We will never get all the statistics because the Negro Leagues wasn’t about numbers. The Negro Leagues were about surviving against titanic odds. It’s hard to capture now the challenges of building baseball leagues for African American and dark-skinned Latin baseball players in the 1920s and ‘30s and ’40s. The different leagues triumphed and folded, scraped along and became a centerpiece for vibrant black communities.
And the financial sheet was always hard to balance. The Negro Leagues (and there were many — that’s why they are still called the Negro LeagueS, plural), were more about barnstorming from small town to small town, playing countless games against local teams, drumming up support where they could find it as they were about the Negro Leagues World Series or the big games between the well-known teams. Teams would sometimes play a game against a factory team at 10 in the morning, drive 60 miles for an early afternoon game against the House of David traveling squad, drive 120 miles and play a night game against another Negro Leagues team under the lights they brought with them. They brought their own umpires. Teams sometimes traveled together. Obviously nobody bothered to keep all those statistics.
We will never know, then, just how many bases Cool Papa Bell stole in his long career. The Negro Leagues Database over at Baseball Reference has him with 132, which isn’t especially impressive. But those are just a few selected games. James Riley in the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues had him stealing 175 bases in one 200-game season. That, without context, is extraordinarily impressive. But nobody really knows for sure.
What we do know is that Cool Papa Bell was fast, blazing fast, and this was transmitted to others not through stolen bases or the number of triples he hit but through stories, countless stories, wonderful myths, fantastic one-liners.
ool Papa Bell was so fast, Satchel Paige said, that he could turn out the lights and be under the covers before the room got dark.
Cool Papa Bell was so fast, Jimmie Crutchfield said, that when he hit a one hopper back to the pitcher the infielders would yell, “Hurry!”
Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he once bunted a ball down the third base line … and the pitcher tagged him out sliding into third.
Cool Papa Bell was so fast he once hit a line drive up the middle … and was hit by the ball when sliding in the second base.
Here’s a true one: Cool Papa Bell was so fast that when Olympic legend Jesse Owens would come to Negro Leagues games to race the players before games — he would do this often to drum up attention — he refused to race Cool Papa Bell.
Here’s another: Cool Papa Bell once scored from first on a bunt in an exhibition game against a team of white Major League players.
Here’s another true one: The Kansas City Monarchs, when they signed Jackie Robinson, played him at shortstop. Robinson had four of the five tools, but he did not have a good arm. Cool Papa was serving as a free-lancing player and coach then, and he would purposely hit ground balls to Robinson’s right and then consistently beat them out. This helped convince the Dodgers’ scout that Robinson was better suited for first and second base. Here’s the best part of the story, though. Bell, at the time, was 42 years old.
His great speed made him a superb defender — everyone says you could not hit a ball over his head in the outfield. He was also an excellent hitter, a slasher, probably something like Kenny Lofton at his best.* Negro Leagues experts seem sure he would have been a perennial threat to win the batting title. According to Riley, he hit .391 in exhibition games against Major Leaguers. He maintained his great speed for more than 20 years though he probably played in close to 4,000 games when you consider all the Negro Leagues games, and that he constantly played winter ball in Cuba, Mexico and California. He was on amazing man with one amazing nickname.
*Lofton from 1993-1997 hit .323 with nearly a .400 on-base percentage scored 110 or so runs a year.
I recently did an event with Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who knew Cool Papa from his playing days. Bell was from St. Louis, and he would come by the Cardinals games sometimes and help teach Lou Brock how to steal bases. “He was a nice man, a good teacher, and he just instinctively knew more about stealing a base than anyone else I’ve ever met,” Brock told me. I once did an event with Ernie Banks — it was actually Cool Papa Bell who discovered Banks and recommended him to Buck O’Neil and the Kansas City Monarchs — and he talked about how much awe people in the Negro Leagues felt about him.
But my favorite quote about Cool Papa Bell comes from my old friend Buck O’Neil, who would often get asked: “Just how fast WAS Cool Papa Bell?”
And he would always answer the same way: “Faster than that.”