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.”