Friday, May 20, 2011
76. Cool Papa Bell: Mythbusting
This week I wanted to feature a ballplayer that is in the next issue of 21 which will focus on the 1933 Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Craws were such a great team with no shortage of superstar players - Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Judy Johnson, Ted Page... it was a veritable All-Star team (in fact 7 of the Crawfords were picked to play in the first Negro League East-West All-Star Game that year). The choice was difficult, but I decided to go with the man who seems to be at the center of some of the greatest myths and stories in baseball history.
Back before hard-core baseball researchers like Scott Simkus and Gary Ashwill started really getting the actual statistics on the Negro Leagues, the field of blackball was filled with wondrous stories of the mysterious players who played before Jackie Robinson. Robert Peterson's seminal book on the subject "Only The Ball Was White" started the whole modern era of Negro League research, followed up quickly by John Holway's still enjoyable and valuable books relating his interviews with early black players. This was the "dark ages" of Negro League research, way before computers and micro-film of defunct newspapers made research easier. The subject was wrapped in oral histories, passed down by players and fans from one generation to the next, like the Greek tales of the Gods were centuries before. There were no record books like the big leagues had and no coffee table picture books were available documenting these black players. As John Holway writes in the introduction to his book "Blackball Tales," in 1969 his research into the Negro Leagues took him naturally to the Baseball hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Asking to see the Hall's files on the Negro Leagues, be was disappointed to find its collection comprised of only a scorecard of the buffoonish Indianapolis Clowns and a Washington Post article on Josh Gibson written by... John Holway! The study of Negro League ball and other outsider teams and players have come a long way since then, but along with all the knowledge gained, we also lose much of the tall-taled fun that once encased blackball and separated itself from the cold, hard facts of organized baseball.
It was the Paul Bunyan-esque figures that originally attracted me to the Negro Leagues... there was the fella who was said to have hit 70 home runs in a season, a pitcher who during a Negro League World Series game had the bases loaded and called in his outfielders and struck out the side, and of course the guy who was said to be so fast he could turn the light switch off and be under the covers before the room went black.
These stories were so fascinating to me as a young teen that it made me search for more and more and that quest eventually turned into 25 plus years of researching the old Negro Leagues. The one dangerous part of learning more is sometimes the truth behind a story is not what you want to hear. The fella who supposedly hit 70 home runs in a season was Josh Gibson in 1931. No one denies Gibson was a superstar and he'd be worth his weight in gold had he been white, but the story of those 70 home runs was just that - a story. Phil Dixon wrote The Book on the famed '31 Grays and figured out he hit 40 round-trippers, but these were against ALL levels of competition from chintzy-little town teams to top-notch black clubs and white minor league ballclubs. The pitcher who called in his outfield and struck out the side with the bases loaded in a Negro World Series game? Of course that had to be Satchel Paige. The story was colorfully related many times by his teammate Buck O'Neil, later known as the elder statesman of blackball due to his longevity and featured place in Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. Unfortunately, it just didn't happen. Besides being untrue, the story in my opinion makes Satchel Paige, who may have been one the greatest pitchers of all-time, look like a careless fool. While Paige undoubtedly had fun on the mound and could showboat and trash-talk better than anyone else, he was also a true professional and in games that counted he would never have done such a risky thing as call in his outfielders.
So that brings us to the third story, the one about the guy who was so fast he could turn the light switch off and get under the covers before the room went black. That was none other than James "Cool Papa" Bell.
He was born down south in Starkesville, Mississippi, his father a black farmer and his mother an Oklahoma Indian. Bell learned baseball like most young boys, did but did not consider it as a career until he left home in 1920 to join his older brothers in St. Louis so he could go to high school - Starkesville didn't have any schools above 8th grade for Negros back then.
Once in St. Louis, Bell began pitching for the local Compton Hills Cubs where the professional St. Louis Stars noticed him. For $90 a month, Bell dropped out of high school and became their new left-handed pitcher. Armed with a repertoire of screwball, knuckler and curve, Bell gained his priceless nickname "Cool Papa" when with a game on the line, he struck out the great and fearsome Oscar Charleston. After the game Bell's manager Bill Gatewood called him "one cool papa" for not being rattled when facing one of the greatest clutch hitters of all time. Like all great nicknames, "Cool Papa" stuck to Bell like it was dipped in Super Glue.
A sore arm ended Bell's promising career on the mound, but he quickly adapted by teaching himself to hit from both sides of the plate and utilising his greatest asset - his speed.
See, Cool Papa was fast! The game as it was played back in the 1920's was much different than today. There was much more aggressive base running and stealing and the blackball version of the game was even faster paced that the white one. The St. Louis Stars developed into a dynasty in the late 1920's and Cool Papa was their lead-off hitter. He didn't have much power, but when he made contact with the ball he was off like a bullet. This quickness pushed his batting average above the .300 mark in most years, higher in many others. It's hard to say for sure, the research isn't complete yet, however Scott Simkus' work on the 1933 Crawfords attributes a .307 average in 63 league games against the best black players. In exhibitions against white major leaguers Bell is verified to have batted .391 - his speed working to his benefit when playing against guys who were not used to the aggressive base running the Negro League teams displayed.
His speed out of the box surprised even veteran players and it is no exaggeration that Bell could beat out a ball hit in the infield for a single. One proven story about Bell's base running skills and speed took place during an exhibition game against Bob Lemon's white all-star team in 1948. The Cardinal's Murray Dickson was on the mound and Bell singled. The next batter, Satchel Paige, bunted in a bunt-and-run play. Bell, who was running as the ball left Dickson's hand, watched as the catcher , pitcher and third baseman all left their positions to field the ball. As Bell reached second he saw that no one was covering third so he kept going. The ball, now fielded, was sent to first base and Bell, watching all this unfold, reached third. Seeing the catcher making his way to cover third leaving home plate uncovered, flew right by him and crossed the plate before anyone else knew what was happening.
What that story proves, besides giving proof to Cool Papa's speed on the base path, is that he not only was quick, but more importantly, he was smart. It takes a very observant man to assess the situation and not only adapt to it but think one or two steps in advance. In that game in 1948, Bell wasn't playing against a rinky-dink town team but against major league players. He also 43 years-old at the time!
As an outfielder, once again Bell used his great ability to adapt to master his position. His sore arm never healed and in order to play his centerfield position he again utilized his speed to his own advantage. Bell was able to race to and catch fly balls where average players would not be able to make the play. He got around his weakened arm by developing a quick release once in possession of the ball, getting the it back to the infield faster as fast as most players who could rely on their powerful arms to get the ball there.
In our upcoming edition of 21 featuring the 1933 Pittsburgh Crawfords, Scott Simkus attributes Bell with only 2 errors during the '33 season, a cool .980 fielding percentage. In 63 verified Negro National League games that season, Simkus also recorded 12 stolen bases for Bell. 12 is a long way from the 175 he claimed to have stolen in 1933, but again these 12 were in league games against top black teams and at the same token, steals were not recorded very diligently at the time. So while it is highly unlikely Bell stole 175 bases in 1933, he probably stole more than 12 in the 63 league games and it is a given that he swiped plenty more while playing against town teams and amateur clubs that summer.
So how fast was Bell? Supposedly he was once clocked at running the bases in 11 seconds. The Baseball Hall Of Fame reportedly has some kind of documentation on this provided by Cool Papa's daughter, but I have been unable to find substantial proof of this. The official record, set in 1932 by Evar Swanson of the Columbus Red Birds, is 13.2 seconds. Official record or not, Bell was fast. While I was unable to find that all-important truth, there is something that may help validate his reputation as the fastest man in baseball. Olympian Jesse Owens was acknowledged to be the fastest man alive in the years leading up to World War II. Although he was the star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 4 gold medals he won didn't put food on the table so he often toured with Negro League teams, running pre-game exhibitions against local runners and sometimes even horses. On several occasions Bell's team played against a team Owens was with and each time the Olympian declined to race against Bell - as far as I can tell the only person he refused the opportunity to race. This speaks loudly of Bell's speed at the time. Owens, who was racing against horses for God's sake, was worried about losing a race to Bell!
So anyway, some tales about Bell were unfortunately not true (like the one where he hit a single, only to be called out when the ball he hit struck him in the keister as he slid into second), or there just isn't any documented proof (running the bases in 11 seconds). But wait, what about being so fast he could turn the light switch off and be under the covers before the room went black?
That one was one of Satchel Paige's favorite stories to tell and was one of the cornerstones of the mythology that encased blackball in the "dark ages." The way Paige told it, Bell showed how fast he was by the seemingly impossible act of being quicker than light-speed. Now that is a story that has to be false, right? Wrong. Back during their days with the Crawfords, Cool Papa and Satch were roommates on the road. Bell, who wasn't anywhere near the night owl Paige was, was in his hotel room one night when he noticed that the light switch on the wall had a short. It took a few seconds between the switch being flipped and the light actually going off. Sensing a great opportunity to mess with Satchel, Bell waited up for his roommate to return from a night on the town. When he came back, Cool Papa asked Satch if he thought he was fast. Satch of course said yes. Was he so fast he could get into bed before the room went black? Satch was sceptical, and Bell got up out of bed to prove it. Hitting the switch, Bell jumped into bed and under the covers as the room went dark, leaving Satchel standing in the dark, for once, speechless...
See Cool Papa and the rest of his teammates on the 1933 Crawfords in the next issue of 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball coming soon...