If I were to ask you what you know about James “Cool Papa” Bell, it’s quite likely you would say that he was the fastest player in the Negro Leagues, and to support this you could recount a fable about him... likely attributed to Satchel Paige.
“He could turn out the lights and be in bed before the room got dark.” “He hit a line drive past my head, and when I turned around it hit him in the back as he slid into 2nd base.” “He could score from 1st base on a bunt.”
These tall tales are delightfully evocative. But there’s also something reductionist about them. Are these gag lines really all we can know about one of the greatest ballplayers in the history of St. Louis?
Gary Ashwill, who maintains a long-running blog on Negro League and Latin American baseball, says readers are often shocked at the detail of the statistical complications he is able to do.
“This comes mainly from two sources: 1) a basic unawareness (completely understandable) of the nature of baseball journalism, particularly the box score, in the earlier twentieth century; and 2) the legend of the Negro Leagues, which paints them as half-mythical enterprises that took place mostly in the realm of tall tales.”
Ashwill and many, many others have documented the statistical records of the Negro Leagues. The authors of the great oral history Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues document 158 ABs that Cool Papa Bell took against white Major League pitching, including Hall of Famers. In that admittedly small sample, he batted .378. That includes highlights like going 3 for 5 against Bob Feller in 1936.
But if you’re looking for the most complete, modern statistical record of the Negro Leagues, you should turn to the Seamheads.com Negro League Database. They’ve not only compiled the raw numbers from various leagues in the US and Latin America, not to mention exhibition games against white major league teams, they’ve crunched them into many of the more advanced stats. So... what do these numbers tell us?
There’s a widely circulated tale that Cool Papa Bell once stole 175 bases in a 200 game season. First off, Bell only twice played more than 100 games in a season. Negro League teams did not always play the same number of games, even in a given season, but generally they topped out at just around 100. You could conjecture that figure includes barnstorming and exhibition games, but the Seamheads.com database actually does a very good job of including these as well. More likely than not, it’s simply an exaggeration.
But the statistical record still shows that Bell was an excellent base stealer within the context of the era. Even in the Major Leagues, during the 20s and 30s, it was uncommon for a player to reach 50 steals in a season. Bell’s career high was 52 in 1929. The MLB leader that season was Kiki Cuyler of the Chicago Cubs with 43. Cuyler played 139 games that season. Bell played just 102.
We don’t need fables of Rickey Henderson Plus totals to see that Bell was a superlative base stealer, within the context of his era.
As for Bell’s raw speed, it is documented by several sources that he ran the bases in 13.1 seconds on a wet field in Chicago (timed by Bill Veeck). Bryan Buxton holds the Statcast record for an inside-the-park home run at 13.85 seconds, so Bells time seems not only well documented (on the technology of the era) but plausible. Bell’s own claim that on a dry field he had run the bases in 12 seconds... that may have been a stretch.
In the relatively few records of Bell speaking about his achievements in his own words, when he is asked about the legends like scoring from first on a bunt he consistently points to intelligence rather than raw speed as what gave him the edge. In the Voices book, he explains that he regularly went from 1st-to-3rd on a bunt by simply not stopping as he rounded 2nd and catching the 3rd baseman off the bag, having charged the ball. Sometimes the ensuing confusion would result in a broken play that allowed him to come all the way home.
That kind of description will be familiar to any Viva El Libros readers who recently read The Glory of Their Times, wherein MLB players of the first couple decades of the 20th century repeatedly cited smart base running and doing the unexpected as some of the skills that set the greats apart in that era.
In an unfortunately condescending feature from Sports Illustrated in 1974, a friend of Bell’s called Wee Willie Keeler the closest comp to Cool Papa Bell in his prime. In other words, Bell was old school even for the 1920s.
The other thing that the statistical record does for Bell is to show us that beyond the legends - which focus almost exclusively on his speed - he was an excellent hitter... not to mention a decent pitcher during his first three seasons, when the knuckleballer posted a 107 ERA+ in 308 innings.
During the first 10 years of his career, all played with the St. Louis Stars, Bell posted a slash line of: .325 / .387 / .468, good for a 121 OPS+. These are the years where he was also posting high stolen base totals and great defensive value in center field.
As Bell aged and his arthritic body became less able to run, he actually became a much better hitter. In the final year of his career, Bell posted an absurd .393 / .452 / .451, or a 160 OPS+. He was 43-years-old.
The year was 1946, and it was already understood that Jackie Robinson would be breaking the color barrier the next season. The Negro National and American League were still populated with some of the all-time greats, like Bell, Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson, who had grown old while white baseball shut them out.
A 34-year-old Gibson, playing through a brain tumor and hoping he might still get his shot at the white major leagues, posted an absurd 195 OPS+. He would die tragically that January.
But the league was also stocked with young talent that would soon prove they were on-par with the best players in white baseball, like Larry Doby and Monte Irvin.
In this mix of great talent, suffering from arthritis and 43-years-old, James Thomas Bell showed one final time that he was absolutely one of the all-time greats. His greatness was not simply a few anecdotes and some vague mythology. It was there on the field and it is there in the numbers.