The oft-told story is that James “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast that he could turn off the light switch and jump into bed before the room got dark. Such tales emphasized the slender center fielder’s flying feet, which he employed to steal bases, leg out triples, score from second on groundouts, and chase down long pokes to the outfield during nearly three full decades of Negro Leagues play.
Bell was born in Starkville, Mississippi in 1907. When he was 16 he moved to St. Louis, where he worked in a packinghouse for 53 cents an hour while playing semipro ball on the weekends. In 1922, the left-handed pitcher caught the eye of the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League, which signed him up for $90 a month.
Bell’s first start was against the powerful Chicago American Giants, whom he beat, 4-3. After the game he was challenged to a foot race with the Giants’ Jimmie Lyons, reputedly the fastest man in the league. Bell, who had played for years barefoot in Mississippi, beat Lyons wearing a pair of dilapidated one-dollar shoes.
Bell, who in 1924 was timed circling the bases at an almost unbelievable 12 seconds (the major league record is 13.3 seconds by Evar Swanson of the Cincinnati Reds), was soon converted from a pitcher into a switch-hitting center fielder by St. Louis. He helped the Stars to three NNL pennants before splitting the abbreviated 1932 season with Kansas City and Detroit of the East-West League. Bell batted .365 with the Detroit Wolves. Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who played with and against Bell, once said, “If he bunts and the ball bounces twice, put it in your pocket.”
In addition to summer service in the Negro Leagues, Bell played winter ball throughout the tropics. No matter where the gentle, soft-spoken Bell flashed his smile, the story was the same: a batting average in the .320-to-.400 range, a bushel full of stolen bases, and an army of admirers. Teammate Ted Page remembered Bell as an even better man off the field than he was on it. He was honest. He was kind. He was a clean liver. In fact, in all of the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smoke, take a drink, or say even one cuss word.”
At 43, Bell played for his last team, the semipro Detroit Senators, for a few dollars a game. In 1974, he was working as a night watchman in St. Louis when he learned that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. He passed away March 7, 1991.