'Cool Papa' was wizard in field, on basepaths

February 4th, 2016

The tale has been told many times about James "Cool Papa" Bell's speed. You know, the one about him being so fast he could turn off the light switch in his bedroom and be in bed before the room got dark.

"The old-timers in the Negro Leagues said if he bunted the ball and it bounced twice, forget about it," Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick said. "The [defenders] had no chance to get him. So the legendary speed is what people marvel at about Cool Papa Bell. He used that speed to make himself a superior defensive center fielder."

Bell was spotlighted at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday on MLB Tonight as MLB Network continues its Black History Month series on prominent players from the Negro Leagues.

Bell stole 175 bases in 200 games and was a wizard in center field due in large part to his sprinter-like speed. As a matter of fact, Olympic speedster Jesse Owens refused to race him, according to Kendrick.

But Bell was more than a speedster. He was one of the best hitters in Negro League history, displaying brilliant bat control during his 21-year career with the St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays. 

According to historian James A. Riley, Bell had a batting average of .319 or better with the Stars, .317 or better with the Crawfords and .302 or better with the Grays.