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National Treasures: A Journey Through the Negro Leagues By John Holway with "Cool Papa" Bell/Introduction by Frank Ceresi

This gouache painting of James “Cool Papa” Bell by artist Sanjay Verma, depicts the great Negro League star on a phantom trading card.

INTRODUCTION

For this National Treasures segment, we have decided to merge three of our favorites topics because they fit so seamlessly together. First, I will write about John Holway, our nation’s preeminent pioneer and scholar on the Negro Leagues. Second, we will introduce into John’s story “Cool Papa” Bell, a Hall of Famer who John became close friends with decades ago. Lastly, we will intersperse some of our artifacts and treasures throughout their narrative. We hope that you will enjoy this journey through baseball’s past.

Forty-some years ago, when very few baseball scholars had much information, let alone interest, in what we now loosely call the Negro Leagues, it fell upon one or two dedicated historians to dig into the history that was, for all intents and purposes, totally unknown. Many had a vague notion of the clever Satchel Paige or the mighty slugger Josh Gibson, but what about the others?  There was virtually no mention of those players either on my Topps Gum cards or in Cooperstown’s hallowed halls. But what about the hundreds of men who toiled in the “other” league, a separate league from the majors, where ballplayers were largely confined to back roads, country parks, and barnstorming games?  In other words, who were these men who were prevented from playing in the majors simply because of the pigment of their skin?

That is when John Holway, a man who I consider a National Treasure, stepped into the fold to help answer those questions for my generation and those that will come forever. And to answer those questions, Mr. Holway embarked upon a task that was not easy. I have since learned from John, who today is a close friend of mine, that his own interest in black ball was also peaked right in my own back yard when, in 1943, as a young boy he saw Satchel’s Kansas City Monarchs pitch against Gibson and the Grays at Griffith Stadium. John tucked his childhood memory away until years later, then a pretty accomplished baseball historian himself (he had written the very first books on Japanese baseball and sumo wrestling to be translated into English after serving in Korea in the early 1950s), John began to comb the sports pages from arcane newspapers stashed at the Library of Congress for baseball coverage and statistics related to those who played in the Negro Leagues, that “other” league.

Like so many others who share a passion for history and baseball, you might say that John’s curiosity got the best of him. An occasional free night or weekend at the Library turned into months and months of archiving and research. Months then turned into years. John was, after all, plowing into virgin territory. And there were not too many who carried the same passion or, at the very least, had the same doggedness and determination to go forward. John had heard that there was at least one fellow whose interest mirrored his own. They communicated. In 1970 that fellow historian, scribe and friend, Robert Peterson, published his own extraordinary book, Only the Ball Was White. That was important. It only added fuel to John’s thirst for knowledge. So he plowed ahead.

John learned that African Americans had been playing “America’s Game” for as long as whites, but that the mainstream newspapers rarely, if ever, actually reported upon or covered the black ballplayers and their teams. What to do?  That might have been an impediment for some, but for John it was an opportunity. Why not hear, John thought, about the game from the players themselves?  Certainly some must be alive, and perhaps they would be willing to share their stories?  So John took it upon himself, at his own expense, to travel across the land to interview many of the very ballplayers who plied their trade years before Jackie Robinson’s historic feat in 1947. Over the span of several years, John interviewed well over a hundred Negro Leaguers, preserving from each their own unique and colorful stories.

Let John tell us what happened.

“One of the first men I was referred to was (Buck) Leonard in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I grabbed my tape recorder and two sons and drove down there. Buck referred me to “Cool Papa” in St. Louis and Hilton Smith in Kansas City . . . from there the trial fanned out.” 

And the stories kept coming, words and recollections, reminisces and memories tumbling out of the mouths of a proud group of men whose stories were ripe for telling. They all became friends of John’s. Over time, he learned that it was precisely those stories, being faithfully relayed by John to all of us, that gave the Negro Leagues the very color and sustenance that continues to give life to the players and their joys and struggles.

Eventually, by piecing together bits and pieces of information culled from his copious research notes and interviews, John published a series of five books dedicated exclusively to the Negro Leagues. And, God willing, there are more to come! As John and I became close friends, he shared with me many of his research files. Amongst them was this amazing story that he coaxed from one of the great Negro Leaguers who is also in the Baseball Hall of Fame, James “Cool Papa” Bell. The content is so amazing, even reading it nearly 40 years after John compiled it, that we have decided to present this to you in a series of several segments. By the time you read each part of this series, you will know much about “Cool Papa” Bell, the ballplayer and the man.

For the first column, we will, naturally, start at the beginning.

                                                                                                         ~Frank Ceresi

 

  PART I

Cool Papa Bell:  My Early Years

Author John Holway became close friends with “Cool Papa” Bell. After he was notified that he would be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Bell thanked Mr. Holway for his tireless work promoting the Negro Leagues and helping Bell, in particular, become recognized for his special talents on the baseball diamond.

I was born in 1903 in Starkville, Mississippi, so I was sixty-six last May [1969], and in all I played twenty-nine years summer ball and twenty-one years winter ball. I started playing at sixteen when I came to St. Louis in 1919 with my four brothers who were playing for the Compton Hills Cubs in the old City League. I made thirty-five to forty dollars a week at the packing house and twenty dollars on Sunday to play ball. It was more than I could make playing ball full time.

In 1922 I was ready to quit baseball. I figured it was time to get a steady job, but the East St. Louis Cubs needed a pitcher to throw against the old St. Louis Stars of the Negro League, and they asked me to come out for just one more game. I beat the Stars, and they made me such a good offer that I decided to stick with baseball. When they saw how I could run and throw, they made me an outfielder. I was a natural right-handed batter, but I was a switch-hitter.

Here is the great St. Louis Stars team from the early 1920s with a very young “Cool Papa” Bell as its center fielder.

They thought I’d be afraid of the crowds, but I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve played before crowds on the sand lots – we used to draw ten to eleven thousand people.”  And they said, “Oh, that guy, he’s taking it cool, isn’t he?”  So they called me Cool Bell. But my manager said, “We’ve got to add something to it; we’ll call him Cool Papa.”  That’s what everyone called me. Most people don’t know my real name’s Jim.

What a team we had:  Quincy Troupe, Highpockets Trent, Mule Suttles, George Giles, Leroy Matlock, Newt Allen, Willie “Devil” Wells, Frog Reddus, Dewey Creacy . . . We played at the park at Compton Avenue and Market Street by the old car barns. We had a lot of fun. And we had a lot of ballplayers better than some of those in the majors today. But some of our owners didn’t think we were good enough to play in the majors. They said, “You’d have to learn a whole new system in the majors.”  That shows how much they knew about baseball!

The first time I played against the big leaguers was against the Detroit Tigers in 1922. I was nineteen then. Cobb and Heilmann didn’t play. Cobb had played against a Negro team in Cuba in 1910 and got beat and said he’d never play against us again. But Howard Ehmke pitched. We beat them two out of three. After that, Judge Landis, the Commissioner, wouldn’t let them play a Negro team under their real names. They had to call themselves All-Stars. Then if they got beat, we couldn’t say we beat a big-league team. For five years we played a postseason series against the Cardinals-Browns All-Stars, and they didn’t win one series. We didn’t play baseball like they play in the Major Leagues. We played “tricky baseball.”  When we played the big-leaguers after the regular season, our pitchers would curve the ball on the 3-2. They’d say, “What, are you trying to make us look bad?”  We’d bunt and run and they’d say, “Why are you trying to do that in the first inning?”  When we were supposed to bunt, they’d come in and we’d hit away. Oh, we played tricky baseball.

When “Cool Papa” initially faced a major league pitcher, it was 1922 when the Stars played the Detroit Tigers. Howard Ehmke was on the mound for the major leaguers. He won 17 games that year but learned that Bell and his teammates played tricky baseball.

That’s why we beat the Major League teams. It’s not that we had the best men, but in a short series we could out guess them. Baseball is a guessing game. The Major Leaguers would play for one big inning. They go by “written baseball.”  But there’s so much “unwritten baseball.”  When you use it, they say it’s unorthodox.

In our league, if a guy was on first and had a chance to go to third, he’d go just fast enough to make the outfielder throw. That way, the batter could take second, you see. We’d go into third standing up so the third baseball couldn’t see the throw coming and it might go through him. Jackie Robinson learned that from some old players he saw in the Negro Leagues. Sometimes you can teach a guy something and he can do it better than you.

The Chicago American Giants had the smartest players you ever saw. They used to bat in a run on a base on balls. If they had a man on third and the batter walked, he’d just trot easy-like down to first and the man on third would just sort of stand there, looking at the stands. At the last minute the batter would cut out for second as fast as he could go; the coach would yell. “Heh, look at that!”  The pitcher would whirl around, the guy on third would light out for home, and like as not they wouldn’t get anybody out.

I could score from second on a long fly. I’ve even scored from first on a sacrifice. And I scored from first base on singles lots of times. If the ball isn’t hit straight at the outfielder, I’d score. You have to be heads up and watch those things. Or I’d stand back from the plate and chop down on the ball. That’s something I learned from the old players. By the time the ball comes down, they can’t throw me out.

Stealing home, now that’s a dangerous job. I didn’t do that too often. You’ve got to have a good man at bat. And you have to watch the pitcher. When he’s working with a windup, as soon as he brings his arm down, that’s the time to go. By the time he can bring his arm up again to throw, he can’t get you.

You had to know how to steal signs, too. Buck Leonard, our first baseman, was a great hitter, but he didn’t hit the curve ball as well as he did the fastball. I said, “If you knew what was coming, could you hit the ball?”  He said, “Yeah.”  I said, “Well, I bet I can tell you every time a curve’s coming. If it’s a curve and I’m on first, I’ll stand with my hands on my knees. If it’s a fastball, I’ll stand straight up. And if I don’t know, I’ll sort of swing my arms to say I didn’t catch it.”

Buck Leonard was a long-time friend and teammate of Bell’s for many years when they both played for the Homestead Grays. Buck initially had trouble hitting the curve ball, but “Cool Papa” tells us how he helped the future Hall of Famer “read the curve.

How did I do it?  It’s easy. Every time a curve is coming, what would the catcher do?  He’d move his right foot over a little to be ready to catch it, wouldn’t he?  I remember the 1964 World Series, the Cardinals and the Yankees, I kept telling the guy next to me, “It’s a curve, it’s a fast ball.”  Heck, all I did was watch the catcher.

Earl Whitehill was the toughest big-league pitcher I ever faced. In 1929 we beat the Major League All-Stars six out of eight games, and Whitehill beat us both times. The other pitchers were George Uhle and Willis Hudlin. I ran the bases against them the same as I did any other time. If it was time to steal, I’d steal.

Now Pepper Martin of the Cardinals was a pretty good base runner. He ran kind of wild in the World Series in 1932 when he stole five bases. I played against him in 1930 on the Pacific coast. When we played those fellows, they’d come and ask us how we did this or that, and I told Pepper how to get a lead off the pitcher. If you have a catcher with a great arm, you have to get a bigger lead. You can’t steal on the catcher much, it’s with the pitcher you’ve got to get the jump. A lot of people don’t know this – you can’t outrun that ball.

“Cool Papa” opined that Pepper Martin was a “pretty good base runner,” who ran wild during the 1933 World Series. Here Bell tells of a conversation that he had with the St. Louis Cardinal great about base stealing. Martin later credited Bell for helping him perfect his game on the base paths.

When you get a hit, some people are satisfied if they get a single. But if you run hard, just like you’re trying to beat out a bunt, and make your turn at first, if the outfielder has to go over to get the ball, you can go to second. That’s how you take your extra base, by hustling all the time. And if you’re stealing second, don’t be satisfied. Look up, the infielder might miss the ball and you can get up and go to third. A lot of players expect the coaches to tell them, but the coach can’t think as fast as the player can.

Well, after Martin had that good year in the Series, the next year he gave all the credit to me for stealing all those bases. They asked him if colored players could play in the majors, and he told them about playing against me and how I had helped him. 


Stay tuned for Part II of this series in which “Cool Papa” Bell tells John Holway about some of the exciting moments of his extraordinary baseball career. 

 

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