Cool Papa Bell Essentials
Bats: Both • Throws: Left
6-0, 155lb (183cm, 70kg)
Born: May 17, 1903 in Starkville, MS
Died: March 7, 1991 (Aged 87-294d) in St. Louis, MO
Buried: St. Peter’s Cemetery, St. Louis, MO
High School: St. Louis HS (St. Louis, MO)
Hall of Fame: Inducted as Player in 1974. (Voted by Negro League Committee)
View Cool Papa Bell’s Page at the Baseball Hall of Fame (plaque, photos, videos).
Full Name: James Thomas Bell
Nicknames: Cool Papa
Cool Papa Bell Baseball Reference Page
Josh Gibson once said, “Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could get out of bed, turn out the lights across the room, and be back in bed under the covers before the lights went out.”
Fellow Negro League legend Satchel Paige further expounded upon Bell’s exceptional running speed by saying, “Once he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second.”
While the veracity of such anecdotes is certainly highly debatable, something that is indisputable is that Cool Papa Bell was the fastest player of his time. In fact, people who saw him play insist he was the fastest man ever to play professional baseball.
Born in or near Starkville, Mississippi on May 17, 1903, James Thomas Bell grew up in Sessums Township, just outside of Starkville, a farming community on the outskirts of the Mississippi blues country with a population of 2,700 people. The fourth of eight children, young James lived on a farm with his widowed mother, Mary Nichols Bell (who was three-eighths Native American), his two sisters, and his five brothers. James attended Starkville’s one-room elementary school for blacks, but left school in the seventh grade. In 1920, he left the impoverished south for the urban center of St. Louis because, as he later said, “You could just live better and make more money.” After arriving in the big city, Bell joined four of his older brothers on a black semipro team known as the Compton Hill Cubs. He pitched for the team on Sundays and holidays, while also working for the Independedent Packing Company during the week and attending high school at night. Bell continued to play semipro ball until May of 1922, when he signed with the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League.
Bell reportedly earned his famous nickname as a rookie with the Stars when he calmly struck out feared slugger Oscar Charleston in a crucial situation. He continued to serve the team primarily as a pitcher in his first year, although he occasionally played the outfield as well. However, the Stars converted the lefthanded-throwing Bell into a full-time outfielder after he claimed the league’s fastest man title by defeating the Chicago American Giants’ Jimmy Lyons in a match race. The 21-year-old speedster became the team’s starting centerfielder in 1924, subsequently learning to switch-hit at the urging of manager Bill Gatewood.
Firmly entrenched in centerfield, Bell developed into one of black baseball’s most potent offensive weapons. Blessed with blinding speed, the 5’11”, 150-pound outfielder terrorized opposing teams on the basepaths, once being credited with stealing 170 bases in a 200-game season. Satchel Paige proclaimed in his autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, “If Cool Papa had known about colleges, or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.”
Once clocked circling the bases in an amazing 12 seconds, Bell was so fast that he frequently beat out infield hits on two-hoppers hit directly to infielders, scored from second base on sacrifice flies, and advanced from first to third on bunts. Legend has it that he even scored all the way from first base on a bunt against Bob Lemon and a team of major league all-stars. Bell also utilized his speed to become an outstanding defensive outfielder, playing a shallow centerfield and often outrunning pitchers’ mistakes by
turning his back on home plate and tracking down long fly balls.
Bell gradually evolved into an outstanding switch-hitter who consistently batted well over .300. He compensated for his lack of power at the plate by hitting down on the ball to use his great running speed, and by smacking line drives to all fields. Various sources have his lifetime batting average in Negro League play approaching the .340-mark, and he batted .395 in exhibition games against major league players.
Bell spent 10 seasons in St. Louis, leading the Stars to league titles in 1928 and 1930. He moved to the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League when the Negro National League disbanded at the conclusion of the 1931 campaign. However, Detroit soon folded as well, prompting Bell to join the Kansas City Monarchs for the remainder of the 1932 season. He then spent the next six seasons with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the reorganized NNL, playing alongside Ted Page and Jimmie Crutchfield to form arguably the greatest outfield in Negro League history. Bell left the Crawfords in 1938 to return to Mexico, but he came back to the United States in 1942 to play for the Homestead Grays, who he helped win the Negro League championship in 1942, 1943, and 1944. Bell remained with the Grays until he finally decided to retire from the game in 1946. He then served as manager for the Kansas City Monarchs’ B-Team in 1948, tutoring future Major Leaguers such as Ernie Banks and Elston Howard before leaving the game forever.
Since statistics surrounding Negro League play are extremely unreliable, it is difficult to rank the accomplishments of Bell from a numerical perspective. Bell himself once noted, “I remember one game I got five hits and stole five bases, but none of it was written down because they didn’t bring the scorebook to the game that day.”
Nevertheless, there is ample evidence to document Bell’s disruptiveness on the basepaths and positive impact he had on the teams for which he played. He won the annual East-West All-Star Game when he drew a leadoff walk in the eighth inning, stole second base, and then scored on a weak hit for the only run in a 1-0 victory. Bell played on 11 championship teams during his career, and he was an annual selection for the East-West All-Star Game.
Bill Veeck, owner of several major league teams, said of Bell, “Defensively, he was the equal of Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays”.
Pro basketball pioneer and baseball scout Eddie Gottlieb said, “If he (Bell) had played in the major leagues, he would have reminded people of Willie Keeler as a hitter and Ty Cobb as a base-runner – and he might have exceeded both”.
In spite of the great success he experienced on the ballfield, Cool Papa Bell did not leave baseball a wealthy man. Left without a pension, he found work as a custodian at City Hall in St. Louis following his retirement. Bell eventually earned a promotion to night watchman there, a job he held until he retired from active work in 1973. Bell was subsequently elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Committee on the Negro Leagues in 1974. Bell continued to live in St. Louis with his wife of 62 years until she passed away on January 20, 1991. Bell himself was hospitalized a month later after a heart attack, and he died on March 7, 1991.
Shortly before he passed away, Bell theorized on the segregation that prevented him from ever playing in the major leagues: “So many people say I was born too early. But that’s not true. They opened the doors too late.”
Notable Events and Chronology for Cool Papa Bell Career
- Cool Papa Bell at the Baseball Hall of Fame
- Negro league baseball statistics and player information from Seamheads.com, or Baseball-Reference (Negro leagues)
- BaseballLibrary – profile
- April 6, 1970 transcript of interview at Western Historical Manuscript Collection – University of Missouri-St. Louis
- The Deadball Era
- Negro Leagues Baseball Blog
- Cool Papa Bell at Find a Grave
- Cool Papa Bell Oral History Interview (1 of 5) – National Baseball Hall of Fame Digital Collection
- Cool Papa Bell Oral History Interview (2 of 5) – National Baseball Hall of Fame Digital Collection
- Cool Papa Bell Oral History Interview (3 of 5) – National Baseball Hall of Fame Digital Collection
- Cool Papa Bell Oral History Interview (4 of 5) – National Baseball Hall of Fame Digital Collection
- Cool Papa Bell Oral History Interview (5 of 5) – National Baseball Hall of Fame Digital Collection