James “Cool Papa” Bell: Fast As Lightning
Cool Papa: The Height of My Career
The best year I ever had on the bases was 1933. I stole one hundred and seventy-five in about one hundred and eighty to two hundred ball games, all of them against other Negro League teams.
In 1935, I played against Rogers Hornsby’s all-stars in Mexico. They had Jimmy Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Boob McNair, and Max Bishop in the infield, Heinie Manush and Doc Cramer in the outfield, Steve O’Neill catching, and Whitehill pitching. It takes about a week to acclimate to the altitude and they’d been down there about two weeks while we’d just arrived, be we had them beat, 6-4, with two out in the ninth, when Manush was safe on first. Foxx took a 3-2 count and then he got a ball up around his letters and hit it into the bleachers for a home run. The umpire called the game. The sun was up in the sky, but they called the game. That night we all had dinner at an American restaurant, and Foxx told us that the third ball the umpire called was a strike, but he said he wasn’t going to argue.
Next day Hornsby hit a ball way over my head. I ran back and caught it over my head. He said, “Come here, Lefty. That was the hardest ball I ever hit. How come you caught it?” Earle Mack, Connie Mack’s son, said, “If the door was open, you’d be the first guy I’d hire. I’d pay you seventy-five thousand dollars a year to play ball.” They beat us the last two games, so the next year we said we’re going to get a good team and beat Hornsby.
Cool Papa and his teammates from the Pittsburgh Crawfords — arguably one of the best teams ever — played a three-game series in Mexico City against Rogers Hornsby’s All Stars in 1935 in what is considered one of the most outstanding black-white matchups in the history of segregated baseball. Though the first game ended in a tie, Hornsby’s team, featuring greats Jimmy Foxx, Heinie Manush, and Doc Cramer, won the last two games.
In 1936, we had ten games scheduled against Hornsby in the states. He was slowing up then, but they had him advertised. Satchel Paige never could remember names. In the first game, in Davenport, Iowa, he said, “I want you to tell me when Hornsby comes to bat,” so I yelled, “Here’s Hornsby.” Well, there was a lot of applause, but when the ball hit the catcher’s glove, Hornsby would swing. Satch struck him out two times. Andrew Porter — we used to call him “Pullman Porter” — struck Hornsby out twice, but it was a night game, dark, rainy, and foggy We got five hits and they got two, but they beat us, 2-1. Johnny Mize got both hits. It was tied, 1-1, and Mize hit a little pop fly behind second. The outfielder ran in to get it and kind of lost the ball in the fog. It was wet and he threw it into left field and Mize went home.
Bobby Feller was just coming up then, and he pitched three innings against us in Des Moines. We got only one hit off him and no runs, but we beat them after he left, 5-2 or 5-3. We beat them a double-header in Denver, came back to Des Moines and beat them again, and they just cancelled the last five games.
During barnstorming games throughout the country in the late 1930s, Cool Papa Bell had great success against pitchers like Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean.
I remember one series against Dizzy Dean’s all-stars, about 1937 or ‘38. We opened in York, Pennsylvania, and in the first inning we got four runs off Diz. I hit, Jerry Benjamin hit, Leonard walked, and Josh Gibson hit the ball over the fence. Next time Gibson hit another four-run homer. The people started booing and Diz went into the outfield for a while. He hated to just take himself out of a game. Satchel Paige was pitching for us, and we beat them 13-0.
In New York I got two doubles off Diz in one game. When Gibson came up with me on second, Diz kept telling the outfield, “Get back, get back.” Jimmy Ripple was playing center field. He said, “How far do you want me to get back?” But Diz just said, “Get back, get back.” It was a scoreless tie. Gibson hit a fly deep to Ripple. I rounded third and made my turn, and Dick Lundy, who was coaching at third, yelled, “Stop.” But the shortstop was just getting the throw from Ripple, so I started for home. The catcher caught the ball high and I slid in and the umpire called me out. The umpire said, “Look, you don’t do that against a big-league team — score from second on an outfield fly.” So he called me out.
That winter this guy Trujillo was running the Dominican Republic, only he was having some troubles. He figured since his people liked baseball so much, if he came up with a top-notch team they wouldn’t want to see him lose his job. So he imported a bunch of us from the States. There was Paige and Gibson, George Perkins, Samuel Bankhead, Orlando Cepeda’s daddy, and me. We didn’t know we were being used for a political reason until we got there. Then Trujillo told us if we didn’t win the title we would be executed. Some of our boys got so nervous they couldn’t play. But we won. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here to tell about it.
The 1937 Trujillo All Star team included Negro League greats Josh Gibson, Perucho Cepeda, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Sam Bankhead.
I led the Washington Homestead Grays in hitting for three years. In 1944 I hit .407. In 1945, I was sick, I had a stiff arm, I couldn’t throw, I couldn’t run. I hit .308, the lowest I ever hit in my life. In 1946, my arm had loosened up and my legs, and I hit .411.
I gave Monte Irvin my batting title. He was our best young player at the time, and he was trying to get into the National League. He hit .389, but they reversed it to read .398. They gave Irvin the batting championship; they said I hadn’t played enough games. The fans were mad, but they didn’t know what we were trying to do. We were trying to give Irvin the batting championship so he could get a tryout in the majors. After the season was over they were supposed to give me two hundred dollars for giving Irvin my batting title, but they never did give me the two hundred dollars.
A selfless man, Cool Papa Bell deliberately forfeited the batting title to Monte Irvin in 1946 to enhance Irvin’s chance to follow Jackie Robinson to the majors.