Our Salute to the Negro Leagues: James “Cool Papa” Bell

By guest blogger, baseball historian and author Gary Livacari

“Bell was so fast he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room got dark!”-Satchel Paige, speaking of “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.” -“Cool Papa” Bell

“Bell was an even better man off the field than he was on it. He was honest. He was kind. He was a clean liver.” -Teammate Ted Page, speaking of “Cool Papa” Bell.

James “Cool Papa” Bell was an eight-time All-Star center fielder who played in the Negro Leagues from 1922 to 1950. He’s considered by many baseball observers to have been one of the fastest men ever to play the game. Legends about the “fast as lightning” Bell and his remarkable speed are still widely circulated many years after his playing days.

Cool Papa Bell

Bell was born May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Mississippi, the fourth of seven children. At age 17, he moved to St. Louis to live with older brothers and attend high school. Bell spent most of his time playing baseball instead of studying. In 1921 he signed as a

knuckleball pitcher with the Compton Hill Cubs, a black semipro baseball team. He played with Compton Hill on Sundays and holidays while working for a packing company during the week. For 1922, Bell moved to another semi-pro team, the East St. Louis Cubs, which paid him $20 weekly to pitch on Sundays.

Bell signed with the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League as a pitcher in 1922. He earned his nickname in his first season. Teammates referred to him as “Cool” after striking out Oscar Charleston, and then he added “Papa” because he thought it sounded better. At first, Bell made only occasional appearances in the outfield. By 1924 he began working on his defense and utilized his great speed. Pitchers tried to avoid issuing him walks as he often stole both second and third. Bell was known to score from first after a base hit.

Bell bounced around to many teams, typical of Negro League stars. Teams included the Kansas City Monarchs, Santo Domingo of the Dominican League, the Mexican winter leagues, the Homestead Grays, and finally the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the reorganized Negro National League.

The 1932-36 Pittsburgh Crawfords, named after the Crawford Grill, are considered some of the greatest teams ever. Cool Papa Bell, along with teammates Ted Page and Jimmie Crutchfield, formed possibly the best outfield in Negro League history. On the 1936 team, Bell was one of seven players who was later inducted into the Hall of Fame. Check out these names: Oscar Charleton, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Bill Foster, Judy Johnson, and Jud Wilson. The team also included stars Sam Bankhead, Jimmie Crutchfield, Leroy Matlock, and Ted Page. Bell finished his career with a .341 batting average and hit .391 in exhibitions against major leaguers.

Satchel Paige liked to relate stories about Cool Papa’s speed, especially a famous one from a hotel. Due to faulty wiring, there was a short delay between flipping a light switch off – and the lights actually going off. This was enough time for Bell to jump into bed after flipping the switch, and Paige’s famous quote about “Cool Papa’s” speed was born.

Another legend held that Bell once hit a ball up the middle and was struck by the ball as he slid into second base! He once circled the bases in 13.1 seconds on a soggy field in Chicago, claiming he did it in 12 seconds in dry conditions.

Amid all the tales of Bell’s speed, one aspect of his personality was never in doubt: his outstanding character, attested to by many who knew him.

1974 New Hall of Fame Inductees: Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, “Cool Papa” Bell, Jocko Conlan

Bell died on March 7, 1991, aged 87. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 by the Negro League Committee. In 1999 Bell ranked 66th on The Sporting News list of Baseball’s Greatest Players, one of five players so honored who played most of their careers in the Negro Leagues. He was also named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

So today we gladly shine our baseball spotlight on Hall-of-Famer James “Cool Papa” Bell, one of the great stars from the Negro Leagues.

Gary Livacari 

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Photo Credits: All from Google search

Information: Excerpts edited from Cool Papa Bell Wikipedia page.

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