James “Cool Papa” Bell and the Baseball Hall of Fame

On this day in 1974, James “Cool Papa” Bell was inducted in the the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Said to be the fastest man to ever run the base paths, he played in the National Negro League and in Latin America, and finished his professional career with a .341 batting average; he hit .391 in exhibitions against then all-white MLB players.

Originally a pitcher who moved to center field, Bell first signed a pro contract with the St. Louis Stars at age 17, and spent the next 29 years playing and managing. He earned the nickname “Cool” when he struck out the legendary Oscar Charleston; Bell’s manager added “Papa.” After the Stars folded in 1931, he played on a series of Negro league teams, including the Pittsburgh Crawfords (1933–37), the Chicago American Giants (1942–43), the Homestead Grays (1943–45), and the Kansas City Monarchs (1948–50).

In addition, Bell competed in the Mexican and California Winter leagues and in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. A right-handed batter who later became a switch hitter, he maintained an average that ranged from .308 to .480. He reputedly stole 175 bases in a 200-game season, thought statistics in Negro baseball were not carefully kept. It was in play against all the greats of Negro baseball and against white All-Star teams, that Bell batted .391 over a five-year period.

After Bell’s Negro League days were over, he lived in an old red-brick apartment in St. Louis. Bell worked as a scout for the St. Louis Browns for four years, then served as a security guard and custodian at St. Louis City Hall until 1970. Bell suffered a heart attack and died at Saint Louis University Hospital on March 7, 1991; his beloved wife Clara had passed a few weeks earlier.

Of Bell’s speed, Satchel Paige once remarked “Bell was so fast he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room got dark.”

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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