White, teammate Jimmie Crutchfield recalled that when “Bell hit one back to the pitcher, everybody would yell, ‘Hurry!’” He was reportedly clocked circling the bases in an astonishing 12 seconds. The most incredible story is that Bell hit a single up the middle and was called out when hit by his own batted ball as he slid into second base.
Perhaps the best known and most humorous story involved Satchel Paige, a teammate with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Paige repeated the story many times: “Cool was so fast, he could turn out the light and jump in bed before it got dark.” The origin of this tale is an event that took place when Bell and Paige were roommates on a road trip. Bell checked into the hotel room first and noticed a short in the light switch – there was a delay between when the switch was flipped and when the light went off. When Paige arrived, Bell made a bet with him that he could turn off the light and be under the covers before it became dark. He accomplished the feat to the amusement of both athletes.
In his 1967 autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, Paige wrote, “If Cool Papa had known about colleges, or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, [Olympic sprinter] Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.” Owens, track and field gold medalist at the Olympic Games of 1936, traveled one year with a team from Toledo and would race fans or horses before the game for entertainment. Despite several opportunities, Owens refused to race against Cool Papa Bell.
Foremost base stealer
Bell often hit two-hoppers to the infield and beat the throw to first base for a hit. He also went from first to third on a bunt, and scored from second on a sacrifice fly. His specialty was stealing two bases on one pitch and scoring from second on a slowly hit ground ball. Once, he scored from first base on a bunt against the Bob Lemon All-Stars, which featured major league players.
Cool Papa Bell is considered one of professional baseball’s foremost base stealers. In 1933, he was credited with 175 stolen bases in a 200-game season. After watching Bell in 1937, the sports editor of the Denver Post 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.”
Former Negro Leagues player Buck O’Neil, the first African American coach in major league history, wrote in his autobiography that Bell was fast, but “baserunning isn’t only about speed. It’s about technique, cutting the corners and keeping your balance. And Cool Papa, he was a master at all of that.”
Never hit below .300
The left-handed Bell also demonstrated prowess as a switch-hitter at the plate. While official records of his achievements are limited, he never hit below .300 any season, and finished his Negro Leagues career with a lifetime .341 batting average. He often turned singles into doubles and doubles into triples with his blazing speed. While not known as a power hitter, on January 2, 1929, while playing in Cuba, Bell became the first slugger to connect for three home runs in a single game during Cuban professional play.
In 1933, Cool Papa Bell played in the first East-West All-Star Game in Negro League history as a member of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Except for a radio broadcast of a Joe Louis boxing match, this game was considered the biggest sporting event in Black America at the time.
In 1937, Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic, hired Bell, Paige, and other Negro League players for his traveling all-star team. Years later, Bell recounted to Holway, “People told us if we didn’t win the title we would be executed … But we won.” Bell spent the next four years away from the Negro Leagues as a star in the Mexican League and playing winter ball in Cuba. He returned to the Negro Leagues to play for the Chicago American Giants in 1942.
Major league competition
While segregation prevented Cool Papa Bell from starring in major league baseball, he did have a number of opportunities to play against major leaguers. In the 1930s and 1940s, Black all-star teams would play White all-star teams while barnstorming across the country. In fifty-four exhibition games, against competition such as future Hall-of-Famers Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, and Bob Lemon, Bell hit .391. He averaged one stolen base for every two games.
In Bell’s recollection to Holway, Earl Mack, son of the Hall of Famer and baseball manager Connie Mack, told Bell, “If the door was open, you’d be the first guy I’d hire.” Years later, Bill Veeck, legendary promoter and owner of the Cleveland Indians, ranked Cool Papa Bell alongside Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio as the greatest centerfielders of all time.
Bell had a reputation for being meticulous in his dress and work habits and was universally respected by his peers. Bell, who grew up poor in Starkville, said, “My mother always told me that it didn’t make any difference about the color of my skin, or how much money I had. The only thing that counted was to be an honest, clean livin’ man who cared about other people. I’ve always tried to live up to those words.”
Teammate Ted Page remembered Bell as “an even better man off the field than he was on it. He was honest. He was kind. He was a clean liver. In fact, in all of the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smoke, take a drink, or say even one cuss word.”
After hanging up his cleats, Cool Papa coached briefly with the Kansas City Monarchs. He groomed players for major league baseball, influencing such greats as Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Lou Brock.
In the early 1950s, Bell returned to St. Louis where his career had begun, and where in 1920 he had met and married his wife Clarabelle. He spent two decades as a night watchman at St. Louis City Hall. William Brashler, who interviewed Bell in 1971, wrote, “At home, Bell remained married to his most ardent fan, his wife Clarabelle. She was the same woman who had traveled with him through the years, who had kept his voluminous scrapbooks, and who had gently endured his itinerant life.”
Bell lived in an old, red-brick apartment in a St. Louis neighborhood with vacant lots and boarded up storefronts. He attended church every Sunday and had his name in the phone book. Bell occasionally attended a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium where he usually sat unrecognized in the crowd. Ironically, today a statue of Cool Papa Bell, dedicated May 18, 2002, is located just outside Gate 4 at the new Busch Stadium.
Born at least ten years too early to play in the major leagues, Bell was never bitter. “Funny, but I don’t have any regrets about not playing in the majors,” he once said. “They say that I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late.” After a resurgence of interest in the Negro Leagues began in the early 1970s with the publication of Only the Ball Was White and the induction of Satchel Paige into the Hall of Fame, Bell enjoyed reminiscing about playing with legends such as Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Turkey Stearnes.
National Baseball Hall of Fame
In 1974, Cool Papa Bell’s place in baseball history was sealed when he became the fifth player from the Negro Leagues inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Holding no grudges, Bell graciously appeared at the annual induction ceremonies year after year and received ovations from the fans. His obituary in the New York Times noted that when told about his election, Bell said it was his biggest honor but not his biggest thrill. That, he said, “was when they opened the door in the majors to black players.”
He died March 7, 1991, at age 87 in St. Louis, just a few weeks after Clarabelle’s death. Two months later he was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which honors individuals from the St. Louis area who made major national contributions to America’s cultural heritage. A bronze sculpture of Bell can be found inside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
Bell was posthumously inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in 1995. The road leading to the museum off Lakeland Drive in Jackson is named Cool Papa Bell Drive. In 1999, author Willie Morris and Buck O’Neil, representing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, dedicated a historical marker honoring Bell in Starkville. The marker is located at the Little League baseball park to show that there was once a little boy from Starkville, Mississippi, who ran so fast he made it all the way to the Hall of Fame.
William “Brother” Rogers is the assistant director for programs at the Stennis Center for Public Service in Starkville.
Bak, Richard. Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars: The Negro Leagues in Detroit, 1919-1933. Wayne State University Press, 1994: 115, 154-155.
Brashler, William. Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 1978: 154-164.
Clark, Dick and Lester, Larry, editors. The Negro Leagues Book. Published by The Society for American Baseball Research, 1994: 34-35.
Holway, John. Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992: 107-140.
Lester, Larry. Foreward by Joe Black. Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953. University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
New York Times obituary on James (Cool Papa) Bell, March 9, 1991.
O’Neil, Buck. With Steve Wulf and David Conrads. I Was Right On Time. A Fireside Book published by Simon & Schuster, 1996: 49-51, 147-148.
Peterson, Robert. Only The Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams. Oxford University Press, 1970: 239-241.
Riley, James A. The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues. Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994: 72-74.