Looking at two interviews with Cool Papa Bell (one in John Holway’s Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, the other part of the University of Missouri-St. Louis’s oral history project), one is struck by how much he talked about his rookie season with the St. Louis Stars in 1922. A half-century later the events of that season, especially during its first two months, were still clear and vivid to him, down to exact or nearly-exact scores of particular games.
Bell had come to St. Louis from his hometown, Starkville, Mississippi, in 1919 or 1920. He worked in a packing house during the week and played baseball for money on weekends along with four of his brothers (Robert, Fred, L.Q., and Sammy) on the Compton Hill Cubs. A few years back Patrick Rock found what is so far Cool Papa’s earliest known appearance in a game account, for a contest between the Cubs and the white Union Electrics on Sunday, October 10, 1920.
He played for the Compton Hill team through 1921, until in the spring of 1922 he got his big break. The East St. Louis Cubs, another black semipro team in the area, “needed a pitcher to throw against” the big-league St. Louis Stars on Sunday, April 30, at the Cubs’ park. As Bell told John Holway, the Stars beat him easily, 8 to 1, but he struck out eight, impressing them enough that they made him an offer—whereupon he abandoned his meatpacking career and decided to “stick with baseball.”
Checking the Chicago Defender and St. Louis Argus, it appears that the Stars really won 9 to 1, getting 15 hits off Bell, four of them from the bat of Charlie Blackwell (a homer, a double, and two singles).
(Chicago Defender, May 6, 1922)
(St. Louis Argus, May 5, 1922, p. 12)
The Defender’s box score doesn’t list strikeouts, but the Cubs’ catcher Burgett did have six putouts and three assists, so it’s possible Bell did fan eight. Bell told Holway he couldn’t hit the Stars’ starter, Bill Drake, but did bounce a hit off the right field fence later in the game, when someone else was pitching. The Stars used three pitchers, so Bell’s hit came off either John Finner or Jimmy Oldham, the relievers.
Now a member of the St. Louis Stars, Bell recounts that he immediately accompanied them on a month-long road trip, starting with a doubleheader in Indianapolis on May 7. “Well, Indianapolis beat us the first three ball games,” Bell said, and so the manager Big Bill Gatewood finally gave him a chance in the late innings of the third game. In fact, the A.B.C.’s had whipped the Stars 12 to 2 and 8 to 5 in the opening double bill, then beat them again on May 8, 7 to 6, with Bell on the bench the whole time. It wasn’t until the Stars were losing badly for the fourth straight time on May 9 that Gatewood finally sent him in for George “Deacon” Meyers. It’s not certain exactly when Bell entered the game, but the A.B.C.’s were up 9 to 0 by the fifth inning, so it was probably somewhere in the middle of the game. Bell told Holway that he “started striking out Ben Taylor and those guys—Oscar Charleston just threw his bat away. With my curve ball!” The box scores credit Bell with three strikeouts in that game, which ended in an 11 to 5 win for Indianapolis.
Next, Bell said, the Stars made a stop in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they played “a little old semipro team out there.” Gatewood had Bell start, to gain him some experience. This is Cool Papa’s account of the game, from Holway’s book:
We had these guys shut out at Fort Wayne. In the last of the ninth inning the outfield came in, said, ‘He’s going to strike out everybody anyway’. I didn’t strike everybody out in the whole ball game, but I was striking out so many, the outfield came on in. So I struck out the next two men. The third man hit a little pop fly and nobody went to get it, so he went on around and made a home run off it. I struck out the next man. Only one man hit the ball.
The game in question was played in Fort Wayne’s Lincoln Life Field on May 12, three days after Bell’s Negro National League debut in Indianapolis. The Stars crushed the Fort Wayne Colored Giants 11 to 1 in a rain-shortened, seven-inning game, with Bell throwing a complete game. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette said that Bell’s pitching “was of a high caliber, he displaying fine control and a good curve.”
(Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, May 13, 1922, p. 8)
The Journal-Gazette also reported that the opposing pitcher “saved himself a shutout by driving in a run with a three-base hit to the scoreboard” in the sixth (rather than ninth) inning, and the game was called for rain after the seventh inning ended. What Bell didn’t realize or didn’t remember was that the opposing pitcher was none other than Louis “Dicta” Johnson, the veteran spitballer, who had been temporarily hired the previous August by the Fort Wayne club along with two other A.B.C.’s pitchers, Morris Williams and Bob McClure. Of the trio, only Johnson stayed on in Fort Wayne through the end of 1921. He returned in 1922 and managed the Colored Giants for a couple of months before replacing Dizzy Dismukes at the helm of the Pittsburgh Keystones.
The next stop for the Stars was Chicago. As Bell told Holway, “We got to Chicago on a Saturday and he pitched Meyers, our ace pitcher.” Cool Papa’s memory was nearly correct on all counts. Meyers, with a record of 12-5 in a preliminary version of our compilation of the 1922 season, was easily the most effective (and by far the most used) pitcher on the Stars staff that year. The Stars did play the first game of their Chicago series on a Saturday (May 13), and Meyers did pitch, though he didn’t start; he relieved John Finner in the seventh inning of a 15-4 American Giants win. “They beat Meyers,” Bell said, “and Sunday they beat John Finner.” Actually on Sunday Jimmy Oldham started for St. Louis, and Chicago won the game 8 to 7 in the tenth inning off relief pitcher Bill Drake. But at any rate, according to Bell his first start in the Negro Leagues came the next day:
So [Gatewood] said, “Well, I’m going to pitch you tomorrow,” and I beat them 6-3. They had Jimmy Lyons, could drag the ball down the first base line; I’d get the ball and touch him out. He’d look around: “Now who touched me out?” They’d say, “The pitcher.” See, they had the infield built up with high ridges on the foul line, so the ball would roll fair when they bunted it. But I stopped them from bunting. Every time they’d bunt, I’d throw them out, and beat them 6-3.
In fact Bell won 6 to 2. Lyons did get one single, and, while Bell didn’t have any putouts in the box score (thus did not touch anyone out), he did have six assists, and started the game’s only double play.
The Stars would lose two more games in Chicago, Dave Brown beating Bill Drake 7 to 0 on Tuesday, and Ed Rile edging Deacon Meyers on Wednesday, 3 to 2.
Although Bell says that from Chicago the St. Louis Stars went on to Detroit, they actually went next to Kansas City for a two-game series on May 20 and May 21, in which Bell did not appear. They then returned to St. Louis and hooked up with the St. Louis Tigers, the local entry in the Negro Southern League, for another two games (Bell again not appearing). Their long road trip had been necessary because the construction of their new ballpark, the famous Stars Park with the trolley car barn in left field, was dragging on; after a month on the road, they finally gave in and hosted the Monarchs in the old Giants Park at 5900 North Broadway (by then the home of the Tigers).
Though Bell didn’t discuss this series in either of the interviews, he started the Stars’ home opener on May 31 and shut out the Monarchs, 3 to 0, on two hits, giving up only a single each to Heavy Johnson and Dobie Moore. In the fourth game of the series, Bell lost a 4 to 0 duel to Bullet Rogan.
(St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 1, 1922)
A week and a half later, the Stars hosted the American Giants, again in Giants Park. Bell was again chosen to pitch the opener, and he defeated Juan Padrón in a sloppily played 10 to 5 game. The following day (June 13) Bell again picked up a win at the expense of Rube Foster’s team (making him 3-0 against them to that point), pitching the last three innings of a crazy 19 to 16 slugfest and giving up “only” three runs.
The Stars Park delay was beginning to eat away at the team’s schedule. A mid-June series with the Cuban Stars was evidently cancelled, and the next series scheduled in St. Louis, with the Detroit Stars, was moved at the last minute to Detroit. This, it turns out, was the Detroit series Bell mentions in the Holway interview. He said that he “beat a guy name of Jack Marshall 5-4. I hit a home run off him. I could hit them.” A check of the Detroit Free Press shows that Bell started the second game of the series on June 26, beating Jack Marshall 6 to 5—and that he indeed hit his first Negro league home run in the game.
The Stars finished the season in fifth place at 26-35, eleven games back of the champion American Giants and nine games out of fourth. Bell ‘s 7-7 record made him a solid number two behind Deacon Meyers on the Stars’ pitching staff, as he clearly surpassed veterans Jimmy Oldham and John Finner.
Incidentally, several of these episodes have been cited by Bell and others as explaining the origin of his nickname: coolly striking out Oscar Charleston in his debut game; beating the feared American Giants in his first start; and shrugging at a newspaper headline hyping his upcoming appearance in Detroit. All three of these events are solidly documented; even his claims about the quality of his curve ball find support in the newspapers of the time.
Cool Papa Bell’s memories of his rookie season—fifty years after the events he describes and all off the top of his head, apparently, without the elaborately constructed spreadsheets and timelines collating dozens of sources that I’ve been relying on—are remarkably accurate and detailed. Although he played professional baseball for 29 seasons, spent years in Cuba and Mexico, and played on some of the greatest teams in Negro league history, he never forgot that first season with a struggling team in 1922.
(This piece was originally published in the Outsider Baseball Bulletin, July 28, 2010.)