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Just how fast was Cool Papa Bell?

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My interest in baseball started at a very young age. One of the first baseball books I ever read was a short 50-page biography of Leroy "Satchel" Paige. I was in third grade and that little book was a huge reason for me falling in love with the game.

Since that day, my passion for baseball hasn't faltered and neither has my interest in the Negro Leagues. I wrote my common application essay for college about Paige and my enthusiasm for the history of Negro League baseball. For that reason, and others I still keep a picture of Paige on my desk, at school.

When Baseball-Reference released Negro League statistics, the result of a large research project, earlier this year I was ecstatic. It was exhilarating for me to look up Josh Gibson's career OPS, or see some real statistics that backed the stories off Paige's incredible control.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Josh Gibson's immaculate power and how utterly dominant Paige was at the time he played. In my opinion, they are the two greatest Negro Leaguers of all-time and should rank among the best to ever play the game.

Naturally in hopes of continuing this series, I figured I should write about the third best player next.

In 2003, Baseball Think Factory published all-time greatest lists from two sources, The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro League, and the New Historical Baseball Abstract. Then in 2009, Jeff Zimmerman created a list for this site, that averaged the rankings from the New Historical Baseball Abstract and five other sources.

Based on those lists, the options for the third greatest Negro League player of all-time seem to be:

  • Oscar Charleston
  • Smokey Joe Williams
  • Buck Leonard
  • "Bullet" Joe Rogan
  • Willie Wells

Charleston seems to be the prevailing favorite, especially since Bill James rates him higher than both Gibson and Paige. Charleston probably was the third greatest, if not the greatest Negro Leaguer ever. But for some reason I couldn't bring myself to write about him.

The player who always interested me the most, outside of Paige and Gibson, was an outfielder whose name does not appear among those five options.

Hall-of-Famer Cool Papa Bell has always fascinated me, despite the fact that he does not even rank him as one of the top-two outfielders in Negro League history.

Bell is a phenomenally interesting player,because of his legendary speed.

For those who haven't heard of Bell or need a refresher on just how fast they say he was, his Wikipedia page has some fantastic stories about his wheels. Below I listed some of them:

  • A recording had him at 12 seconds rounding the bases. For reference, Peter Bourjos' ridiculous inside-the-park home run, from this season, was recorded at 14.26 seconds.
  • Paige claimed that Bell was faster than Jesse Owens, and said, "One time he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second" (this last quote comes from Bell's B-R Bulllpen page)
  • Bell scored from first on a sacrifice bunt
  • This has to be by far one of my favorite baseball stories ever: It again, comes from Paige (and has been repeated over and over again), "Bell was so fast (he could) turn off the light and be under the covers. before the room gets dark!"

So with Baseball-Reference's Negro League database, as my tool I decided to find out for myself, statistically, just how fast Cool Papa was.

The tough aspect of working with Negro League statistics is the sample size. Many box scores weren't published or even recorded, the season wasn't nearly as long as the Major League season, and negro leaguers spent much of their time barnstroming, as well as, playing in Latin America.

Bell had a 21-year Negro League playing career, that actually stretched over 25 years chronologically (he spent some seasons playing in Mexico). Yet, the Negro League record only has 3672 career plate appearances recorded for Bell, which is the equivalent of around six major league seasons. According to that same record, Bell only has 132 stolen bases, in his career. Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in one major league season, and currently minor leaguer Billy Hamilton has 154 stolen bases.

Obviously, using career totals to analyze Bell's speed would be a pretty useless venture, especially when attempting to compare him to major leaguers.

Totals go some of the way when comparing Bell to other negro leaguers, who played in the same environment and with similar small sample sizes. Bell finished first in the Negro Leagues in steals twice, and finished in the top-5, seven other times. That's fairly good, but doesn't blow you away that Bell was the fastest of all-time or something. It also not conclusive, because it doesn't tell us anything about how fast he was in comparison to major leaguers.

Bill James' Speed Score seemed like a good starting place to analyze Bell. It works as a rate state, and takes playing time out of the equation; thus, allowing me to compare Bell to other negro and major leaguers of his time.

However, it's a fairly old statistic, and there are many different versions of it. I looked at a variation, known as Speed Unit that comes from Patriot. James' original Speed Score had five or six components, but Patriot uses four modified components. For this analysis, I could only use three of those components.

The three components, that I looked at were Stolen Base Frequency (SB+CS/(H+W-HR)), Triples per Ball in Play (3B/AB-SO-HR), and Runs per Total Bases (Runs-HR)/(H+W-HR).

The Negro League database does not have caught stealing and strikeouts recorded for batters, which handcuffed me, because those statistics are part of Patriot's equations.

I modified the Stolen Base Frequency score by removing CS, but added triples into the denominator (SB/H+W-3B-HR). It seems strange to me that triple would be included in the denominator when stealing home is such a rare occurrence. I guess steals do happen from third, but it still feels unreasonable to have it in the denominator of that stat.

I also had to cut out SO from the Triples per Ball in Play formula, which left the formula as just 3B/(AB-HR).

I did not modify the Runs/TB formula. And the fourth component of Patriot's Unit was Weighted Stolen Base Percentage (WSB%), which was essentially useless, because of the lack of caught stealing data.

These numbers aren't a perfect measure of speed, by any stretch of the imagination, but they're about the best I could do with the data available. Below, I listed the top-10 fastest negro leaguers of all-time and where they rank based on these two numbers:

Negro League Stars SB Total SB Percentage 3B Total 3B/(AB-HR) Run Total R/TOB Overall Rank
1. Oscar Charleston* 226 14.39% 89 2.32% 879 45.61% 3
2. Cool Papa Bell* 132 10.57% 51 1.52% 717 53.19% 4
t-3. Pete Hill* 129 14.14% 49 2.26% 438 43.27% 4.33
t-3. Bingo DeMoss* 152 17.18% 19 0.73% 434 49.65% 4.33
5. Turkey Stearnes* 115 9.76% 100 3.16% 673 40.67% 5
6. Newt Allen 125 10.72% 47 1.41% 533 43.40% 5.67
7. Willie Wells* 90 8.59% 47 1.73% 629 49.16% 6
8. Cristobal Torriente* 120 9.72% 69 2.36% 551 38.91% 6.33
9. Pop Lloyd* 133 10.44% 44 1.40% 538 40.22% 7.67
10. Orville Riggins 78 9.45% 34 1.46% 336 37.12% 8.67

*denotes a member of Baseball's Hall-of-Fame

By an average ranking over the three categories Bell ranks second behind Charleston; which is another good sign for Cool Papa's speed, but not conclusive evidence that it was legendary.

I then looked at the career numbers of Major League baseball's top-10 fastest players during the main Negro League era (1905-1946):

Major League Stars SB Total SB Percentage 3B Total 3B/(AB-HR) Run Total R/TOB Overall Rank
1. Ty Cobb* 897 17.08% 295 2.61% 2246 40.01% 2.67
2. Honus Wagner** 723 17.05% 252 2.44% 1739 38.25% 3.67
3. Max Carey* 738 20.17% 159 1.71% 1546 40.58% 4.67
4. Sherry Magee 441 15.41% 166 2.26% 1112 36.46% 5.66
t-5. Sam Crawford* 367 10.70% 309 3.26% 1391 35.71% 6
t-5. Harry Hooper* 375 10.60% 160 1.84% 1429 45.51% 6
7. George Sisler* 375 11.91% 164 2.01% 1284 37.15% 6.33
8. Eddie Collins* 741 15.21% 187 1.89% 1821 37.21% 6.33
9. Sam Rice 351 9.71% 184 1.99% 1514 40.43% 6.33
10. Tris Speaker* 436 9.10% 222 2.20% 1882 36.94% 7.67

*notes Hall-of-Famer **-Honus Wagner played over half his career in this era so he was included

These two charts are interesting when comparing separately, but the combination of the two is superior.

Next, I combined the modified Speed Unit statistics and the two charts.

Patriot's Speed Unit used a z-score, which shows how many standard deviations away a statistic is from the mean. Converting each rate into a z, essentially gives all three categories the same weight and puts them on the same unit scale (standard deviations). Patriot's statistic used league average numbers, a three-year average for standard deviation, and set 67 as his average score.

For this analysis, I'm only want to compare player's with legendary speed; thus, the average comes from just the 20 players in the sample. Also, I set the average at five, which was the original average for Bill James' score. I call the comparison number LegendSpeed+ and this is the equation for it:

LegendSpeed+ = 5 + (SB%-LgSB / SD ) + (3B%-Lg3B / SD) + (R%-LgR / SD)

Any number higher than five is above-average, any number below five is below-average:

Legend LegendSpeed+
1. Ty Cobb 6.97
2. Oscar Charleston 6.84
3. Max Carey 6.51
4. Honus Wagner 6.33
5. Pete Hill 6.20
6. Cool Papa Bell 5.95
7. Turkey Stearnes 5.89
8. Bingo DeMoss 5.85
9. Sam Crawford 5.32
10. Sherry Magee 5.18
11. Harry Hooper 4.92
12. Willie Wells 4.89
13. Eddie Collins 4.67
14. Cristobal Torriente 4.20
t-15. George Sisler 3.89
t-15. Sam Rice 3.89
17. Newt Allen 3.82
18. Tris Speaker 3.35
19. Pop Lloyd 3.08
20. Orville Riggins 2.26

According to this metric, Bell ranks as the third fastest negro leaguer of all-time and the sixth fastest overall in his era (1905-46). Obviously, this metric is nowhere close to perfect as the sample size and certain statistics are lacking for the negro leaguers. But, I think it does a good job in making for some interesting comparisons. For instance when all three charts are considered, the question of who was the greatest triples hitter of all-time could be up for debate, between Sam Crawford (the MLB record-holder) and negro leaguer Turkey Stearnes.

Given the legend that still surrounds Bell's today, over sixty years since his retirement from baseball, I honestly had hoped that he would rank higher on this list. He sits just outside the top-5 though, and ranks behind some of the fastest players to ever play the game, like Wagner, Ty Cobb and Max Carey.

Ranking above names like Crawford, Sherry Magee, Eddie Collins and George Sisler is pretty special, but it still feels like not enough for me.

I don't think that I would ever type these words, but sometimes I think maybe there instances where the legend is epic and mythological that statistics and reason should be thrown out.

I know there is no way that Bell actually was hit in the back by his own line drive at second base; that is utterly impossible.

But personally, I'd much rather remember Cool Papa Bell as a baseball player who was so fast that he could flip a light switch and be under his covers before the room got dark, than just the sixth fastest player of his generation.

All Statistics come courtesy of Baseball-Reference. The research information came from Wikipedia.

You can follow Glenn on twitter @Glenn_DuPaul