Who was “Cool Papa” Bell?

An outfielder for the old Negro Leagues, James Thomas Bell (1903–1991), known as “Cool Papa Bell,” was regarded as the fastest man in professional baseball and one of the most important figures in the Negro Leagues. Bell was born in Starkville, Mississippi, to a farmer named Jonas and his wife Mary Nicholas Bell. In 1920 Bell, like other blacks of that time, left the impoverished South for urban centers. He settled in St. Louis and became a knuckleball pitcher for a black semi-pro team, the Compton Hill Club. In August 1921 he joined the East St. Louis Cubs as a pitcher. Bell signed on with the St. Louis Stars in May 1922, a major powerhouse team in the National Negro League. After he struck out the best hitter in the league, his manager gave him the name that would stick with him for life—“Cool Papa.” Bell’s pitching career ended in 1924 because of an arm injury; he then became an outfielder. Over the course of his career, Bell played on three of the greatest teams in black baseball: the Stars, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Homestead Grays.

Bell and other players in the Negro Leagues experienced hardships as they traveled in cramped buses or cars that often broke down. Seldom were they served in restaurants, and sleeping accommodations were poor as well. It was racial segregation that kept the star players of the Negro Leagues such as Bell from entering mainstream baseball; for many years their stellar records were therefore known only to a few.


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