As we continue our Negro League player profiles this week, today we chronicle the life and career of one of multi-decade outfielder James Thomas ‘Cool Papa’ Bell. Bell is known for his legendary speed, and is perhaps one of the fastest players to ever play professional baseball.
A lightning-quick player, Bell would take extra bases on bunts, sac flies, and if any fielder hesitated for a moment. He started his career as a pitcher, making a name for himself in his rookie year with the National Negro League St. Louis Stars by dominating well-known star Oscar Charleston at the plate.
Because of his speed and instincts, his manager urged him to play in centerfield more regularly, effectively ending his pitching tenure two years into his professional career. A natural right handed hitter and left handed fielder, Bell worked on becoming a switch hitter, something he did successfully.
Anyone who had the pleasure of seeing Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers always makes the same remark: he drove pitchers crazy on the base paths. Bell did much of the same throughout his career. Pitchers hated to walk Bell because he was an absolute terror on the base. A walk could easily be ceding a runner to second base, and often third base, and every pitcher in the Negro Leagues know that once he was on base, there was a strong chance he’d find a way to score.
Similar to many of his black contemporaries, Bell spent a portion of his career south of the border. With ticket receipts low following the Great Depression, and black players, including Bell not receiving agreed upon salaries, he ended up going to Latin America with Satchel Paige, and other black ball players.
Bell played in the Dominican League, under the oversight of dictator Rafael Trujillo, who viewed a strong baseball presence in the country as one of national pride, even if few players were actually of Dominican descent. Bell ended up in the Mexican League in the late 1930s and early 40s before returning to the States for the 1942 Negro League season.
After one season with the Chicago American Giants, he, like many of the best black ballplayers of the time, ended up on the Homestead Grays. Led by Bell and other all stars, the Grays won the Negro League championship the next two seasons.
Bell never had the opportunity to play in Major League Baseball, but is still viewed as one of the most impactful and flashiest players in the mid-20th century. Many stories of his speed may be exaggerated, but there is evidence that he rounded the bases at a rainy Wrigley Field in about 13 seconds.
Over a quarter-century, Bell played in multiple countries and made an impact in multiple leagues, leaving a legacy of impact far beyond just the American Negro Leagues.