An Obituary for Cool Papa Bell

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.”

Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 6:09 pm  Comments (4)  

Satchel Paige

Here’s a long recollection of Satchel by Bill Veeck: “I did not see Walter Johnson, but Leroy was the best I ever saw. If his career had run its full course in the major leagues, Paige would have held every record there was.

“He had the best fast ball, the best control and the most knowledge of pitching of anyone. Even in his late 40s, he warmed up by putting a package of cigarettes on the outside corner of the plate. That was his target.

“Paige threw overhand, sidearm, underarm and crossfire. All his pitches moved and tailed. He had a great change-up as well as his hesitation pitch and eephus (blooper) pitch. He had a presence on the field that was comparable to no one but Babe Ruth.

“In five years, I believe Ted Williams had one hit off him and Joe DiMaggio two. . . You could tell that those were the only two hitters he looked on as his equals.

“Leroy had tremendous self-confidence, but he was not a braggart. He took enormous pride in performance. But he had his own priorities. Like fishing. Once, in St. Louis with the Browns, he arrived at the park in the seventh inning carrying a huge channel catfish, about 80 pounds. He said, ‘Burrhead, isn’t this more important than the first six innings of a game?’

“Leroy missed a few planes, but he got to the game by the time you really needed him. Once, in Washington at Griffith Stadium, he came in late, got in to pitch in the seventh inning, then finally won the game with a hit in the 17th. My wife and I waited and waited for him afterward because we were supposed to go out for clams. Finally, I found him up in the clubhouse with everybody around him enthralled. He was giving a dissertation on hitting . . .

“Paige was a natural showman, like the way he ambled into a ball game from the bullpen–this old gentleman, not one to rush into difficulties. But that showmanship was not without malice aforethought. Leroy was unlettered, but not unlearned. He could call on a great fund of general knowledge.

“All those wise sayings he’s credited with, like ‘the social rumble ain’t restful’ and ‘if your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts,’ well, I’d say most of them are actually true.

“[In 1948 the publisher of The Sporting News] was always deriding us for signing Paige, saying it made a farce of the game. Every time he won, I’d send (the publisher) a wire: ‘Winning pitcher, Paige.’

“Also, the umpires weren’t going to give this old black legend any of the best of it. He threw to a plate that was shorter and narrower than anybody else’s. But he still fooled ’em.

“He never forced himself on anyone. He’d sit alone at one end of the Pullman car. But, in 10 minutes, the whole (Indians) team would be gathered around him.”

With the St. Louis Browns, Paige had one intractable enemy: Louisiana-born catcher Clint Courtney, who wouldn’t even warm up Paige, much less catch him in a game. Veeck said: “Then one day, I noticed Clint was warming him up. The next week, in Detroit, I walked into a bar in Detroit called The Flame. There were Leroy and Clint having dinner together.

“Courtney told me, ‘My pap’s comin’ up tomorrow from Lou’siana and he’s gonna be mighty mad when he hears about us being friends. But Satch and me figure we can whup him together.’ ”

And Cool Papa Bell said: “Satchel never liked to have anybody beat him at anything. I was the one who taught him how to control his curve ball and throw a knuckleball. A week after I’d showed him the knuckler, he called me over and said, ‘Now you throw it.’ People watchin’ us saw he was throwin’ it better than I was, so they said, ‘See how Satchel’s teaching Cool Papa the knuckleball.’ ”

In late May, 1981, Satchel Paige’s life story, “Don’t Look Back,” appeared on ABC. He died about a week later, on June 8, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 5:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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