‘Cool Papa’ Bell, a Starkville native, honored by his hometown at Mississippi State

STARKVILLE, Miss. – Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige is credited with the often-told line, “Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could turn off the light switch in his hotel room and be under the covers before the room got dark.”

Bell never played in “white” Major League Baseball, as he was well into his 40s when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Although Negro League records are somewhat spotty (his career batting average is said to be .331, plus he hit .391 in exhibitions against white teams), what’s not as much in dispute is that no one was faster – regardless of color – in the sport’s history.

“Let me tell you about Cool Papa Bell,” Paige was also quoted as saying. “One time he hit a line drive right by my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his rear end as he slid into second base.”

That quote now adorns the wall of a concourse at Dudy Noble Field, home ballpark of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. It is part of a display that honors Bell, as the university dedicated that area of the park as “Cool Papa” Bell Plaza prior to their 5-4 win over Missouri on May 13.

James 'Cool Papa' Bell is considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. (Photo: Associated Press)

‘Doors opened too late’

James Thomas Bell was born May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Mississippi. He later said that his mother was mostly of Native American descent while his father was Black.

The colorful stories that Paige would later tell about Bell give the impression that he was a carefree fellow, but his upbringing in Mississippi was anything but that. He had seven brothers and sisters, and consistent schooling wasn’t available to them.

Growing up, he was expected to work on his relative’s farm, harvesting vegetables and picking cotton. During his teens, he worked at the creamery at the local college – at the time, called Mississippi A&M. Today, it’s known as Mississippi State University.

Later in life, Bell told an interviewer that the students at the college would sometimes throw rocks at him while he was trying to work.

The school’s baseball program dates to 1885, and by the time Bell was college age in 1920, it already had sent four players to Major League Baseball.

Despite his lack of formal education, could the athletically gifted Bell have played on the school’s team?

No. The college didn’t admit its first Black students until 1965.

At age 19, Bell joined the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League as a pitcher. His manager, Bill Gatewood, was so impressed with Bell’s calm demeanor that he nicknamed him “Cool Papa,” a name that stuck with him throughout his career. His relatives back in Starkville continued to call him J.T.

Despite a pitching arsenal with a variety of breaking balls thrown from various angles, there was no missing his exceptional foot speed. A sore arm drove him from the pitching mound to center field in 1924. His speed allowed him to chase down fly balls that other outfielders could only catch on the bounce – or two bounces.

And on the bases, he was a terror. It’s alleged that in one 200-game season, he stole 175 bases.

With Bell leading the way, his Stars won titles three times before the team folded in 1931. He went on to play with Negro teams in Chicago, Detroit, Homestead and Kansas City before signing with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1933. The team, which was named for a bathhouse not far from their ballpark, assembled an incredible roster. The talent on the 1935 Crawfords is considered to be as good as any team of any race. It featured four players who would later be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown: Bell, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson.

While in Kansas City with the Monarchs, Bell was able to work closely with a young Jackie Robinson. Bell would later say that the biggest thrill of his life occurred when Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

He placed his own induction in the Hall of Fame in 1974 as the second biggest. He was the fifth Black player to make it to Cooperstown, following Paige, Gibson, Monte Irvin and Buck Leonard.

Upon his induction, he was asked if he was disappointed that he was born a decade too early to get to play in the “white” Major Leagues. “They say that I was born too soon,” he replied. “I say the doors were opened too late.”

Bell died at age 87 on March 7, 1991. On December 16, 2020, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the sport would now recognize the Negro Leagues as being “Major Leagues.” Said Manfred, “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.” It was long overdue.

Bedtime stories

John Cohen, a former Bulldogs baseball player and coach and current athletic director at Mississippi State, was born in Alabama to a father who fancied himself a baseball historian.

“Growing up, he would tell me bedtime stories of the exploits of the great players from the South. That included Cool Papa Bell,” Cohen tells USA TODAY Sports.

When he arrived at MSU, Cohen realized that Bell was from Starkville but wasn’t sufficiently honored in his hometown – especially by the school where he worked as a child but wasn’t allowed to enroll. “He’s arguably the best player to come from our state,” Cohen says.

He told himself that if he was ever in the position to honor Bell properly, he would make it happen.

As director of athletics, Cohen searched to see if Bell had any living relatives in the area. When noted Black alumnus Zwanardo Landfair was asked, he didn’t have to think long: his mother is Bell’s cousin on her grandmother’s side of the family.

Allen Marie Landfair then met with Cohen. That meeting prompted a joint effort by Mississippi State’s athletic department and student association to dedicate a part of the school’s ballpark in honor of Bell.

The plaza in left field now bearing Bell’s name was created when Dudy Noble Field was demolished in 2017 and completely rebuilt over the course of two years. In the “New Dude,” only the dugouts and pilings in the foundation were retained. The $68 million project was designed by graduates of MSU’s School of Architecture working at WBA Architecture in Jackson, Mississippi. They were aided by Populous, an international sport-facility designer.

While the Bulldogs hold numerous NCAA attendance records, they were best known for the chaotic “lounges” erected by spectators beyond the outfield fence. The rebuilt stadium created a sense of order to the 96 spaces where grills, blenders and boisterous fans are the order of the day. Also constructed were a dozen “lofts” that are fully furnished apartments above the left-field lounges. They can be rented – and lived in – for $62,500 a year.

Looking down from the balconies of those lofts is an open space in the middle of the lounges. This spot was selected as the spot to honor Bell.

Leah Beasley, deputy athletic director of external relations, says that when it came time to design the signage for the plaza, “we couldn’t find a photo of Bell that could be enlarged. So we had Ali Meeler, a graphic designer on the Athletic staff, draw his portrait. The reaction to that drawing was so positive that Ali became emotional when we told her how everyone loved it: It shows Bell bright and happy, and we wanted this ceremony to reflect that.”

During the dedication, Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill announced that a “larger than life-size statue” of the player will soon be erected at a youth sports complex currently under construction. “Our youth players will then be inspired by Cool Papa Bell.”

Cohen told the crowd that in addition to Bell’s extraordinary accomplishments as a player, “he was an even better person.”

When asked her feeling about the ceremony, Landfair motioned toward the portrait of her cousin on the plaza wall and said, “I feel honored because he is being honored.”

Mock writes about sports facilities for USA TODAY publications

Source: Read Full Article