Among the most illustrious players in Negro league baseball history, James Cool Papa Bell was noted for his incredible speed on the basepaths, excellence as a leadoff hitter and his superb defensive play as a center fielder.
In the game of baseball, speed never goes into slumps. This saying holds true for James “Cool Papa” Bell, as his legs helped him dash his way to Cooperstown with a Hall of Fame career.On this date 39 years ago – Feb. 13, 1974 – the player known as the “fastest man to ever play the game” was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Born in Starkville, Miss., the Negro League standout started off as a pitcher for the St. Louis Stars during his rookie season in 1922. It was there where Bell would receive his famous nickname “Cool Papa”. The 19 year-old was asked to get his team out of a jam – and without flinching he was able to end the inning, earning his title.In 1924 Bell became the starting center fielder for the Stars, helping them to three league titles. The switch-hitter had one of the longest careers in Negro Leagues history, compiling a .316 career average over 21 seasons.Stats for Negro Leagues players are somewhat incomplete, however in 1933 while with the Kansas City Monarchs Bell was said to have his best season ever – amassing an unprecedented 175 stolen bases and hitting at a clip of .480 over the course of a 200-game season.“If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.” said teammate Satchel Paige. Although many of the stories about Bell’s superior speed were exaggerated, some were documented. Being clocked in a mere 12 seconds rounding all the bases and scoring on a bunt from first base are just a few examples of the lightning-quick leadoff hitter.“If the bunt bounced twice, you just put it in your pocket,” said Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe describing Bell’s swiftness. The magnificent defensive center fielder eventually went on to play for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, who in 1935 fielded arguably the best team in Negro Leagues history with five future Hall of Famers including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. After winning three consecutive Negro League titles and two World Series in 1944 with the Homestead Grays, Bell ultimately went on to become a player-manager and scout for the Monarchs farm team, educating future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks. Cool Papa Bell retired from baseball in 1950 after 29 seasons. He died in St. Louis in 1991 at the age of 87. “So many people say that I was born too soon, but that’s not true. They opened the doors too late,” said Bell. Nick Anapolis is the spring 2013 public relations intern at the Baseball Hall of Fame