James “Cool Papa” Bell was by all accounts the fastest and one of the best baseball players in the Negro Leagues. Born in Starkville, Mississippi, in 1903, Bell grew up on a farm not far from Mississippi State College. He learned to play baseball in Mississippi but never played in an organized league until he left the state. He moved to St. Louis in 1920, looking both for work and for a chance to play baseball for pay, and never again lived in Mississippi. His first job was in a St. Louis meatpacking house, and he soon was playing semipro and then professional baseball for the city’s African American teams.
Bell was especially famous for his speed and his calm under pressure. He received the nicknames “Cool” and later “Cool Papa” in the early 1920s in recognition of his demeanor when facing the biggest stars in the Negro Leagues. Two stories about Bell’s speed have become so common that commentators sometimes use them as general descriptions about any fast baseball player. According to teammate Satchel Paige, Bell could turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark. Another story says that Bell was hit by his own batted ball as he rounded second base.
Bell had a long and impressive career as a centerfielder, hitter, and base stealer. Between 1922 and 1946 he played for the St. Louis Stars, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Detroit Wolves, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Chicago American Giants, the Memphis Red Sox, and the Homestead Grays. In 1937 he left the Negro Leagues to play for a team Cuban dictator Rafael Trujillo owned in Santo Domingo; he also played in Mexico. He returned to the Negro Leagues in 1942, played until 1946, and then served as a player-coach until 1950. Negro League statistics are spotty, but Bell consistently hit in the mid-.300s and led his leagues in stolen bases. He was the leadoff hitter in the Negro League’s East-West all-star games from 1933 to 1936 and from 1942 to 1944.
On one occasion when Bell and his Negro League teammates were traveling through Mississippi, the team bus stopped at a diner in Picayune, but the restaurant’s African American owner encouraged them to keep driving so that local authorities would not put the players to work on plantations. Bell spent much of his later life as a custodian and night watchman at St. Louis’s City Hall. He lived long enough to see baseball fans pay tribute to his skills. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1974, and at least two cities, St. Louis and Jackson, Mississippi, named streets for him. He died in March 1991, only a few weeks after his wife, Clara Bell.
- Dick Clark and Larry Lester, eds., The Negro Leagues Book (1994)
- Donald Honig, A Donald Honig Reader (1988); William F. McNeil, Cool Papas and Double Duties: The All-Time Greats of the Negro Leagues (2001)
- Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (1992)
- Arthur Shaffer and Charles Korr, interview with Cool Papa Bell, Black Community Leaders Project, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri–St. Louis