Fast feet, Cool shoes

Written by: Matt Rothenberg

They are just a simple pair of black baseball spikes, but the person who wore them was so fast, it is certainly possible that they might have been left in the batter’s box – with the laces still tied – while he was on first or second base.

So it went for James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell.

Bell, born in Mississippi in 1903, is regarded as one of the premiere speedsters in all of baseball history, but he started out in 1922 as a pitcher for the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League. A southpaw with a knuckleball, a screwball, and a curve in his repertoire, Bell gained the first half of his nickname for his ability to remain calm and collected on the mound while facing future Hall of Fame batters such as Oscar Charleston.

As for the second half of his nickname, it is said that St. Louis manager Bill Gatewood thought adding “Papa” after “Cool” just made it all sound better.

Bell would transition to center field in 1924 following an arm injury. Though his arm strength was somewhat limited in the outfield, his legs remained strong and proved his best assets in a career that would extend into the mid-1940s with teams in the Negro Leagues, in Mexico, and in the Caribbean.

Statistics for the Negro Leagues are anything but complete, with anecdotes and eyewitness testimony taking over where the numbers dissipate. Bell’s teammates have often spoken of him turning off a light switch and being in bed before the light went out. Bill Yancey, a longtime Negro Leaguer, shared others’ sentiments about Bell’s speed on the basepaths.

“Next time up, he hit another one about the same place. Now nobody got a three-base hit in that little park, I don’t care where they hit the ball,” Yancey recalled, describing the Catholic Protectory Oval in the Bronx where he played with the New York Lincoln Giants. “And I watched this guy run. Well, he came across second base and it looked like his feet weren’t touching the ground! And he never argued, never said anything. That was why they called him Cool Papa; he was a real gentleman.”

Negro League teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Satchel Paige claimed that Bell was faster than track star and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens.

Yancey may have thought Bell’s feet were aloft, but these spikes clearly show the wear and use from making numerous round trips along the bases.

Though renowned for the speed he used to his advantage, Bell was a solid hitter, often batting .300 or higher. For many Negro League teams, it simply wasn’t enough to just get on base, but you had to do whatever was necessary to score runs. Bell and others took this to heart, sacrificing runners over a base or outlasting a pitcher to earn a walk.

These baseball spikes worn by Cool Papa Bell are now preserved in the National Baseball Hall of Fame's collection. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

“We played a different kind of baseball than the white teams. We played tricky baseball. We did things they didn’t expect,” Bell once said. “We’d bunt and run in the first inning. Then when they would come in for a bunt we’d hit away. We always crossed them up. We’d run the bases hard and make the fielders throw too quick and make wild throws. We’d fake a steal home and rattle the pitcher into a balk.”

More than 25 years of such tenacity and quick-thinking ultimately resulted in Bell’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, making him the fifth person elected by the Negro League Committee. Joined by some of the previous Negro League electees at the Induction Ceremony, Bell offered a grateful response to his inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

“There were a lot of great ones in the Negro Leagues,” he said that August day. “We – Satchel, Irvin, Campy, Leonard, and myself – were the lucky ones. I’m thanking God for letting me smell the roses while I’m still living.”

Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

To the top
To the top