In the lore that helped create the history of Negro League baseball, only the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson are bigger than that of James “Cool Papa” Bell who was born on this date in Starkville, Mississippi; 1903. He is considered prominent not only in the conversation of the fastest player in Negro League baseball, but also the fastest to ever put on a pair of baseball spikes. The speedy outfielder could circle the bases in 12 seconds, go from first to third on a sacrifice bunt, and score from second base on a sacrifice fly. Despite the absence of complete and accurate historical records of Negro League games, it is believed Bell stole 175 bases in 200 games one year.Jesse Owens, 1936 Olympic sprinter who won four gold medals, had exhibitions before some Negro League baseball games where he would race the ballplayers and sometimes even horses. The most anticipated race that never occurred was Bell against Owens. Many fans and players believed Bell would win.
Bell’s nickname had nothing to do with his speed. He began his Negro League baseball career as a skinny 5’11”, 135 pound nineteen year old pitcher for the St. Louis Stars in 1922. In pressure situations on the mound facing veteran hitters such as Oscar Charleston, Bell would not panic or crumble. His teammates saw he remained “cool” and the “papa” was added for sound effect. The “Cool Papa” name stuck through his 24 year Negro League baseball career and beyond. Bell was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.