James (Cool Papa) Bell, the sharp-eyed batter and blazing base runner who was widely regarded as the fastest man ever to play baseball, died Thursday night (March 7, 1991) in St. Louis University Hospital, where he had been treated after suffering a heart attack last Saturday. He was 87 years old and after his retirement as a player in 1946 spent 21 years as custodian and nightwatchman at St. Louis City Hall. He never played in the major leagues because of baseball’s ban on black players, but he became one of the most adored and acclaimed legends of the game after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell played baseball professionally from 1922 to 1946 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 inappropriately named Homestead Grays, who rattled around Pittsburgh for a number of pitiful seasons before wandering to Washington.He also served several winter teams throughout Latin America and a variety of barnstorming assemblages trailing county fairs and passing the hat. In the Negro leagues, teams never played more than three games a day. Pitchers seldom registered over 30 starts a month. Cool Papa was a pitcher for a time, then a center fielder.
In the company of Smoky Joe Williams, Cannonball Dick Redding, Steel Arm Dicky, Mule Suttles, Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson and Satchel Paige, monikers were practically mandatory. Cool Papa earned his at 19 with just the trace of a smile, looking in for the sign, before striking out old Oscar Charleston in the clutch. “He’s taking it cool,” whispered someone on the bench. Manager Bill Gatewood eventually added “Papa” for panache.
To the white sportswriters who frequently dropped in on Bell during the 1980s, whenever St. Louis was in the World Series, Cool Papa retold his legend without bluster in a tidy house in a crumbling neighborhood about half as dire as some of the descriptions. Well into his 70s, he listed a trifle to one side. But he jangled gently as he moved, just as Paige had always prescribed, taking care to pacify the stomach with cool thoughts.
“Cool Papa,” Satchel used to say, “why, he was so fast he could turn out the light and jump in bed before the room got dark.” Sometimes, speeding between first and second, Bell had to be careful not to run into his own line drives. And he might score on his own bunt. Once, in Birmingham, where a catcher named Perkins had “Thou Shalt Not Steal” stenciled across his chest protector, Cool Papa took off from first with a laugh. Just as Perkins’s peg reached second base, Cool Papa slid into third.
Cool Papa patrolled so near to second base that he frequently tiptoed in for pickoff attempts. Overthrowing third one time in Memphis, he ran to the base, caught the carom off the dugout roof and completed the only “8-8” putout in history. “A few guys living today saw it,” he said modestly.
Cool Papa batted over .400 twice: his first season and his last. Never did he hit under .300. Creaky with arthritis near the end, he was just a plate appearance or two shy of qualifying for the batting title at 43, but sat out the season’s final game so Monte Irvin could win it. Jackie Robinson was coming and Irvin was young enough to follow him. “That’s the way we thought back then,” Cool Papa said. “When one made it to the major leagues, we all did.”
The title he gave up would have meant $ 200 in a prearranged bonus. Deluding himself that a black owner should understand, Cool Papa expected the money anyway. But the owner coughed and said: “Well look, Cool, Irvin won it, didn’t he?” Cool Papa smiled that little smile again. “Owners is owners,” he said, “whether they blue or green.”
Gibson was “the black Babe Ruth,” Leonard “the black Lou Gehrig.” But Cool Papa was a prototype. One day in the ’60s, years before he entered the Hall of Fame through its side door, he went to a Cardinals game and waited at the visitors’ gate for Maury Wills. When the Los Angeles shortstop arrived, Cool Papa introduced himself.
“Maybe you heard of me, Mr. Wills, maybe not; it don’t matter,” he said. “But I’d like to help you. When you’re on base, get your hitters to stand as deep as they can in the box. That’ll push the catcher back a bit. It’ll get you another half-step at least.”
Wills was stunned. “I would never have thought of it,” he muttered as Cool Papa waved and walked away. That was the year Wills broke the base-stealing record.
Cool Papa was a custodian at St. Louis City Hall for nine years, the night watchman for 12 more. Then he retired with Clara, organizing their plain life around an annual trip to Cooperstown to cheer the Willie Stargells and Joe Morgans. In recent years, collectors flimflammed the Bells out of most of their mementos, although a few photographs were saved.
Lou Brock said yesterday that every base-stealer should be measured not against him or Rickey Henderson, but against the Negro Leagues legend James “Cool Papa” Bell. “And he was no one-dimensional player,” said Brock, a pallbearer at the funeral in St. Louis for Bell, a fellow Hall of Famer.
“This guy was a .400 hitter and his dream got deferred. I just hope that somewhere in history his performance gets accurately recorded.”