March 7, 1991

OBITUARY - James 'Cool Papa' Bell, Baseball Legend, Dies

FROM: The Washington Post (March 9th 1991) ~
By Richard Pearson, Staff Writer

James "Cool Papa" Bell, 87, one of the greatest baseball players ever to take the field though his 29 years in the game never included a season in either major league, died March 7 at a hospital in St. Louis.

Mr. Bell, who had glaucoma, had been in failing health since a stroke last year.

A centerfielder, he was inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1974. He spent his career in the Negro Leagues and in leagues in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. He hit and threw left-handed, fielded with the best of them, but mostly ran like the wind.

He was widely regarded as the fastest player in baseball. His Hall of Fame plaque says that he "combined speed, daring and batting skill to rank among best players in Negro Leagues. Contemporaries rated him fastest man on basepaths."

The great Negro Leagues catcher Josh Gibson, often called "The Black Babe Ruth," was among those to make the claim that "Cool Papa" was so fast, he could get out of bed, turn out the lights across the room, and be back in bed and under the covers before it got dark.

Satchel Paige, the legendary and loquacious pitcher, who also told the light switch story, also told one about pitching against Mr. Bell. Paige said that Mr. Bell hit a screaming line drive that nearly hit his ear as it rocketed past the mound, then hit Mr. Bell in the butt as he was sliding into second base.

In his autobiography, "Maybe I'll Pitch Forever," Paige wrote: "If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking."

Although Mr. Bell was never noted for power, he did hit 21 home runs one season. Baseball in his day, in his league, did not keep the seemingly endless records that baseball boasts today. Mr. Bell told one reporter that he recalled
one game in which he got five hits and stole five bases, "but none of it was written down because they did not bring the score book to the game that day."

Yet his contributions were valued by fans and owners alike. When Bill Veeck was the owner of the St. Louis Browns, he once remarked Mr. Bell was the defensive equal of Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays.

Mr. Bell said his specialty as a hitter was punching the ball into the outfield. He claimed that he loved coming up with a runner on first and the first baseman holding the runner. He said that 90 percent of the time he got a hit by driving it through the hole between the first and second basemen. It also was said he could circle the bases in 13 seconds and that in 1933 he stole 175 bases in the 180 to 200 games he played.

It was widely reported that he was the highest-paid player in the Negro Leagues, making the princely sum of $ 90 a month. And for that money, he barnstormed the country, playing two or three games a day during the season, and exhibition games against major league teams during spring training.

He spent 29 summers (and 21 winters) playing baseball before retiring in 1946. He spent his last three years with the legendary Homestead Grays, who played in Pittsburgh and Washington, and hit .407 in his last season.

Mr. Bell was born in Starkville, Miss., on May 17, 1903. He began his career in the Negro Leagues with the St. Louis Stars in 1919. He broke in as a knuckleball pitcher. He later said his pitching was so good that it not only was
unhittable, but uncatchable as well. So he moved to the outfield.

After nine years in St. Louis, he spent part of a season with Detroit and the Kansas City Monarchs. He was with the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1933 to 1936, then in the Dominican Republic and Mexico through 1941. He then spent a year with the Chicago American Giants before joining the Homestead Grays in 1943.

The year after Mr. Bell retired, 1947, saw Jackie Robinson become the first black American admitted to the major leagues in modern times. Mr. Bell never made an issue of not being allowed to play in the major leagues. But he did
remark that major league owners were lying when they used to say " 'If we find a good black player, we'll sign him.' "

He said: "They say that I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late." However, more often than not, he would simply remark that if he could not play in the "big" leagues, he was happy for the great black stars who came after him.

Although he was offered large sums in the 1950s to return to baseball and play in the major leagues, he refused. He said his legs "were gone" and that he had no wish to tarnish the memory of his fans. Instead, he worked as a janitor and then a watchman at City Hall in St. Louis until retiring again in 1973. During his baseball years, he had supplemented his income by working in a meat-packing plant.

He lived in what was inevitably reported as a St. Louis neighborhood of dilapidated homes and vacant lots. But he did reside on James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue.

All in all, he seemed to remember his career fondly, "It was good times," he said. "I just played for the love of the game. I didn't intend to play that long; it just happened."