James Thomas Bell was born May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Mississippi. He exhibited great athletic skills as a child. By the age of 19, he had signed a contract with the St. Louis Stars, an all-Black team in the Negro National League. He was a natural on the diamond. Because he was unintimidated by playing in front of large audiences, he earned the nickname “Cool Papa” by his older teammates.
While playing with the St. Louis Stars, Bell started out as the pitcher. He threw a mean curveball and fade-away knuckleball. His speed, however, became apparent when he competed against Chicago American Giants, Jimmy Lyons, for the title of fastest man in the league. Bell beat Lyons by a longshot. From there, he was immediately switched to center field.
Bell was known for playing shallow and running down long hits. He led the Stars to league titles in 1928 and 1930. In 1930, the Negro National League disbanded. His speed had made him a living legend. On a wet field, he ran the bases in 13.1 seconds. On a dry field, he could run them in 12 seconds.
Bell’s longtime teammate and friend, Satchel Paige, truly admired his speed. Paige always commented on Bell’s speed by stating that Bell could turn the lights off and be in bed before the room got dark. In his autobiography, Paige wrote that Bell made Jesse Owens look like he was walking.
Over the course of his 20-year career, Bell played in several different leagues in the U.S. and Latin America. In his first and last seasons with the Negro Leagues, he batted over .400. He retired in 1946. The following year, his mentee, Jackie Robinson forced his way into the major leagues. For Bell, that was the greatest moment in his career.
By the age of 44, Bell played one final game two years after his retirement. He appeared in a 1948 all-star game which was also his first time playing before a predominantly White crowd. Showcasing his speed, he stole home from first base on an infield bunt from Satchel Paige. He was later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. James “Cool Papa” Bell died on March 7, 1991. He was 87 years old.
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