By IAN WILSON
He was a barnstorming beauty who gave Canadian baseball fans a glimpse of what the Negro Leagues had to offer.
That’s if you could spot him at the ballpark.
James “Cool Papa” Bell was fast … ridiculously fast. If you blinked, you just might miss him.
“Everywhere he went, people would want to know about Cool Papa and how fast he was, because there were so many stories about him scoring from first base on a single or stealing home,” wrote Buck O’Neil in his biography I Was Right on Time.
“Cool Papa was the fastest man I’ve ever seen. He was faster than Maury Wills and Lou Brock and Mickey Mantle when Mickey had good legs. He was faster than Bo Jackson and Kenny Lofton. But more than that, baserunning isn’t only about speed. It’s about technique, cutting the corners and keeping your balance. And Cool Papa, he was a master of all that.”
There were stories of Bell turning the bedroom light off and being in bed before it was dark.
“One time he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit him sliding into second,” said pitching great Satchel Paige of Bell.
He could run the bases in just 12 to 13 seconds, and Olympic gold-medal sprinter Jesse Owens refused to race against him. Such was the legend of Cool Papa.
His expertise at the plate, on the base paths and roaming the outfield was evident when he played for the St. Louis Stars, Kansas City Monarchs and the Homestead Grays, the club he won back-to-back Negro League World Series championships with in the 1940s.
Even near the end of his playing days, the Mississippi-born outfielder’s speed was impressive.
When Bell and the Kansas City Monarchs came to Edmonton for a late June, two-game exhibition series against Doc Tally and the House of David squad at Renfrew Park in 1948, baseball fans were eager to fork over $1.10 for general admission tickets to the show.
It was the first visit to the provincial capital for both clubs since 1935 and spectators knew they were in for a treat.
By that point of the summer, the bearded baseballers and the Monarchs had already tangled in Medicine Hat, Sylvan Lake and Camrose, where they attracted 4,000 fans to the ballpark.
Medicine Hat News scribe Rod Ashburner declared the matchup “undoubtedly the highlight of the baseball season” after the two clubs squared off at Athletic Park.
Large crowds and competitive play followed in Edmonton, as well, with between 3,500 and 4,000 fans showing up for the first contest on a Monday night and another 2,000 to 2,500 attending the rematch on Tuesday.
The first game saw the Monarchs easily handle the House of David during a 7-2 triumph. Bell, who was both a player and the manager for the Monarchs, was dubbed a “fielding sensation” in the June 29th edition of the Edmonton Bulletin newspaper. He went 2-for-4 at the plate with a triple during the 13-hit onslaught by the Kansas City batters.
Bell, who was in his 40s, often only entered the games as a substitute or pinch hitter, but cleanup hitter Leo Moody sprained his ankle over the weekend, clearing a lineup spot for the manager.
The Edmonton Journal account of the game described a “sparkling defensive play” by Bell in the sixth inning.
“Capering in the right pasture, Bell raced about 150 feet along the fence to almost dead centre field to haul down (Dick) Wykoff’s bid for an inside-the-park roundtripper,” noted the Journal.
The Bulletin noticed Bell’s abilities in the field, as well.
“Bell gathered in a pair of drives into his right field territory that looked for all the world like extra base socks,” stated the newspaper.
Wykoff, an ex-major leaguer with the Cincinnati Reds, pitched the bulk of the game for the Davids. Bob Honus, the 18-year-old lefty starter for the whiskered club exited in the second inning after surrendering three runs and Wykoff went the distance from there. Willie “Ace” Hutchinson, meanwhile, struck out nine batters for the Monarchs in the win.
Fans were also treated to the House of David’s famous “pepper ball act” during the game, which featured Tally, Wykoff and George Anderson performing Harlem Globetrotter-style baseball tricks.
Journal reporter Don Fleming didn’t shy away from the issue of race in his reporting and discussed the dynamics of a white team playing a black team in his article. Jackie Robinson broke into the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers the previous year, but skin colour was still a topic of discussion in baseball.
Fleming talked about it with George Wilkinson – the son of Kansas City Monarchs founder J.L. Wilkinson – at Renfrew Park. The junior Wilkinson was running the team during their Alberta visit.
“Our fellows like to beat white clubs by as much as they can,” Wilkinson told Fleming.
“This makes for keen rivalry, because our opponents generally feel the same way about things.”
Of course, the splitting of the gate revenues may also have provided motivation for each team. The pot was reportedly a 60-40 split, with the winning club getting the larger share.
The House of David bounced back with a 6-3 victory in the rematch, which pitted two southpaw pitchers against each other in Bradley Trine of the Benton Harbor, Michigan side and Buck Buckner of the Monarchs. Both pitchers turned in complete games in the 21-hit affair.
“The Kansas City clubbers are one of the hardest punching aggregations to hit the road in a long time, but the bewhiskered twirler kept them at bay when it counted the most,” wrote Fleming in his game recap of the House of David lefty.
“Trine paced himself well, was tough in the clutch as six strikeouts testify.”
For his part, Bell only had one at bat and did not manage a hit.
Neither squad had much time to ponder the box scores. A Canada Day tilt at Lethbridge’s Henderson Park was on deck.
HENDERSON PARK HOOPLA
“Managing the Monarchs will be ‘Cool Papa’ Bell, one of the all-time greats of colored baseball,” read a June 30th article in the Lethbridge Herald previewing the event.
House of David catcher Ted Crapp went 4-for-4 with a pair of doubles to help lead the bearded ballers to a 7-2 win.
“The 2,000 odd customers (paying $1.30 apiece) that jammed the stands, sprawled along base lines, or remained inside of their cars, proved conclusively that Lethbridge will support good baseball. That’s what they got last night,” stated the Herald.
Kansas City carried a slim 2-1 lead into the seventh frame, but the Davids struck for five runs against Mickey Stubblefield that inning when three hits, two errors and a walk bust the game open.
“It was a ding-dong battle all the way until that inglorious seventh,” noted the Herald, which also referred to the Monarchs as “Nocturnals” in their game summary.
Bell appeared again as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning, but was stranded at second base.
After the game, Bell was asked about an apparent disagreement at home plate in the fifth inning, but he denied any controversy.
“There wasn’t no beef. I was just asking the umpire what he was shivering about on such a hot night,” he told the Herald.
Whatever caused the disruption, it wasn’t enough to keep the Monarchs from returning to Western Canada.
Kansas City and the House of David came back to Henderson Park for another exhibition game in July of 1950. Bell was once again the player/manager on a Monarchs team that included second baseman Al Cartmill, third baseman Joe Pierre, and hard-hitting outfielder Duke Henderson.
A crowd of nearly 6,000 showed up in Regina that summer to watch the two teams do battle. Bell seldom started games, but he continued to pinch hit and he even did some mound work as a relief pitcher.
The Lethbridge rematch saw the Davids record an 11-6 victory in front of 1,800 spectators. Despite the 19-hit parade offered up by both clubs, it was a quiet night for Bell, who went hitless in his lone plate appearance in the ninth inning.
The barnstorming tour took the teams to Hillcrest in the Crowsnest Pass area of southwest Alberta the next night.
Fans likely didn’t realize it at the time, but it was their last opportunity to witness one of the legends of the game in action. Bell retired from playing in 1950.
With his touring days at an end, Cool Papa Bell went on to serve as a scout for the St. Louis Browns.
He then worked as a security officer and custodian at St. Louis City Hall.
Bell received the acknowledgment he so richly deserved in 1974, when he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The honour couldn’t come quick enough for one of the game’s fastest players.