Faster Than the Speed of Light: James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell

In honor of black history month, I thought I might turn my attention to a legendary Negro League star each Sunday in February and try and shed some light on some of their legendary skills and accomplishments. While many statistics from the Negro League are impossible to verify absolutely and several stories seem to be more fable than fact, interviews with teammates and some major leaguers who played exhibition games against players from the Negro League can shed some light on how skilled the stars of this league actually were.

I begin with perhaps the greatest baseball nickname of them all, Cool Papa Bell.  I begin with Cool Papa because the stories of his speed and skill are the stuff that legends are made.

He was born James Thomas Nichols on May 17, 1903 in Starkville, Mississippi.  He changed his last name to Bell although when and why is not known.  He was the fourth of seven children.  He lived with his widowed mother.  He grew up hungry and dirt poor.

When Bell was 19 years old, he joined up with the St. Louis Stars of the Negro League as a…. pitcher.  It took the Stars a couple of years until in 1924 they finally realized the hitting, speed and defensive skill of Bell would be better served in centerfield.  It was from that moment that he gained his reputation as the fastest man in the league, and probably the fastest man in the known universe.

The stories told about his speed have become legendary over the years. Only the cartoon characters of the Roadrunner and Speedy Gonzalez seem faster.  Perhaps even they could not have caught Cool Papa in his prime.

Stories of scoring from first base on a sacrifice bunt, scoring often from second base on a fly ball and hitting a double on a bunt play have been told and may even have a basis in fact.  I can recall a game in the eighties seeing then St. Louis Cardinal centre fielder Willie McGee score from second base on a fly ball to centre.  I have witnessed a runner scoring from first on a sacrifice bunt. I have witnessed a batter reaching second base on a bunt play.  In both cases, several throwing errors were needed in allowing a run. No mention of such errors helping Cool Papa Bell.

Bell was once recorded having fully rounded the bases in 12 seconds.  Bell once hit a screaming line drive through the middle, barely missing the pitcher and being hit in the buttocks by that same line drive while sliding into second base to complete the double.

The great Satchel Paige told a story that Bell could turn off the light in their room and be under the covers before the room went dark. It was later revealed that Paige had neglected to mention that the wiring in this particular light switch was faulty and would often have a delay of a few seconds..

I can recall another story, I can’t remember from where exactly, of a catcher being asked how to throw Bell out attempting to steal second base.  The catcher simply and straight faced that he would throw the ball to third and hope it was in time.

Bell reportedly once stole second and then third base on the same pitch.

Cool Papa played and coached for several Negro League and Mexican League teams during his career. He led the Homestead Grays to the Negro League title in 1942, 1943 and 1944.  He last played for the semi pro Detroit senators in 1946. In the minors he tutored legendary to be Ernie Banks, Elston Howard and Jackie Robinson. In 1974 Bell was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

James Thomas Bell died in St. Louis, Missouri at the age of 87.  In his honor, Dickson Street where he lived was renamed James “Cool Papa” Bell Avenue.

I wonder if there is a speed limit on James “Cool Papa” Bell Avenue.

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