Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture and this month they are looking at the Negro Leagues. Check out last week’s introduction to the Negro Leagues by Paul Finkelman.
This week we honor Cool Papa Bell, the fastest man in baseball, who could round the bases in an astonishing 12 seconds. This entry comes from the African American National Biography and is by James A. Riley.
Cool Papa Bell (17 May 1903-7 Mar. 1991) baseball player and manager, was born James Thomas Bell in Starkville, Mississippi, the son of Jonas Bell, a farmer whose father was an American Indian, and Mary Nichols. James had six siblings, two sisters and four brothers, and said that his mother taught him to be an honest, clean-living man who cared about other people.
He was reared in the Oktoc community near Starkville and began playing pickup games on the local sandlots while attending the local school through the eighth grade. There was neither a high school nor gainful employment in his hometown, so in 1920 Bell moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to live with his older brothers and attend high school, completing two years before ending his formal education. Soon after arriving in St. Louis, he met Clarabelle Thompson, and they were married in September 1920. The marriage lasted seventy years but was childless.
The young husband worked for the Independent Packing Company and played baseball with the semi-pro Compton Hill Cubs and the East St. Louis Cubs. At this stage of his career, Bell was a promising, left-handed pitcher with a varied repertoire of pitches that included a screwball, a curve, and a knuckleball. He was scouted and signed in 1922 by the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League for ninety dollars a month. In his rookie season he acquired the colorful nickname by which he was known forever afterward. In a crucial game situation, Bell struck out the great Oscar Charleston, the best hitter in the Negro Leagues at the time and a future Hall-of-Famer. Manager Bill Gatewood, impressed by the youngster’s poise under pressure, applied the appellation “Cool Papa” to his protégé, and the name stuck.
In 1924, after an arm injury ended his pitching career, Cool Papa became a full-time outfielder, where he could use his incredible speed to the greatest advantage. He played a shallow center field and routinely demonstrated extraordinary range in the field by making sensational catches. A natural right-handed batter, he learned to switch-hit to better utilize his speed from the left side of the batter’s box. He was so fast going from the batter’s box to first base that if he bunted and the ball bounced twice, the fielders would say “Put it in your pocket” because there was no chance to get him out. When Jackie Robinson played in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, he was a shortstop, but knowledgeable observers knew that it was not his best position and that if he wanted to break into the major leagues he would have to change position. To demonstrate this to him, Cool Papa would hit ground balls to Robinson’s right and beat the throw to first base.
Once clocked at twelve seconds circling the bases, Cool Papa is recognized as the fastest player ever to play the game. He was so swift that some players said that it looked like his feet did not even touch the ground. His incredible speed also made him an omnipresent base-stealing threat, and in 1933 he was credited with 175 stolen bases in a 200-game season. He sometimes took two bases on a bunt or scored from second base on a sacrifice fly.
While his speed was real, it was often exaggerated. Satchel Paige the legendary pitcher and a skilled raconteur known to embellish stories, said that Cool Papa was so fast that he could turn off the light switch and be in bed with the covers pulled up to his chin before the room got dark. Cool Papa confirmed that he had demonstrated this skill but added a detail that Paige had conveniently omitted: the light switch was faulty, which resulted in a delay before the light went out. In later years, the boxer Muhammad Ali claimed for himself the ability to perform the same feat.
During his ten seasons in St. Louis, Bell consistently batted well over .300, with his best year coming in 1926, when he batted .362, with fifteen home runs and twenty-three stolen bases in the eighty-five-game season; moreover, the Stars won Negro National League pennants in 1928, 1930, and 1931. Following the 1931 season, both the franchise and the league fell victim to the economics of the Great Depression and disbanded. With the demise of the league, the 1932 season was one of chaos, as players scrambled to earn a spot on the roster of a surviving solvent franchise. Cool Papa was no exception and played with three teams, the Detroit Wolves, the Kansas City Monarchs, and the Homestead Grays.
In 1933 he joined owner Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords, and for the next four years Bell continued to bat over .300 each season, as the Crawfords contended for the championship of the new Negro National League. In 1933 Greenlee, who was league president, claimed a disputed championship, and in 1934 the team again finished strong but missed the play-offs. In 1935 the Crawfords defeated the New York Cubans in a seven-game play-off for an undisputed title, and they repeated as champions in 1936. That season was interrupted when the league sent a select All-Star team to participate in the Denver Post Tournament, which they won with ease, as Bell batted .450 and topped the tournament in stolen bases. During each of his four seasons with the Crawfords, Bell was voted to start in the East-West All-Star game, where he always played centerfield and batted leadoff.
In 1937 Cool Papa left the Crawfords and spent the next five years in Latin America. In his first season he helped dictator Rafael Trujillo’s All-Stars win the 1937 championship in the Dominican Republic. Bell later said that the players were told that if they didn’t win the championship they would be executed. In 1938 he went to Mexico, where he remained for the next four seasons. After two years with Tampico, where he batted .356 and .354, he split the 1940 season between Torreon and Veracruz and had his best year in Mexico, winning the Triple Crown with a batting average of .437, twelve home runs, and seventy-nine RBI. He also led in hits with 167 and in triples with fifteen in the eighty-nine-game season, as Veracruz won the pennant. Cool Papa played with Monterrey in 1941 and ended with a .367 career batting average in the Mexican League.
During his long baseball career, Cool Papa supplemented his summer income by playing in integrated winter baseball leagues in California and Cuba. In California he had a .368 career batting average for a dozen intermittent winters between 1922 and 1945, and in 1933-1934 he led the league with a .362 batting average. In 1928 he played the first of three consecutive winters in Cuba with Cienfuegas and batted .325, while leading the league in home runs, stolen bases, and runs scored. He returned to Cuba for the 1940-1941 season, playing with Almendares in his final season, to finish with a career .292 batting average in the Cuban winter league.
In 1942 Cool Papa returned to the United States, joined the Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League, and began a string of three additional appearances in the East-West All-Star game. In 1943 he joined the Homestead Grays, the dominant team in the Negro National League, and batted .356 as the Grays won the pennant and defeated the Negro American League’s Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro World Series. In 1944 he batted .373, and the Grays defended their Negro League championship by defeating Birmingham in a Negro World Series rematch. The following year he batted .302, as the Grays won another pennant but were swept in the World Series by the Cleveland Buckeyes. Cool Papa’s last year with the Grays was 1946, during which he batted .396. He later said that he had won the batting title that year but “gave” it to Monte Irvin to enhance his chances to play in the major leagues.
For the next four years Cool Papa was a playing manager with lesser teams, the Detroit Senators in 1947 and the Kansas City Stars, a farm team for the Monarchs, from 1948 through 1950. He finished his Negro Leagues career with a lifetime .341 batting average and also had a .391 average in exhibition games against major leaguers. In 1951 he became a part-time scout for the St. Louis Browns, until the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1954. After leaving baseball he worked as a custodian and night security officer at St. Louis City Hall until he retired around 1970.
In 1974 Cool Papa Bell was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He died of a heart attack in St. Louis, Missouri in 1991, only a few weeks after his beloved wife, Clarabelle.
For a quarter-century, Bell showcased his exceptional speed and all-around excellence on baseball diamonds throughout the United States and Latin America, demonstrating that African Americans could compete successfully against white athletes. His career contributed significantly to the eventual elimination of baseball’s color line.