The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell: Speed, Grace, and the Negro Leagues by Lonnie Wheeler

Here’s the scene: The crowd is buzzing in St. Louis after pitcher Ted Strong surprised everybody in Stars Park by doubling to lead off the bottom of the 3rd inning. On the very next pitch, James “Cool Papa” Bell rips a ball down the right field line. The fastest man in baseball history races around first before Strong can round third, hitting the bag with his left food and cutting towards second. With all eyes looking either towards the ball rattling in the corner or Strong striding towards home, perhaps they miss Bell cutting just in front of second base to save a few steps on his way towards third, where he slides safely in a cloud of dirt for a triple, just like he did anytime his team needed a jolt. That’s Lonnie Wheeler’s excellent biography.

Cool Papa Bell’s statue outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis shows the speedster watching a ball down the right field line as he races towards second, never satisfied with a single as the sculptor was informed when planning his work.

Lonnie Wheeler opens the book by pointing out what a daunting task it is to write a biography for someone about whom so much of what he accomplished will never truly be known. He says he decided to embrace the uncertainty and allow speculation, allow himself to extrapolate truth from what pieces were available. I think the power in the book is how well he succeeds in painting a vivid enough picture that allows the reader to have a solid impression of the speedy outfielder on the field and fashionably-dressed gentleman off the field.

As for the bookmark choice, this one was easy. The 1993 Ted Williams Co. Negro Leagues subset included James Bell. That one of the most famous Negro Leaguers to play the game was included is not a surprise, of course. That “James Bell” was used rather than his more famous nickname (or for that matter, his actual birth name) is a surprise to me, however.

The book included other surprises (or just lesser known facts) about the life and career of Cool Papa Bell. In fact, the nickname itself was a surprise twice over. In 2006, Bell’s daughter (either another surprise or a title given more than earned) sued Topps over a story on the back of a card printed in 2001 that claimed Bell “earned his nickname after falling asleep right before a game.” Connie Brooks, the maybe daughter, sued Topps, alleging the story was not only false, but that in presenting the “bogus, painful lie,” the card company “take a Negro Leaguer and think it’s okay to make him a little buffoonish, a little clownish, and suggest that he’s nodding off.” As for the more accepted birth of the nickname, that was a surprise, too. Early in his career, Bell was a crafty left-handed pitcher with a knuckleball who found himself in a key spot facing Oscar Charleston late in the game. Bell looked so calm and collected while he struck out the player Bill James ranked the 4th greatest player in the history of the game that his manager called him “Cool.” The team jumped on it and added “Papa” to make it sound better, and he was “Cool Papa Bell” ever after.

That a young Cool Papa was a successful pitcher before becoming a full-time outfielder was a surprise to me, as well. Another interesting note was that Bell decided to keep some statistics of his own during the 1933 season knowing the records were less than accurate or complete. The researchers at Seamheads.com have done an admirable job of trying to compile as many Negro Leagues statistics as possible, but complete accuracy is an impossible goal thanks to inaccurate records, some stats not being kept, some games being partially recorded, and some games not being scored or reported at all. Seamheads can verify 16 steals for Cool Papa in 1933. Bell himself, however, marked down 175 steals that year. He would also keep track of Josh Gibson’s home runs those years they played together on the Pittsburgh Crawfords. From 1933 to 1935, Seamheads gives Gibson credit for 18, 15, and 11 home runs. Bell, however, said Gibson never hit fewer than 60 home runs in those years and possibly as many as 85. There are many tall tales in Negro Leagues lore, so these assertions, just like stories of how fast Bell actually was, can reasonably called into question. But by all accounts, Cool Papa Bell was not prone to hyperbole or even self-promotion, and his records aren’t to be doubted any more than the completeness of the seamheads statistics.

As for the veracity of tales about James Bell’s speed, Buck O’Neil always had an answer. Whenever asked how fast Cool Papa was, Buck would answer, “Faster than that.” And how good was he overall? The Sporting News ranked him 66th on their all time list of greatest players; Joe Posnanski ranked him 84th on his Baseball 100 list. Bill James ranked him 76th. The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him into Cooperstown in 1974.

It goes without saying that it’s beyond shameful that Bell never got to prove himself in the Major Leagues, and that one of the greatest players in the history of the game was forgotten for years when he was not seen as a baseball legend but only a janitor and then a night watchman at City Hall in St. Louis. But like Buck O’Neil who entitled his biography “I Was Right On Time,” Cool Papa had a proud, dignified answer whenever the issue of just missing the Major Leagues was brought up. “A lot of people tell me I was born too soon. I wasn’t born too soon. They just opened the door too late for the black ballplayer.”

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