By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 99: Cool Papa Bell

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.”

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23 Responses to No. 99: Cool Papa Bell

  1. Blake says:

    Why is Cool Papa Bell remembered when so many other great Negro League players weren’t? Because Satchel Paige got off a great one-liner about him.

    • DjangoZ says:

      If you think that then you have alot to learn about Cool Papa Bell.

      • Blake says:

        A lot? Really? Where is there a lot to learn about Cool Papa Bell?

        • J Hench says:

          I’d start with the chapter on Bell in Donald Honig’s collection of oral histories “Baseball When the Grass was Real.” In it, Bell explains where Paige’s one-liner came from, but also discusses other aspects of his marvelous career.

  2. He should also be included in a list of the best nick names in baseball. Look forward to all the selections. Trust that Josh Gibson is included.

  3. stevemarines says:

    Joe, I’ve read the anecdotes you’ve shared over the years about Cool Papa Bell many times, and they never get old. Good stuff.

  4. […] 100 – Curt Schilling 99 – Cool Papa Bell […]

  5. “He was also an excellent hitter, a slasher, probably something like Kenny Lofton at his best”.

    Wow. You really brought Cool Papa down a couple of notches with that one!

    • wordyduke says:

      Remember that the comparison is to Lofton as a hitter for the five years 1993-1997. The assumption is that Bell was an even better fielder (Lofton, 4 GG in those five years) and baserunner (Lofton, led MLB in stolen bases for those five years). Lofton’s ages 26-30 compare well to Richie Ashburn’s. If Kenny had been playing in the bigs at age 21, as Ashburn did, and then collected the 1381 hits Lofton did after age 30 (Ashburn had 722), that’s 3000+.

      Lofton’s career isn’t Hall of Fame material, but those five years are. Too much basketball.

      • I know what Joe was trying to say, but it’s almost a non sequitur to conjure up “Kenny Lofton” as any kind of an analogy for being included in the Top 100 players. Let’s just say “he’s a lot like Kenny Lofton” will never appear on a fact sheet touting anyone for HOF induction.

        • Dan Shea says:

          Actually, Kenny Lofton’s top 10 B-R comparables include three HOF’ers, plus Ken Griffey Jr., Ichiro, and Raines. He’s 8th in career WAR for centre fielders (two points behind the average Hall of Fame CF) and 9th in JAWS (less than one point behind the average HOF CF).

          Yes, I thought he deserved more HOF consideration. 🙂

  6. It looks like we are really going to get 100 of these things. Hmmmm. Yeah, it seems OK after a couple (Schilling and Cool Papa Bell are very interesting players), but remember how the interest in the BR HOF vote faded? Look at the gaps in Joe’s final recap of the BR HOF, and you’ll see that even he lost interest.

    • Karyn says:

      How about maybe you see if there’s anything to complain about before you start complaining? Remember, if you don’t like it, there’s a whole internet out there for you to read.

  7. johnq11 says:

    How in the world can you fairly rate and rank Negro league players along with MLB players? At best I think people take an educated guess were they think these players would rank.

    Maybe Cool Papa Bell would have been a top 30 player all time had he played in MLB. Maybe he would rank around 150. Maybe he would have gotten hurt during his 3rd season and retired early. Who knows?

    • Considering that he DIDN’T get hurt playing non-stop for 20-odd years, I somehow doubt that he would’ve in the majors. In any case, Joe stated that this was a subjective list. It’s his, and he can rank players any way he pleases.

  8. Chad Meisgeier says:

    I want to match you pick for pick here. Next, I will go :

    #99 – Dave Winfield.

  9. Lawhamel says:

    So with the inclusion of Negro Leaguers in the Top 100 – and they should be included – it’s hard for me to see Lou Whitaker in this subset. I am a big Sweet Lou fan and absolutely think he is a HOFer, but Top 100? As for Negro League players who should be in this list, there are at least 6-7 more, if Bell is in: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Willie Wells, Biz Mackie, Cristobal Torriente and Martin Dihigo all seem no-brainers. Maybe Smokey Joe Williams and Bullet Joe Rogan as well. Mule Suttles? Turkey Stearnes? Jud Wilson? Hilton Smith?

    And Monte Irvin – who split his career and is thus only remembered, statistically, for his MLB stats – was among the best of them all.

    Having no reliable stats makes this a very tough puzzle to decipher.

  10. rickda says:

    “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.”

    THAT is pretty amazing and to me is the best summary of how great Cool Papa Bell truly was.

  11. Caelen says:

    Love those old Pittsburgh Crawford players.. if they kept stats he may have had more stolen bases then Henderson.

  12. […] is pitcher Satchel Paige and outfielder James ‘Cool Papa’ Bell (who sportswriter Joe Posnanski ranks the 99th greatest baseball player of all time). The other two are Willie Wells and Turkey Stearnes […]

  13. […] first start in five months — BASEBALL is back and all of this is awesome. Mallex Smith, who is faster than that, hit two stand-up triples in the first inning and finished a single shy of the cycle. (The second […]

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