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Professor Black's History-James "Cool Papa" Bell-The fastest man ever on the dimond

Updated on August 7, 2013
James " Cool Papa" Bell
James " Cool Papa" Bell | Source
James "Cool Papa" Bell
James "Cool Papa" Bell | Source

James “Cool Papa” Bell

1903 - 1991

Most people know about baseball’s period of segregation and about Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in 1947. There are also many people who know about the Negro League Baseball of the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. What most people don’t realize is just how good Negro League Baseball was. To put Negro League Baseball into perspective, look at it this way. If all the black players in the National Basketball Association played in one league and all of the white players in the NBA played in another league, which league would be more exciting?

Now you have some idea what it was like to see Negro League Baseball. The Negro league featured players like Josh Gibson who hit over 900 home runs in his career, and was the only man to ever hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium (not even Babe Ruth did that). Another great Negro Leaguer was pitcher Satchel Paige, maybe the greatest pitcher to ever live. Lots of people know the name Satchel Paige and rightly so. There is a legendary player that many people don’t know about. His name is James” Cool Papa” Bell and according to his legend, he is the fast man ever to put on a pair of baseball spikes. I hope what you read here will inspire you to do more research on James “Cool Papa” Bell and other greats from the old Negro Baseball League.

James Thomas Nichols was his given name and he was born on May 17, 1903 in Starkville Mississippi. James had two sisters. and four older brothers. His mother was Mary Nichols and his father was Jonas Bell. When he was seventeen he changed his last name to Bell and moved to St. Louis Missouri to join his four brothers on an amateur baseball team, the Compton Hill Cubs. When he started his career he was a 5 foot, 11 inches, 175 pound pitcher. In 1922, he went to the Semipro, East St. Louis Cubs. Bell left the East St. Louis Cubs in midseason to join the professional team, the St. Louis Stars. He pitched and played outfield for two seasons before he was made a fulltime outfielder, after injury to his pitching arm forced him to stop pitching.

James Bell got the nickname “Cool Papa” when he was a 19-year old rookie pitcher and struck out the great Oscar Charlton in the clutch. Oscar Charlton is also a name etched in the annals of Negro League Baseball lore. At the time he faced James Bell Charlton was the leagues best slugger .As a left handed pitcher Belle was armed with a screwball, a knuckleball and a curveball .Bill Gatewood the manager of the St. Louis Stars was amazed at how cool, calm and collected Bell was while striking out the great Charlton in a clutch situation. Gatewood thought most rookies like Bell would have crumbled. After seeing how cool Bell was under great pressure he started calling him" Cool"; the "Papa" was added later to make the name sound more complete.

"Cool Papa" Bell played for some of the greatest Negro League teams, including the St. Louis Stars, the Homestead Grays, the Kansas City Monarchs, and the Pittsburgh Crawford’s of the early 1930s, arguably the best baseball team ever, black or white. Bell's career lasted 25 years. Championship teams require championship caliber players. The St.Louis Stars won championships in 1928,1930 and 1931. He was a member of the Pittsburgh Crawford’s between 1932 and 1936, again some say the greatest baseball team ever. He was a member of the Homestead Grays from 1943 through 194,5 winning consecutive championships.

Since Negro League players could not play in the major leagues and they needed more money than Negro League owners could or would pay. Many times they went to Mexico and South America. Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell teamed up to go down to Mexico and South America during some summers and during the winter. Needless to say, they were both outstanding players in those leagues as well.

Most legends are born from some truth. The legendary speed of James “Cool Papa” Bell is all truth, but of course, there are also some exaggerations and some outright tall tales. “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast, opposing players couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw him run. When he was at bat with no one on base, the infielders moved in like they would with a man on third and one out. The legendary Negro League third baseman, Judy Johnson, said ”You can’t play back in your regular position or you would never throw him out”. On a sacrifice bunt, Bell often went from first to third, and once, in a game against a major league All-Star team, he went all the way to home plate. “Cool Papa” Bell was also the "King of the inside the park home run", once hitting three in one game. Satchel Paige, one of Bell’s good friends, claimed that “Cool Papa” Bell could turn off the light and get in bed before it got dark. That one is part exaggeration and part truth. Bell and Satchel Paige were roommates on a road trip and Bell checked into the room first. When he went to the room and turned the lights on he noticed a delay from the time the switch was hit and when the lights went off. The delay was due to a short in the wires. When Satchel came to the room that night ”Cool Papa” made him a bet that he could turn off the light and get in bed before it got dark. Of course he did just that. Another tall tale about Bell’s speed was that he once he hit a ball up the middle and was called out when he was hit by the same ball as he was sliding into second base. Satchel Paige wrote in his biography, "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”. There were several offers made and several opportunities for it to happen, but Jesse Owens refused to race against “Cool Papa” Bell. Because of his speed ”Cool Papa” Bell is considered one of baseball’s greatest base stealers. In a 200 game season in 1933, he is credited with 175 stolen bases. He never had a batting average below 300 during his whole career.

Even though African-American players were barred from the major leagues in the 1930s and 40”s, they still had opportunities to compete against white major leaguers in All-Star games. These games would be played between Negro League All Stars and Major League All Stars as they barnstormed across the country. Against pitchers like Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Dizzy Dean, “Cool Papa” Bell had a batting average of 391. He also averaged one stolen base for every two games. James "Cool Papa" Bell is an athlete who would be great in any age; it’s just unfortunate that the age in which he lived was so restrictive. "Cool Papa" Bell was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

One can only speculate how much money James “Cool Papa” Bell could make the playing baseball today. He could surely command five to ten million dollars a year which seems kind of appropriate for a man who was clocked at 12 seconds around the bases and had a lifetime batting average near 400. Baseball and America have come a long way and we probably have an even longer way to go before we see the likes of James “Cool Papa” Bell again. There is a lot more story to this legend and you can discover it all just by picking up a book or searching the net for the fastest man ever in a pair of baseball spikes, James “Cool Papa” Bell.

Hall of Fame Plaq
Hall of Fame Plaq | Source

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