day 18: cool papa bell

Today is 18 days, which is two weeks and four days of the omer: netzach she’b’tiferet.

How fast was Cool Papa Bell? “One time he hit a line drive right past my ear,” Satchel Paige said. “I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second base.”

How fast was Cool Papa Bell? “If he bunts and it bounces twice, put it in your pocket,” Ted Radcliffe said.

How fast was Cool Papa Bell?  “If he hit one back to the pitcher,” Jimmie Crutchfield said, “Everyone yelled, ‘Hurry up!’”

How fast was Cool Papa Bell? “He could turn out the lights and be in bed and under the covers before the room got dark,” said Josh Gibson.

How fast was Cool . . .? “Faster than that!” said Buck O’Neil, before the question was even finished.

How fast was Cool Papa Bell? Jesse Owens refused to race him.

Cool Papa Bell of the Homestead Grays slides into third base during the first game of a double-header against the Baltimore Elite Giants at Washington’s Griffith Stadium on Negro National League Opening Day, May 16, 1943.

Negro Leagues center fielder James Thomas Bell may well have been the fastest man ever to play baseball: It was said he could run the bases in less than 13 seconds. He certainly had poise in batting — he finished his career with a .341 lifetime batting average — and in fielding — there didn’t seem to be a fly ball he couldn’t catch — but the moniker by which he was known his whole life came from his first days in the league, where he started as a left-handed pitcher at age 19 and stayed preternaturally calm during a pressure-packed strikeout of veteran slugger Oscar Charleston to end a crucial inning.

A note about numbers and the Negro Leagues: Bell probably wore several different numbers on the jerseys he wore from the nine different teams he played for in his 24-year career. It’s hard to figure out, but there is some evidence that his Washington Homestead Grays uniform featured the number 18. Of course, player numbers were the least of the record keeping problems in the Negro Leagues. Bell told a reporter in 1981, “I remember one game I got five hits and stole five bases, but none of it was written down because they didn’t bring the scorebook to the game that day.”

Mississippi native Bell had an historical marker installed in his hometown of Starkville in 1999.

Despite the distinct lack of sabermetrics, Bell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, one of the first Negro Leagues players to be so recognized in MLB’s attempt to rectify discrimination because of its color line. Bell retired the year before Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field for the first time in April, 1947, but not before Bell’s speed convinced the Kansas City Monarchs to play Robinson at second base because he couldn’t throw Bell out as short stop. (Bell was 42 at the time.) In response to the HoF belated recognition Bell quipped,

So many people say that I was born too soon, but that’s not true. They opened the doors too late.

It’s hard to imagine a player whose beauty manifests with more endurance than Cool Papa Bell. Let’s count day 18 in his honor — and this chai day in honor of all of the many Negro Leagues players who never got their due.

Paul Simon, “Cool Papa Bell,” from Stranger to Stranger 



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