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James "Cool Papa" Bell

James Thomas Bell
Nickname: Cool Papa

Career: 1922-1946
Positions: cf, lf, 1b
Teams: St. Louis Stars (1922-1931), Detroit Wolves (1932), Kansas City Monarchs (1932-1934), Homestead Grays (1932, 1943-1946), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1933-1938), Memphis Red Sox (1942), Santo Domingo (1937), Mexican League (1938-1941), Chicago American Giants (1942), Detroit Senators (1947), Kansas City Stars (1948-1950)
Bats: Both
Throws: Left
Height: 5' 11''   Weight: 150
Born: May 17, 1903, Starkville, Mississippi
Died: March 7, 1991, St. Louis, Missouri
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (1974)

The fastest man ever to play baseball, "Cool Papa" Bell rode the crest of the publicity from his incredible speed and colorful nickname into the Hall of Fame. The lean racehorse once was clocked circling the bases in an amazing 12 seconds. Bell used his speed and daring to become the foremost base stealer in baseball and to "leg out" extra-base hits, thus off-setting his lack of real power at the plate.

Numerous stories are told of his feats on the basepaths. Many no doubt are true, such as consistently hitting two hoppers to the infield and beating the throw to first for a hit, going from first to third on a bunt, scoring from second on a sacrifice fly, stealing two bases on one pitch, and once scoring from first base on a bunt against Bob Lemon and a team of major league all stars. Other stories are simply colorful exaggerations. Such accounts have Bell hitting a single up the middle and being declared out when hit by his own batted ball as he slid into second base; and, of course, the most repeated story of how he could switch off the light and get into bed before the room was dark.

While some stories may be exaggerated, his speed was real. He once stole 175 bases in just under 200 games. He also utilized his speed in the field, with his great range allowing him to play a shallow center field and still run down pitchers' mistakes. His speed going from home to first is described by former teammates, "If he bunts and it bounces twice, put it in your pocket," says "Double Duty" Radcliffe. "If he hits one back to the pitcher, everyone yelled, 'Hurry!'" claims Jimmie Crutchfield. When Jackie Robinson was a shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs , Bell proved that Robinson didn't have the arm to play the position in the major leagues, by hitting two-hoppers to Robinson's right and beating them out. In an exhibition game against major leaguers on the West Coast, Bell scored from first on a bunt by Satchel Paige.

His grandfather was an Oklahoma Indian and his father was a farmer, living in Starkville, Mississippi, and Bell began playing pickup games on the sandlots of the area. In 1920 there was neither a high school nor available jobs in his hometown, so he went to St. Louis to stay with his older brothers while attending high school for two years. He also worked in a packing plant and played baseball with the Compton Hill Cubs. A left-handed thrower, he was discovered and signed by the St. Louis Stars for $90 a month. At that stage of his career he was a pitcher with a knuckler, screwball, and curve, and threw all of his pitches with three different motions. He was still a pitching prospect when he earned his nickname in 1922 by retaining his poise while striking out Oscar Charleston in a clutch situation. His manager, Bill Gatewood, observed how "cool" the nineteen-year old had been under pressure and added the "Papa" to make the name sound better. Although the nickname became permanent, his pitching career was short-lived, being ended by an arm injury that left him without the strong throwing arm he had had previously. After moving to the outfield in 1924, he used a quick release to compensate adequately for the loss of arm strength. That year he also learned to be a switch-hitter; previously he had hit from the right side only.

"Cool Papa" played on three of the greatest teams in the history of black baseball: the St. Louis Stars who won championships in 1928, 1930, and 1931; the great Pittsburgh Crawfords teams, of l932-1936, often called the best team ever in black baseball; and after returning from five years "south of the border," the Homestead Grays of 1943-1945 for the last three of their nine consecutive championships.

The switch hitting Bell had good bat control and hit for a high average. After he became a full-time outfielder, existing records show season averages of .354, .362, .319, .332, .312, .332, and .322 with the Stars (1925-1931); .362, .317, .341, and .329 with the Crawfords (1933-1936); and .356, .373, .302, and .396 with the Grays (1943-1946). Transitionary seasons show averages of .384 in 1932, split between the Detroit Wolves and Kansas City Monarchs, and .370 in 1942, spent with the Chicago American Giants. Bell maintains that in his last year, 1946, he had "given" the batting title to Monte Irvin to enhance his chance of playing in the major leagues. Bell was a selfless player and fans recognized and appreciated this quality in his character. His popularity was evident he was voted to the East-West All Star game every year from its inception in 1933 through 1944, except for the years when he was playing in Latin America.

In 1937 he went to Santo Domingo with Satchel Paige and hit .318 to help win the championship for Trujillo's ballclub. The following season was the first of four summers spent in Mexico, where he earned $450 a month. Beginning with Tampico in 1938, he hit for averages of .356, .354, .437, and .314 during his stay south of the border. During his second year with Tampico, he was selected to play in the All Star game, but in 1940, while splitting the season between Veracruz and Torreon, he enjoyed his best year in the Mexican League, winning the Triple Crown with a .437 batting average, 12 home runs, and 79 RBIs, while also leading the league in runs (119) and triples (15) and finishing with 29 doubles and 28 stolen bases, each third best in the league. Although his average slipped the following year, he still led the league in doubles in his last year before returning to the United States.

In addition to those prime summers that he spent in the Mexican League, he played 21 winter seasons in Cuba, Mexico, and California. His Cuban stats show a .292 batting average for four winter seasons. His last four seasons in baseball were spent as a playing manager with teams of lesser quality, the Detroit Senators in 1947 and the Kansas City Stars, a farm club of the Kansas City Monarchs, in 1948-1950. The following season he declined an offer from the St. Louis Browns as a player, but accepted a position as a part-time scout with the organization until the franchise was moved to Baltimore in 1954. He closed his baseball career with a lifetime batting average of .341 for a quarter-century in black baseball. Further indications of his exceptional batting skills are a .391 batting average in exhibition games against major leaguers.

After the end of his baseball career he worked as a custodian and night security officer at the St. Louis City Hall, retiring in 1970. Bell was honored for his long and distinguished baseball career by being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.

James "cool papa" Bell photo

James "Cool Papa" Bell