A race from Starkville to the Hall of Fame
By William “Brother” Rogers
Cool Papa Bell was the fastest man ever to play baseball, and he grew up in Starkville. His achievements, primarily in the Negro Leagues, earned his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1974. His Hall of Fame plaque reads in part, “…Contemporaries rated him fastest man on the base paths.”
Born and raised in the Oktoc community, James Bell left Starkville at the age of 19 and joined the St. Louis Stars. He began a career in professional baseball that would last nearly 30 years as a player and a coach.
He was nicknamed “Cool Papa” by Stars manager Bill Gatewood, who was impressed by the youngster’s cool demeanor.
His speed as an outfielder and around the bases became legendary and inspired numerous stories, some real and others exaggerated. He was once clocked circling the bases in an astonishing 12 seconds. According to one story, Cool Papa hit a single up the middle and was called out when hit by his own batted ball as he slid into second base.
Satchel Paige, a teammate with the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1933 to 1936, said of Bell, “Cool was so fast, he could turn out the light and jump in bed before it got dark.” In his autobiography, Paige also wrote, “If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.”
Cool Papa often hit two-hoppers to the infield and beat the throw to first for a hit. He also went from first to third on a bunt, and scored from second on a sacrifice fly. His specialty was stealing two bases on one pitch and scoring from second on a ground ball. Once in 1948, he scored from first base on a bunt against the Bob Lemon All-Stars, who featured major league players.
Cool Papa is considered one of professional baseball’s foremost base stealers. In 1933, he was credited with 175 stolen bases in a 200-game season. In 1937, the dictator of the Dominican Republic hired Cool Papa and other Negro League players for his traveling All-Star team. After watching this team at the Denver Post Tournament, the sports editor of the Denver Post wrote: “All these years I’ve been looking for a player who could steal first base. I’ve found my man; his name is Cool Papa Bell.”
The left-handed Bell also demonstrated prowess as a switch-hitter at the plate. While official records of his achievements are limited, Cool Papa never hit below .300 any season, and his lifetime batting average was estimated at .419, second in the Negro Leagues to the legendary Josh Gibson. He had an impressive .374 batting average against major league pitchers in post-season barnstorming games.
In addition to the Crawfords and the Stars, Cool Papa played for the Detroit Wolves and Senators, Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants, Memphis Red Sox, and Homestead Grays. He also played in the California Winter League, Cuban, Dominican, and Mexican Leagues.
After hanging up his cleats, Cool Papa coached with the Kansas City Monarchs. He groomed players for major league baseball, influencing such greats as Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Lou Brock. He died in St. Louis in 1991 and was posthumously inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. The street leading to the museum off Lakeland Drive in Jackson is named Cool Papa Bell Drive.
His hometown, Starkville, erected a historical marker to honor him in 1999. Writer Willie Morris and former Negro Leagues player Buck O’Neil dedicated the marker at McKee Park, home of the town’s youth baseball. The marker shows children who play baseball that there was once a little boy in Starkville who ran so fast he made it all the way to the Hall of Fame.
William “Brother” Rogers works for the Stennis Center for Public Service in Starkville.