Review by Budd Bailey
The book, “The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell,” carries with it more than a little poignancy before reading a single page.
Author Lonnie Wheeler had just finished this book when he died in June. He was a sports writer who had written 12 books. The best-known of those efforts might have been with Henry Aaron and Bob Gibson. Most of the books were about baseball, although Wheeler could do more than that.
For whatever reason, the good folks at NetGalley provided reviewers like me an electronic copy of the book about six months before it was scheduled to be sold to the public. This is kind of like getting a Christmas gift in July, or at least having ice cream before dinner.
In any event, it is good to note that Wheeler – by all accounts a fine person and a fine writer – at least exited with another winner for his legacy. And who wouldn’t want to write a book about a man named “Cool Papa?” The Negro Leagues had a great way with nicknames, with such names as “Turkey,” “Mule,” “Boojum,” and “Double Duty.” Cool Papa is lovely.
Wheeler admits in the opening pages that tracking down the full story of Bell’s life is not exactly easy. We can get the idea of the music he created on the field during a career that lasted well over 20 years, but it’s difficult to see all of the notes individually. After all, the Negro Leagues of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were not particularly well organized, especially in the area of record keeping. We don’t know how many games Bell played, or how many batting titles he won, or how many hits he had. We just know that he was really good.
There may have been faster people that played baseball, but not many. What’s more, Bell played with a sense of daring that isn’t seen in today’s game. For example, how many players can score from first on a sacrifice bunt. Bell did it. When a batter bunted toward the third-base side of the pitcher’s mound, Bell took second. Seeing that many of the fielders were out of the position, Bell rounded second and saw an open third base. He only had to beat a catcher to take third, and that was easy. But then when Cool Papa got to third base, he noticed that there was no one close to home – and he had a running start to get there. Mookie Betts sometimes goes from first to third on a sacrifice, but I don’t think he has scored on that play.
The story that most people have heard about Bell involves a hotel. He had already established a reputation for speed when he noticed that a switch in his room when thrown had a delay of a few seconds before the light went out. Bell called in a teammate, and told him he was so fast he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room was dark. The response was along the lines of “yeah, sure,” and then Cool Papa did it thanks to the pause.
Wheeler goes through the outline of Bell’s. He was born with the name James Nichols, but eventually took the last name of Bell as a teen. Jim moved from Mississippi to St. Louis as a youngster, and used that city as a home base for the rest of his life. It was the launching point for his career in baseball. Bell did some pitching early in his career, but found a home in the outfield. Center field was a place where hits went to die in Bell’s glove, because he covered so much ground.
The author makes one good move here in his approach to the book. He supplies the information that he has compiled about Bell, but he’s more concerned with providing a look at his life and times. Bell played with many of the greats of the Negro League over the years – Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, etc. The book gives a good idea what the era was like for all concerned. It’s hard not to fall in love with the idea of the Negro Leagues – top players who were denied the opportunity of playing against the best competition in the world because of the color line, but who pressed on anyway.
By the time integration came to major league baseball, it was too late for Bell. His playing days were about over. After retirement, he couldn’t even find a job in the sport although he was an obvious expert in hitting, running and fielding. Bell became a janitor and then a night watchman in St. Louis.
Happily, though, Bell lived long enough to learn that his skills were appreciated. (This is in contrast to Gibson, who died of what was said to be a broken heart when he realized he was too old to go to the majors.) The Baseball Hall of Fame started taking Negro League stars in its ranks when Paige entered in 1971. Cool Papa went in in 1974. Bell had about 20 years to tell stories about his exploits in the Negro Leagues before he died in 1991, so Wheeler did have a good supply of oral interviews with Bell available that he could use to fill in some gaps.
We’re coming up on the 100th anniversary of Bell’s first pro game in 1922. Certainly that’s a little dusty for some people, who prefer their history to be a bit more timely. But those looking for an overview of Bell and his times should be quite satisfied by “The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)