There was a lot of great talent to come out of the Negro Leagues. This league was revolutionary because it was the only all-Black professional baseball organization from the 1920s to the 1940s.
I had the chance to talk to Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri’s historic 18th & Vine District, who recounted the history of the league, as well as a notable player by the name of James Thomas Bell; more commonly known as “Cool Papa Bell.”
“Many don’t realize the significance that the Negro Leagues had in the black community. When the leagues ended, you saw a decline in the community, as well, “said Kendrick.
Its formation not only helped black players make it to the once-segregated Major Leagues, but it showed the perseverance of the Black community, who found a way to give afrocentric players proper recognition within the sport.
“What’s really amazing about these players are their spirits. After all they endured, they held no bitterness in their hearts about it. As far as they were concerned, they were playing in the best league.”
James “Cool Papa” Bell was well known for being one of the fastest men in the league, and there are countless stories about his outstanding speed.
Bob stated, “He was so fast that he could run all the bases, from home to home, in 12 seconds flat.”
Bell was born in Starkville, Mississippi on May 17, 1903 and later moved to St. Louis when he was seventeen to live with his older brothers and to finish high school. Bell would often play baseball with the other kids in his neighborhood, and between 1921 and 1922, he signed with the Compton Hill Cubs as a knuckleball pitcher and the East St. Louis Cubs as a “contracted pitcher,” only pitching for Sunday games.
Cool Papa Bell joined the Negro Leagues in 1922 as a pitcher for the St. Louis Stars. After striking out Oscar Charleston, center fielder and field manager, Bell earned the nickname, “Cool” then later added “Papa.”
Bell soon began playing his notorious position as center fielder, then learned how to bat as a switch hitter, which is someone who bats both left-handed and right-handed. Learning this technique helped him during his career because he was able to make it to first base sooner when he batted left-hand, as he was now a few steps closer to the base.
Due to his lightning speed, Bell was able to steal bases with ease and play very shallow in the outfield because he was fast enough to retrieve the balls that went past him.
“He came into the game as a pitcher, but he hurt his arm and they moved him to the outfield. That turn of events may have been one of the greatest things to happen for his career. He was able to play really shallow and get any balls that came in,” said Kendrick.
Josh Gibson, a great power hitter and catcher in the Negro Leagues 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.”
With the help of Cool Papa Bell’s speed, the St. Louis Stars won league titles in 1928, 1930, and 1931.
Bell continued to play professional baseball with teams like the Kansas City Monarchs, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Chicago American Giants. He later played for international teams in Latin America, and he became a scout for the St. Louis Browns.
Bob recounted a story about Cool Papa’s time playing in Mexico.“He once ran from first base all the way to third base on a single, and they stopped the game in a riot because they didn’t believe he was able to get there that fast.”
Once his baseball career came to an end, Bell eventually settled down in St. Louis and worked as a custodian and security officer for St. Louis City Hall.
In 1974, due to all of his amazing work on the field , he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I spoke with Bob about this great achievement for Bell and he said, “There are just some players who are larger than life; Cool Papa Bell was one of those players.”
Bell continued to receive many awards prior to and following his death in 1991, with one of them being a street re-named to honor his legacy.
Bob laughingly said, “They have a street named after Cool Papa Bell and I think the speed limit is around 25 miles – that’s too slow!”
As great of a baseball player as he was, there have been many stories about Bell’s easy-going nature and inspiring ethics off the field, as well.
“Cool Papa’s name was apt because was just a cool guy. He was someone that you wanted to be around. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, he was a snazzy dresser, just an all around cool guy.”
Cool Papa Bell was, without a doubt, one of the greatest and fastest players in the league, and his name and contributions will be remembered for generations to come. To learn more about Cool Papa Bell and the Negro Leagues, be sure to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.