Bell was an American center fielder in Negro League Baseball, considered by many to have been the fastest man ever to play the game. Since he was not allowed to compete against whites however, we will never know.
As Paul Finkelman writes in “Remembering the Negro Leagues,” an essay for the Oxford African American Studies Center,
“Before 1900 [only] a few black players could be found in the major leagues. In 1878 John W. “Bud” Fowler joined an otherwise all–white team in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Facing discrimination and racism, Fowler used his wits as well as his skills to fight for equality. In fact, Fowler is credited with inventing shin guards to protect his legs from white players who continually tried to spike him. In 1883 Moses Fleetwood Walker, a graduate of Oberlin College, signed with Toledo Blue Stockings, and a year later when the Blue Stocking joined the new “American Association,” Walker became the first African American in the major leagues. In 1886 Frank Grant joined the Buffalo team in the International League. But a year later the professional leagues banned the signing of any new black players. When Walker retired in 1889 major league baseball became a white man’s sport.”
There are many legends about Bell’s playing. It is said he could round the bases in 12 seconds. Ken Burns relates the story that Bell once scored from first on a sacrifice bunt. Satchel Paige claimed Bell made Olympic runner Jesse Owens look “like he was walking.” Paige liked to say that Bell was “so fast he can turn off the light and be in bed before the room gets dark!”
Cool Papa Bell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. In 1999, Bell was ranked 66th on The Sporting News list of Baseball’s Greatest Players, one of five players so honored who played all or most of his career in the Negro Leagues, and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
But talented as he was, baseball did not make Bell rich. Left without a pension, he immediately found work as a custodian at City Hall in St. Louis. He was eventually promoted to night watchman there, a job he held until his retirement in April 1973. In the ensuing years Bell lived on Social Security, his small pension from the city of St. Louis, and a quiet stipend from the baseball Commissioner’s office. He and his wife Clara continued to reside in a modest home on St. Louis’ Dickson Avenue, which was renamed James “Cool Papa” Bell Avenue in 1987.
On 20 January 1991 Clara Bell died after 62 years of marriage. A month later Bell himself was hospitalized after a heart attack, and he died in St. Louis on 7 March 1991. He was survived by his only daughter, Connie Bell Brooks, and was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. Louis. His will specified that he have twelve pallbearers: six black and six white.
As Finkelman observes, the Negro Leagues highlight all that was good and bad about America. The Jim Crow racism that kept blacks off of white teams denied the skills and thrills of these black players to all baseball lovers. But the fact that the black athletes refused to capitulate to exclusion and formed their own leagues testifies to the courage, perseverance, and optimism of these great black players.