Cool Papa Bell: New book looks for the man behind the baseball mythology

The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell: Speed, Grace and the Negro Leagues; By Lonnie Wheeler; 325 pages; Abrams Press, New York; 2021.

In biographies written about professional athletes, especially baseball, there is typically a section near the bibliography and index outlining a player’s career statistics, usually listed year by year with team affiliations. It offers reliable details about at-bats, hits, runs, home runs, runs batted in or innings pitched, wins, losses, earned run average and strikeouts. In today’s sabermetrics era the numbers also include wins above replacement or defensive efficiency ratio. No other sport relies upon statistics to tell its story and shape the narratives of its stars more than baseball.

Readers will find none of those numbers in a new book by the late journalist, author and baseball writer Lonnie Wheeler, “The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell: Speed, Grace and the Negro Leagues.” Wheeler, who died in June 2020 at age 68 prior to the book’s publication in February 2021, had long wanted to write a biography of Bell, one of the icons of Negro League baseball in the 1930s and early ‘40s who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. The problem? Few verifiable details exist about Black baseball and its stars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Bell who were denied the opportunity to compete in the Major Leagues alongside white stars like Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth or Ted Williams.

Historians writing about the Negro League era typically find few documented facts about the period because there was scant media coverage, if any at all. Negro League players performed before appreciative fans but almost no media outside of a few Black-owned and operated newspapers. There was also no reliable system for accumulating statistics leaguewide and sometimes Negro League schedules became merely suggestions. Teams, sometimes operated by shady owners involved in rackets such as numbers and bootlegging, came and went during seasons that were often patchwork affairs with teams dropping out for a day or two to play an exhibition game for extra money while on the road. Players would leave teams for better paying gigs for a while then return — or join another team. A few headed to Mexico where they could play and live without the Jim Crow discrimination they felt in America.

More recently, some statistics are available through an effort by Baseball Reference and Major League Baseball to better present the accomplishments of Negro League players and include the numbers in the overall recorded history of Major League Baseball. But Baseball Reference acknowledges the listings are not complete and the story of those players goes beyond available numbers. Readers can find statistics listed here.

Wheeler was a reporter’s reporter whose newspaper stops included the Jackson Clarion Ledger in Mississippi, Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati Post. His previous books include collaborations on autobiographies of baseball greats Henry Aaron (“I Had a Hammer”), Bob Gibson (“Stranger to the Game”) and Mike Piazza (“Long Shot”). He was also author of two outstanding books with Gibson. “Sixty Feet, Six Inches” was written with Gibson and Reggie Jackson and offers a fascinating look at the showdown between pitcher and hitter as the game within the game. “Pitch by Pitch” examines in great detail Gibson’s historic 17-strikeout pitching performance in game one of the 1968 World Series against the Detroit Tigers.

Tracking the life of James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, who died in 1991 at age 87, wouldn’t be easy with multiple frustrations for any reporter, much less one as thorough as Wheeler. Bell wasn’t charismatic like his occasional teammate Satchel Paige, who didn’t mind promoting himself and was often interviewed by newspapers and writers for years after his playing days were over. Almost no players from that time are still alive to be interviewed now. And Cool Papa Bell was quiet, a man who kept to himself with wife Clara at their home in St. Louis. He was remembered by other players as the nicest person in baseball who possessed uncanny speed. His exploits on the field were the stuff of baseball mythology. It was persistently said almost to the point of cliché that he was so fast he could turn off the lights in a room and be in the bed before the room got dark. According to eyewitness accounts, he covered remarkable territory in centerfield, hit for power and average, turned singles into triples and stole bases at will. Upon seeing Bell play in an exhibition against white Major League players in Denver, a white sports reporter remarked that Bell was the only player he had ever seen who could steal first base.

The challenge for Wheeler was akin to weaving a story through a patchwork quilt of anecdotes from Bell’s contemporaries in previously published books about the Negro Leagues and in the scarce number of newspaper accounts available. Wheeler’s research is still formidable enough to stitch together an interesting narrative with the available facts he does have. But he admits there are gaps where some things are simply not known. Educated guesswork based on the time period and known facts about the Negro League and Cool Papa Bell allow Wheeler and readers to connect more than a few dots. Wheeler was a gifted wordsmith and many passages in the book are artfully engineered.

In examining the life of Cool Papa Bell a few things ring clear. The Negro League players were horribly wronged by gatekeepers of the Major Leagues. Commissioner Kennesaw Landis, a retired federal judge and team owners conspired to keep their league all white for decades, finding specious excuses to exclude outstanding black players who were every bit the equal and often superior to the white stars of that time. This was proven multiple times when Negro League all-star teams competed in exhibition games against white Major League all-stars and came out on top. Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and Paige were usually the stars in those games, which still occurred even after Landis issued a directive against such exhibitions should they lead to integration of the game.

In producing the story of Cool Papa Bell, Wheeler provides a compilation and summation of his baseball life which up to now was largely told in bits and pieces in a variety of books about the Negro Leagues and its players. Bell at one time played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords with Paige, Josh Gibson and other league luminaries. It is believed to be the best Negro League team ever assembled, which would make it among the best on any professional level ever.

Wheeler also provides a look at Bell’s world after baseball, his hometown affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, his deep friendship with Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial, and his mentorship of Lou Brock, another otherworldly speedster who set records in the 1960s and ‘70s for stolen bases while playing for the Cardinals and ultimately was elected to the Hall of Fame. After his own election to the Hall in 1974, Bell became a beloved fixture in Cooperstown, New York during Hall of Fame induction weekend each summer.

Wheeler’s biography of Cool Papa Bell is a valuable reminder of what Black players of that era endured and an important spotlight on Bell’s own contributions to the game. After retirement from baseball where pay was minimal, Bell worked as a janitor and then a night watchman at St. Louis City Hall. He and his wife lived a humble life barely above poverty level in a tough neighborhood where the street was named in his honor. Wheeler reminds us that Cool Papa Bell responded to life’s situations in the only way he knew how, with an iron will, grace, dignity and an interest in helping future generations of players do what he had not been able to, play baseball at the highest professional level on an equal playing field.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Prior to his passing I met Lonnie Wheeler through a mutual friend, and we became fiends via social media. I reviewed one of his last books, Intangiball, a few years ago.

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