“Cool, Cool Papa swats a fly, then like lightning flashes by.”
James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell was a switch-hitting speedster who could go alley-to-alley in centerfield. He had a power stroke from the right side of the plate. From the left side, he was a singles hitter who used his speed to run the other team out of the ballpark. He is often considered by many as the fastest man who ever played the game of baseball.
Bell grew up in Starkville, Mississippi and moved north to St. Louis where he found an opportunity with the St. Louis Stars. James actually gained his nickname on the mound, where he was a knuckleball pitcher who stayed cool, calm, and collected. He was loyal to St. Louis, racking up ten years there before garnering even greater popularity with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. In the mid ’30’s, the Crawfords were considered one of the greatest baseball teams of all-time, black, white or integrated. In Pittsburgh, Bell would join the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson (The Black Babe Ruth), and Oscar Charleston.
Bell believed that he once stole 175 bases in one season, far surpassing the Major League record set in 1982 of 130 stolen bases by Rickey Henderson. In fact, Carole Boston Weatherford, in A Negro League Scrapbook, said that Cool Papa Bell was so fast that if a ball was hit to centerfield, he would run into the infield and tag the runner before he reached second base. Cool Papa’s quick feet even intimidated the great Olympian Jesse Owens, who was scared to race him around the bases. Satchel Paige claimed that Bell was so fast that he could turn out the lights and be under the covers before the room was dark. Crazy right? Even crazier: Cool Papa was said to have hit a ball that hit him in the behind as he slide into second base.
Unbelievably, you couldn’t tear the jersey off Cool Papa’s back, as he played until he was 48 years old, a year in which he hit .300. As stated on his Hall of Fame plaque, he played for 29 summers and 21 winters because of his 5-tool ability. With the lack of pay back in the day, many negro league stars barnstormed and occasionally would play 3 games in 3 different cities all in the same day. Many players would play winter ball in Cuba or Mexico, which means they would rack up around 200 games a year.
His recorded batting average is an impressive .338, as well as an astonishing .395 in exhibition games against MAJOR LEAGUERS. Bell was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. Fellow Hall of Famer, Monte Irvin, compared Cool Papa Bell to Willie Mays if Mays had never gotten the chance to play in the big leagues. Sometimes lost in the fold among other Negro League legends, Cool Papa was as good as there was.
Featured Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame