John Holway’s Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues has the following about James Bell’s start in the Negro Leagues, and how he came to be called “Cool Papa”:
“St. Louis pitcher Fred ‘Lefty’ Bell got his kid brother, Jim, age 20, a job with the Stars as a knuckleball pitcher. On the train to Chicago, the youngster showed no nervousness at the prospect of pitching against the great American Giants. ‘That guy’s cool,’ the players said, and veteran pitcher Bill Gatewood handed him the nickname, ‘Cool Papa’ Bell.”
James Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia, however, has this to say:
“[James Bell] was still a pitching prospect when he earned his nickname in 1922 by retaining his poise while striking out Oscar Charleston in a clutch situation. His manager, Bill Gatewood, observed how ‘cool’ the nineteen-year-old had been under pressure and added the ‘Papa’ to make the name sound better.”
Riley repeats the story in the entry for Bill Gatewood. Since he co-authored Cool Papa’s autobiography, I’d venture that he got the story straight from the source. Whatever the case, since I’m currently working on the 1922 Negro National League season, I thought I’d check to see if I could find any evidence of either incident.
Riley and Holway agree on two things: the nickname was bestowed by Bill Gatewood, and it referred to Bell’s early career as a pitcher.
They disagree about chronology and about the role of Cool Papa’s brother, Fred. Holway has Fred Bell preceding his brother on the St. Louis Stars, listing only Fred as a St. Louis pitcher in 1922. He doesn’t show James with the Stars until 1923, when he lists both with the team. Holway, then, would seem to be saying that James got his nickname in 1923. Riley, on the other hand, has James starting with the Stars in 1922, and lists Fred with St. Louis only for 1923 and 1924.
Other sources agree with Riley. Clark and Lester’s Negro Leagues Book lists only James Bell as a St. Louis pitcher in 1922. And Patrick Rock 1923 Negro National League Yearbook shows that Fred Bell actually started 1923 with Toledo, and only came to St. Louis with several other players when that team folded.
The whereabouts of Bill Gatewood also support the idea of Cool Papa’s rookie season being 1922. While Gatewood managed St. Louis during 1922, every source I’ve seen has him with Toledo (where he played alongside Fred) and Milwaukee in 1923. Gatewood would return to St. Louis in 1924, which was when (according to Patrick) he taught Cool Papa to switch-hit—but that was not only (almost certainly) Bell’s third season, it was also the year he moved to the outfield due to an arm injury (Holway only has him going 3-1 on the mound). It seems unlikely 1) that striking out Charleston or not being nervous about facing the American Giants (by then no longer the perennial champs) would have been considered a big deal for a pitcher with a couple of seasons under his belt; or 2) that Bell would have been given a nickname for his pitching just as he was giving it up.
So, based on published research, Holway would appear to be wrong on these related counts: James, not Fred, pitched for St. Louis in 1922; Fred very likely was not responsible for getting his brother a job with the Stars; and the nickname “Cool Papa” probably dates from 1922, not 1923.
Now, here’s what I’ve found so far in my work on 1922: I’m pretty sure only one Bell played for St. Louis that year—at any rate, two Bells never appeared in the lineup at the same time. I have yet to find anything in newspapers that identifies this Bell (not even a first initial), or in fact discusses him at all. In an April 15 article about the Stars, the Chicago Defender lists five pitchers: Bill Drake, Jimmy Oldham, John Finner, Deacon Meyers, and manager Bill Gatewood. A “Bell” isn’t mentioned.
However: on April 30 the Stars played the East St. Louis Cubs, a local black team, beating them 9 to 1. “Bell” was the losing pitcher for the Cubs, and another Bell played left field. Here’s the box score from the May 6 Chicago Defender:
It seems likely that these are the two Bell brothers, Fred and James, though which one pitched is anybody’s guess. Within a few days, the Stars left for an NNL-season-opening series at Indianapolis, and one of the Bells, most likely James, left with them; and on May 9, “Bell” relieved Deacon Meyers in the middle of an 11-5 loss. This is the box score, from the May 10 Indianapolis Star:
Was this Cool Papa Bell’s first Negro League appearance? Based on everything we know, it almost certainly was. Interestingly, he would have faced Oscar Charleston, the man he supposedly struck out in a clutch situation to earn his nickname. Unfortunately, neither of the two box scores I have for this game break down pitchers’ innings, so his exact performance isn’t (so far) knowable. It’s worth noting that Bell did have three strikeouts. It’s conceivable he entered the game with runners on and Charleston up, and struck him out.
At any rate Bell impressed Gatewood enough that on May 15, he made his second NNL appearance, this time starting the game—against none other than the Chicago American Giants, in Chicago:
That Bell won his very first NNL start on the road against the American Giants in 1922 certainly backs up Holway’s story. And Riley’s is also supported (though not as strongly) by the facts as we know them. So, as far as I can tell, both stories about how Cool Papa Bell got his name could well be true.