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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

Speed to burn
Bell was the fastest player ever
By Ken Mandel/MLB.com


An arm injury forced Cool Papa Bell, who started as a pitcher, to go to the outfield.
Born: May 17, 1903, Starkville, Miss.
Died: March 7, 1991, St. Louis, Mo.
Bats: Both
Throws: Left
Hall of Fame induction: 1974

Cool Papa Bell talks about how he was given his nickname: 56k | 300k
Cool Papa Bell comments on teammate Satchel Paige 56k | 300k
Cool Papa Bell talks about Rube Foster 56k | 300k
Cool Papa Bell talks about his speed and his encounter with Jesse Owens:
56k | 300k
Could the Negro Leaguers compete with the Major Leaguers? Cool Papa Bell
gives a short and sweet answer:
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Those who have heard the tale of the man so fast he could turn out the light in the room and be in bed before the room got dark, have heard the legend of James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell.

While Bell's legendary speed may have been exaggerated at times, his quickness made him one of the most feared base runners, shattering the confidence of infielders who helplessly watched him leg out two-hoppers.

The son of an Oklahoma Indian and farmer, Bell may have been the fastest man to play professional baseball. His talents propelled him to one of the longest active careers in the Negro Leagues. He hit .341 in 25 seasons, including summers of .396 and .373 for the Homestead Grays in the mid-1940s. He was also said to have hit .400 a few times.

Fans love him too, selecting him to 11 East-West All-Star teams, beginning with its inception in 1933.

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"Cool Papa was so fast that one time when we were playing with the (Pittsburgh) Crawfords against the Birmingham team, he hit a ground ball right past the pitcher and that ball hit Cool Papa as he slid into second base!" teammate Jimmie Crutchfield told James Riley, who wrote The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues.

Other stories were more believable. "If he bunts and it bounces twice, put it in your back pocket," Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe told Riley in the Negro League encyclopedia. The outfielder who once stole 175 bases in just under 200 games, and who was once clocked circling the bases in an astonishing 12 seconds, was simply that fast.

Like another southpaw, Babe Ruth, Bell began his career as a pitcher, competing on sandlots near his Starkville, Miss., birthplace before moving to St. Louis to live with his older brothers and finish high school. He worked at a packing plant and played with the Compton Hill Cubs, eventually signing a $90-a-month contract to hurl for the St. Louis Stars in the early 1920s.

While still a knuckleballing prospect in 1922, he earned his moniker by whiffing Oscar Charleston with the game on the line. His manager, Bill Gatewood, mused about how "cool" his young player was under pressure and added the "Papa" because it sounded better, though perhaps it was a testament to how the 19-year-old performed like a grizzled veteran.


Cool Papa Bell appeared in 11 East-West All-Star Games.
The nickname stuck, though an injury robbed him of his strong throwing arm and converted him to an outfielder in 1924. He compensated for his lack of arm strength with a quick release, and the right-handed hitter also learned to switch-hit. His blazing legs also shielded his lack of power, as he routinely stretched slap hits into doubles and triples.

The leadoff hitter won three championships with the St. Louis Stars -- in 1928, 1930 and 1931. He starred for two other dynasties, the powerhouse Pittsburgh Crawfords of the '30s -- which boasted as many as five Hall-of-Famers in their lineup, including Josh Gibson and the ageless Satchel Paige -- and the Homestead Grays of the mid-'40s.

From 1938-41, Bell earned $450 a month to play in Mexico. He won the Triple Crown in 1940, splitting the season with Veracruz and Torreon and hitting .437 with 12 home runs and 79 RBIs. He also played 21 winter seasons in Mexico, Cuba and California.

Bell's career was largely over by 1947, the year Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bell retired in 1950, at age 47, from the Kansas City Stars, a farm team of Robinson's Kansas City Monarchs. He worked for four years as a scout for the St. Louis Browns until they moved to Baltimore, and he then worked as a custodian and night security officer at the St. Louis City Hall until 1970. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 and died at age 88 in 1991.

Ken Mandel is an editor/writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.