Adventures in Baseball Archeology: the Negro Leagues, Latin American baseball, J-ball, the minors, the 19th century, and other hidden, overlooked, or unknown corners of baseball history...with occasional forays into other sports.
Scott Simkus has a fascinating article exploring this question, and the phenomenon of baseball field days and their various contests (circling the bases, throwing the ball for length and accuracy, bunting and running to first, and so on), in the latest Outsider Baseball Bulletin.
I’ve got a piece in the latest Outsider Baseball Bulletin about Cool Papa Bell’s rookie season with the 1922 St. Louis Stars. In February 1925 there appeared a series of articles in the California Eagle penned by Earl C. Gurley, who like Bell had been a rookie southpaw with the Stars in 1922. (Gurley played the 1924/25 winter season in Los Angeles with a team called the St. Louis Giants, organized by Lorenza Cobb, former catcher and longtime manager and promoter.) This is actually a rare and valuable document, a fairly detailed, first-person account of the early 1920s Negro leagues that was written very soon after the events described. It covers Gurley’s introduction to professional baseball with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts in 1919, his move to the Nashville Elite Giants the following year, and his signing with the St. Louis Stars in 1922 on the advice of outfielder Charles “Doc” Dudley.
It also gives us an account of Gurley’s first game, a June 15 start against the Chicago American Giants in the old Giants Park in St. Louis (Stars Park would not be finished for another three weeks). Gurley, like Bell, has a very precise memory of the game, including the exact score, a 7-6, come-from-behind victory by Gurley and the Stars over Ed Rile. Gurley, perhaps out of modesty, manages to avoid mentioning that he helped his own cause considerably by knocking out the game’s only home run.
My Pitching Experience
By Earl C. Gurley Of The St. Louis Giants California Eagle, February 13, 20, and 27, 1925.
Part One In the spring of 1919, while helping to pitch Howard high school…to the championship of the city schools in my home town, Chattanooga, Tenn., by luck I won the deciding game of the series. While leaving the field a fellow came up to me and said that was a wonderful game you pitched and you should be in the Southern League. I thanked him and started off, when he continued, I can get you a job, if you want one. I turned to him and said, all right. The next day [Saturday] he came by my home…and said come on[,] they are waiting on you, and really it seemed like a joke, but when I got over to the field where they were practicing for the Southern League, I found out differently. He gave me an introduction to the manager, whose name was Bishop. Then he asked me what I could do, so I said I can pitch a little, but there is a lot I can learn. He acknowledged that with a smile and said here is a uniform. I put it on in a little house nearby. After practice he said you will report to me Monday at 9:30.
[When] training season [was] nearly over[,] I really doubted myself when they were letting those didn’t make good go, but to my surprise the manager did not let me go. Well, the season started. My first game I lost, ten to three. The manager came to me and said you will have to beat that. All my teammates were talking around that I could not pitch and why should he hold me, but I guess he still saw something good in me, and too, I suppose I was more nervous than anything else. However, with all that discouragement I still believed that I could pitch. Then all the stars began to falter, and to my encourageable spirit, I began to win. Then came a most trying test. Nashville at that time was tied with us for third place, and we were then in Nashville. We won the first game, lost the second and tied the third. Sunday came and a large crowd really did me a lot more harm than it does now. Well[,] again fate played my hand. I won.
That night I could send a telegram home to tell the good news. After a couple more months the season closed again and I went back to school.
And the next spring  I was traded to Nashville for a couple of players. Part Two In Nashville, 1922, was one of the hardest years of my career. There were four leading pitchers and all of them favorite[s] of the Nashville fans. Pitchers Noel, Moore, Young and Miller, but I felt as if I would make good. However, fate dealt me some more hard luck. In spring training my arm went wrong and it was about the tenth of June before I could do any pitching, although it was only relief duty. All I could hear was, Mr. Noel, Moore, young and Miller. I went to Mr. Wilson, the manager of the team[,] and said, “I believe I had better go home—my arm won’t let me do anything.” But Mr. Wilson replied, “Don’t be a joke of the fans.”
And that night I lay alone in my bed at home trying to think of some way to get my arm in condition. They next day I got a hot water bottle and put some water in it as hot as I could bear it and the next day, while pitching in batting practice[,] I cut one down the alley pretty good[,] and that is where my arm seemed to come around.
So we moved over to Memphis for a series of games. I asked to start the first game. I won after fifteen innings of hard work. When we came back to Nashville everyone asked me, How did you do it? The only thing I could tell them was that my arm had come back to me.
At that time, Dudley, the right fielder of the St. Louis Stars, was there with us. He was also a student of the Meharry Medical College, [and] didn’t have to report to St. Louis until his school was over for the year. Pretty soon he left and in a few days I received a telegram from St. Louis asking if I would like to pitch for them. Naturally, I said yes. All of the boys who at one time made me the joke of the team wanted to shake my hand—“Bully for you, and hope you make good,” were their remarks. Before long I reported to the St. Louis Stars, which at the time [were] playing at sixty-nine hundred Broadway, before they built their new park on Compton and Market.
The next day I was slated to hurl against Rube Foster’s club. What will fate do, [and] what will become of all of the hardships of the past? Did I win or not?
Part Three …The manager of the St. Louis [Stars] was Bill Gatewood[,] in days gone by one of the greatest pitchers of the Negro National League.
Manager Gatewood came to me and said, “Warm up, lad.” I started the game and before I could get any one out, three runs had crossed the plate. Then suddenly the game was halted and my manager came out to the pitcher’s mound and what he said to me wouldn’t look good in print. Some of the things I shall never forget. Among other things he said, “Here you are[,] large enough to beat Samson[,] and yet you couldn’t break a window glass with the balls you are throwing.” To be frank he really made me angry.
I began to cut the ball across the plate like a rifle shot…but after the smoke of battle had passed away the score was five to nothing against me.
Manager Gatewood did not take me out of the game nor did he have any other pitcher warm up, and in my mind I was sure to be back in Nashville before twenty-four hours.
But fate was kind to me for I managed to hold Foster’s team to six runs while my team mates scored seven runs and won the game.
Now I could send a telegram home with the great news and from that day on I have had my ups and downs[,] but I am still holding on and trying to make good.
And dear fans of Los Angeles, I am very grateful to you all for attending our ball games this winter, and I am sure that the entire club feels the same way.
Very soon we will board a rattler for home and when the Eastern fans ask me about our trip, I can say you can’t beat Los Angeles.
Keep on boosting your colored athletes and before long the whole world will have to sit [up] and take notice.
I have always been drawn to stories about Cool Papa Bell. And I have always been repelled by them, too. You know the stories I'm talking about, right? Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he once hit a line drive up the middle and was hit by the ball as he slid into second base. Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he once scored from first on a bunt. Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he would steal second and third on the same pitch. Cool Papa Bell was so fast that managers would play six infielders and let Cool Papa handle the outfield. Cool Papa Bell -- here's the famous one -- was so fast that he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark.
There's something charming about these lines, of course. But there's something phony about them, too. Cool Papa Bell was a real man, flesh and blood, who played in various Negro leagues from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s. He was, by surviving accounts, a breathtakingly fast player who could chase down fly balls all over the park and beat out routine ground balls to shortstop. He hit .300 just about every year, often hit .330, sometimes hit .350. But he did not hit .900, and he did not steal two bases on single pitches with regularity, and in fact most of the sketchy numbers that have been gathered show disappointingly low stolen base totals for Cool Papa throughout his career. The Shades of Glory numbers -- the data gathered by the Baseball Hall of Fame Negro Leagues study -- show Cool Papa with only 144 stolen bases in 865 recorded games.
The Cool Papa Conundrum, as I call it, is to me the toughest part about remembering and celebrating the Negro leagues. On the one hand, these myths and nicknames and stories are so wonderful and poignant and memorable. And on the other hand, they can turn these players into something more or something less than they were. And often they can turn players in something more AND something less than they were at the same time.
When people would ask Buck how fast Cool Papa Bell was, his answer was always the same. “Faster than that,” he would say. Buck spent a lifetime trying to keep alive the memories of men who were denied their chance to play baseball in the major leagues. Sometimes, at the end of his life, I sensed that he worried that people would remember the stories but they would forget the men.
You may remember that Patrick Rock found what we though might have been Cool Papa Bell’s first appearance in a box score, for the Compton Hill Cubs in a May 1921 game against the Union Electrics, a white St. Louis semipro team. Patrick has now found an earlier appearance for Cool Papa (though no box score), in an October 10, 1920, game for the Compton Hill Cubs vs. another black team, the East St. Louis Cubs.
(St. Louis Argus, October 15, 1920, p. 5)
“R. Bell” would be Cool Papa’s older brother Robert; more on him soon.
Here is the passage about Eddie Dwight and Cool Papa Bell referred to in my interview with Scott Simkus. I was too lazy to look it up then, so of course got the last bit of it slightly wrong. It’s from Dizzy Dismukes’s inaugural “Ye Olde Stove League” column in the Pittsburgh Courier (January 5, 1929):
Patrick Rock has found what may be Cool Papa Bell’s first appearance (as “J. Bell”) in a printed box score, pitching for the Compton Hill Cubs in a 1921 doubleheader (St. Louis Argus, May 6, 1921). The other Bells here were his brothers (probably named Lee, L.Q., Sam, and Robert, with maybe Fred pitching in the first game). Patrick reports that J., L., S. and R. Bell all appeared with the Cubs throughout the summer.
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:
(Sorry, I photocopied this box score in two pieces...)
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.