#FlashbackFriday: James “Cool Papa” Bell and the Negro Leagues

What we’re gonna do right here is go back. Waaay back. Back into time. Each Friday, SiriusXM will help you reminisce, as we hop into a time machine and relive the great sports moments of the past. Both on the baseball diamond and … Continued

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SiriusXM Editor
March 4, 2016

What we’re gonna do right here is go back. Waaay back. Back into time.

Each Friday, SiriusXM will help you reminisce, as we hop into a time machine and relive the great sports moments of the past. Both on the baseball diamond and off, we’ll try to bring you some interesting tidbits you might not have known.

James “Cool Papa” Bell and the Negro Leagues

The Negro leagues were formed in the late 1800s when Blacks were not being accepted into the major and minor baseball leagues. In 1885 three clubs merged to form the Cuban Giants, the first nationally-known Black professional baseball team. While most of the early teams folded due to multiple reasons, the establishment of the Negro National League by Rube Foster in 1920 led to a “Golden Age” of sorts that was characterized by must-see star players. One of those players was James “Cool Papa” Bell.

Bell is considered to be one of the fastest men ever to play baseball. It was rumored that he could flick a light switch and make it to his bed before the room got dark. Bell joined the St. Louis Stars of the NNL in 1922 as a pitcher who made occasional appearances in the outfield. He eventually made the move to become a full-time center fielder and was a highly-productive hitter and fielder.

Bell would play very shallow in the outfield to compensate for his average throwing arm and he’d run down any balls that were hit behind him. He was a switch-hitter who was dangerous when he batted left-handed because he was a few steps closer to first base. He would get a hit and then immediately steal both second and third bases. Pitchers would be so nervous with him on the bases that he regularly faked steal attempts and forced them into balks. His speed was so blistering that he once scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt and it was said he could make it around the bases in 13 seconds. It was probably true.

Bell led the Stars to three league titles in 1928, 1930 and 1931 before the Negro National League was forced to disband in 1931 due to harder economic times. Bell played for the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League, leading them to a first-place finish before that league folded as well in the wake of the Great Depression. Bell bounced around between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Mexican winter leagues.

Gus Greenlee was next to try his hand at running a Negro league. A notorious gangster and numbers runner, Greenlee wanted to use baseball as a way to launder money and purchased the Pittsburgh Crawfords. On August 6, 1931, the great Satchel Paige made his first appearance with the Crawfords and Greenlee invested $100,000 dollars in a new ballpark called Greenlee Field to ride Paige’s popularity. Bell joined the Crawfords in 1932 along with another marketable star of the Negro leagues, Josh Gibson, and the stardom of those three players led Greenlee to start the second Negro National League consisting of seven teams in 1933.

Along with Ted Page and Jimmie Crutchfield, Bell was part of arguably the best outfield ever to play in the Negro leagues. Bell made four appearances in the East-West All-Star game during his time with the Crawfords, and the team won league titles in 1935 and 1936. In 1937 after Greenlee defaulted on player salaries, Bell, Paige, Gibson and several other Crawfords players left the team to play in the Dominican Republic under dictator Rafael Trujillo. Greenlee sold the Crawfords in 1939 and the team folded in 1940.

While in the Dominican Republic, the players were under armed supervision and faced danger if they lost a game. The team won the league championship, but Trujillo disbanded the league because he wasn’t satisfied with the team’s performance. Bell then played for the integrated Mexican League from 1938 to 1941, becoming the first player in the league to win the Triple Crown in 1940 after finishing with a .437 batting average, 12 home runs (eight of which were inside-the-park homers) and 79 RBIs. He finished his Mexican League career with a .367 average.

Bell returned to the U.S. in 1942 and played for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League before joining the Homestead Grays of the NNL a year later. Bell was named an All-Star three times in from 1942-44 and the Grays won the league championship in 1943 and 1944. He retired from the Negro leagues in 1946 at 43 but still performed as a player-manager for the leagues’ farm teams until 1950. He finished his career with a .341 batting average and hit .391 in exhibitions against MLB players.

The Negro league lost its appeal in 1947 after the integration of the major leagues, marked by Jackie Robinson’s appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of that year. Black players were signed to MLB teams without regard to any contracts that may have been signed with Negro league clubs. The NNL folded in 1948 and the Negro American League was reduced to a minor league before disbanding in 1958.

Bell became the fifth Negro league player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. Paige, Gibson, Monte Irvin and Buck Leonard were inducted between 1971 and 1973. Bell suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of 87 on March 7, 1991.