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James "Cool Papa" Bell Biography

Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, "plays For Love Of Game", Inducted Into Hall Of Fame


American baseball player

Negro league baseball lore is full of colorful tales, several of which revolve around the exploits of speedster James "Cool Papa" Bell. Teammate Satchel Paige once claimed that Bell was so fast that he could switch the light in their hotel room and jump into bed before the light went out. Rumor also had it that Bell had once been called out because he got hit by his own drive while rounding second base. Like many legends, these tales contain kernels of truth. Clocked at running the bases in thirteen seconds, Bell routinely stretched singles into doubles or triples; he stole bases at will and he covered centerfield with ease, taking away base hits from many batters. Bell played ball with a handful of Negro league teams in the United States and several teams in Cuba, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, where African American players were heartily welcomed. Although Bell retired shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, he accepted his role in history. Even so, he was among the African American ball players who measured themselves against white Major Leaguers in exhibition games. When asked on what level he thought most Negro league teams were compared with the Major Leagues, he did not hesitate. "We could have played right along with them," he replied in a video clip at the Major League Baseball Web site.

James Thomas Nichols was born May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Mississippi, to Jonas Bell and Mary Nichols. Bell grew up playing sandlot baseball and in 1920, he

James "Cool Papa" Bell

moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and took his father's name. He found work at the Independent Packing Company (later renamed Swift), and when not working he played semiprofessional baseball with the Compton Hill Cubs, part of the St. Louis City League. In this auspicious year he also married Clarabelle Thompson, with whom he would share more than fifty years of marriage. Two years later when the Compton Hill Cubs played an exhibition game against the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League (NNL), Bell was too good of a prospect for the Stars to resist. With his left-handed curve and fade-away knuckle balls, he could dominate batters.

He snapped up the chance to pitch for the Stars, and at age nineteen made his professional baseball debut as a pitcher. The slender six foot tall youngster took the mound with rare poise for one so young and made a name for himself when he struck out slugger Oscar Charleston at a crucial point in a game. The name was "Cool Papa." Bell recalled at MLB.com, "They thought I was going to be afraid of the crowds. We had eleven, twelve, fifteen thousand people—more than the Major League had. I went out there like a veteran. I was a pitcher then and so like nothing is exciting, nothing like that. So they said you're looking cool out there. They started to call 'Hey Cool, Hey Cool.' So our manager [Bill Gatewood] said this 'Cool' isn't enough of a name for you, so he added 'Papa.' So that's how that was born."

After Bell injured his pitching arm, he moved to center field. With his speed and agility, he covered the often irregularly shaped playing fields with ease. He stole base hits and sacrifice flies from batters. He could compensate for his weakened arm with a quick release and accurate throw that prevented runners from trying for an extra base. Bell was also Cool Papa at the plate, but he was always ready to explode on the base paths.

Negro league pitchers took great liberties with the ball, causing it to fly in unpredictable ways. "In our league they threw the spitter, the screw ball, the emery ball, shine ball—that means Vaseline ball: there was so much Vaseline on it, it made you blink your eyes on a sunny day. Then they threw the mud ball—the mud on its seams made it sink. The emery ball would break either up or down, but if a sidearmer threw it and didn't know what he was doing, it could sail right into a hitter," Bell told John Holway in Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues. Even so, Bell often made contact, and not just contact—he knew how to place the ball where he wanted it. His lifetime batting average was an impressive .343.

Bell's speed—he could round the bases in a mere thirteen seconds—made him extra dangerous at the plate and on base. He could run out the bunt; he could get extra bases on slapped hits that for most players would be a single. In almost every game he played he stole at least one base. In 1933 Pittsburgh Pirate star Paul Waner told this story about his experience with Bell's speed, printed in Phil Dixon's The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History, "He was on first base and the next batter hit a single to center. This fellow Bell by that time was rounding second base and watching me as I ran. He never stopped. I made a motion, thinking to get him at third. As I started the throw I saw I was going to be too late. So I stopped … but he didn't. He kept on for home plate. By the time I could get the ball away, he had slid in there, was dusting himself off and walking calmly away." Satchel Paige's catcher Frazier Robinson in Voices from the Negro Leagues described Bell's base-stealing ability. "The only way I threw him out, he would telegraph when he was gonna steal. I knowed when he was goin'. If he'd take a big lead he wasn't goin' nowhere, but the minute he stood on that base—didn't take no lead—you better hurry up and get rid of that ball. And he could run! A lot of times he'd be thrown out but he knew how to slide. He'd trick the second baseman or the shortstop. … He didn't hit the long ball but he could get on that base—bunt and drag the ball. He'd run over you if you get in his way." Run over opponents he did. During the ten years that the switchhitting Bell played with the St. Louis Stars, he led the team to league titles in 1928, 1930, and 1931.

Sketch by J. Lesinski

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Famous Sports StarsBaseball