As MLB historically recognized the Negro Leagues this week, it is only appropriate to reflect on the career of Cool Papa Bell. James Thomas Bell was one of the biggest names in Negro League history. He was also known as one of the fastest men ever to play the game. His speed was legendary and surely would have allowed him to be successful in the Major Leagues. Like many, it is a shame that he never got the chance to compete.
Cool Papa Bell: The Beginnings
James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell was born in Starkville, MS. on May 17th, 1903. He actually started as a pitcher at the age of 19. His first team was the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League. He acquired his colorful nickname when he struck out superstar Oscar Charleston. This earned him the nickname “Cool” and his manager added the “Papa.” Thus, the legend of Cool Papa Bell was born.
Cool Papa Bell was moved to centerfield early in his career, where his speed could be better utilized. He played with the Stars until 1931 when they folded. In 1933, he began a run of playing with four different teams, including a stint as a player-manager. All in all, his career in the Negro Leagues spanned from 1922-1946, and what a career it was.
Cool Papa Bell: Fastest Ever?
What really distinguished Cool Papa Bell on the baseball field was his legendary speed. Record-keeping in the Negro Leagues was sporadic at best, so raw statistics don’t begin to tell the story of his speed. His contemporaries described Bell’s speed with these quotes:
Satchel Paige once famously said that “One time he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit him sliding into second.”
Paige also (half?) kiddingly remarked that “Cool Papa was so fast he could flip the light switch and be in bed before the room got dark.”
Another anecdote came from a game in Birmingham, where a catcher named Perkins had “Thou Shalt Not Steal” stenciled across his chest protector. Cool Papa took off from first with a laugh. Just as Perkins’ peg reached second base, Cool Papa slid into third.
Bell himself once remarked that “I remember one time I got five hits and stole five bases, but none of it was written down because they forgot to bring the scorebook to the game that day,” This suggests that Cool Papa Bell, like his contemporaries, cannot be judged based on statistics alone.
Whether any of the above may be more legend than fact, there can be no doubt that Cool Papa Bell was blessed with incredible speed, and terrorized opposing teams, both on the base paths and in the outfield.
Cool Papa Bell: His Playing Career
James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell played with the St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Homestead Grays in the Negro National League. He won three championships with each team. He also was player-manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, an independent team. In 1936, the Crawfords featured seven Hall-Of-Famers, in what was perhaps the most talented team ever. They included Bell, Satchel Paige, and Oscar Charleston, among others.
Over his career in the Negro Leagues, Bell hit .317. His career-high in home runs was 7, which he accomplished twice. However, he was credited with 144 stolen bases in 871 career games. Surely, the actual number was much higher than that, because. he was the fastest of ’em all. Perhaps what is more telling than statistics, though, is none championships mentioned earlier. Cool Papa Bell was a winner.
What people may not realize about Cool Papa Bell is that he also played in the Mexican Leagues from 1938-1941. There are no statistics from the Mexican leagues in those years. So, it is left to the imagination of the reader as to how Bell performed there. Based on the legend, though, one would expect that he was one of, if not the best player there.
Cool Papa Bell: The Legacy
No matter how one evaluates baseball or individual players, there can be no doubt that Cool Papa Bell ranks with the all-time greats of the game. He did not possess the power of Josh Gibson. Nor did he have the pitching career of Satchel Paige, who pitched for over 30 seasons. Yet, Cool Papa Bell was recognized almost universally as the fastest man who ever played the game. His speed would make him successful in any league at any time. It is such a tragedy that fans of Major League Baseball were not able to see such an outstanding player perform on the biggest stage.
On February 13th, 1974, James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was inducted, along with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, among others. last that summer. This was a fitting way to recognize the man many called the fastest player ever. His induction was long overdue, and, hopefully, the events of this week will bring more prominence to this outstanding player.
Cool Papa Bell passed away on March 7, 1991, in St. Louis, MO., but his legacy will live on forever in the hearts of baseball fans who value excellence on the diamond.
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