Early historyJames Thomas Nichols was born May 17, 1903, in or near Starkville, Mississippi. The 1910 U.S. Census shows him as the fourth of seven children living with his widowed mother, Mary Nichols, in Sessums Township, just outside of Starkville. When and why he changed his name to "Bell" is unknown. His brother Fred Bell, also played baseball. He joined the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League as a pitcher in 1922. By 1924, he had become their starting center fielder, and was known as an adept batter and fielder, and the "fastest man in the league". After leading the Stars to league titles in 1928, 1930, and 1931, he moved to the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League when the Negro National League disbanded. Detroit soon folded, leaving Bell to bounce to the Kansas City Monarchs and the Mexican winter leagues until finding a home with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the reorganized NNL. In Pittsburgh, he played alongside Ted Page and Jimmie Crutchfield to form what is considered by many to have been the best outfield in the Negro leagues. Bell left the Crawfords in 1938 to return to Mexico, coming back to baseball in the United States in 1942 to play for the Homestead Grays, who won Negro league titles in 1942, 1943, and 1944 with his help. He last played for the semi-pro Detroit Senators in 1946. He coached for the Monarchs in the late 1940s, managing their barnstorming "B" team, scouting for the club, signing prospects, and teaching the ins and outs of the game to future major-league baseball greats Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson, and Elston Howard, among others.
Stories and talesBecause of the opposition the Negro leagues faced, and because of the lack of reliable press coverage of many of their games, no statistics can be given for Bell with any accuracy. What is undeniable is that Bell was considered to be one of the greats of his time by all the men he played with (including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson). As Paige himself noted in his autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, "If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking."
Paige also liked to tell a tall tale referencing one hotel at which he and Bell stayed, in which there was a short delay between flipping the light switch off and the lights actually going off due to faulty wiring, sufficient for Bell to jump into bed in the interim. Leaving out the explanatory details, Paige liked to say that Bell was "so fast you can turn off the light and be under the covers. before the room gets dark!" Paige also joked of a time when facing Bell that the outfielder hit a line drive up the middle that went screaming past Paige's ear, and hit Bell in the buttocks as he was sliding into second base.
Many tales exist of "Cool Papa". For example, one claims that Bell scored from second base on a sacrifice fly. Another states that he went from first to third on a bunt, which is possible for a speedy runner if the fielded ball was thrown to first for the sure out and the first baseman, who rarely have strong throwing arms, was unable to make the long throw to third in time. More astonishing is the claim related in Ken Burns' Baseball that he once scored from first on a sacrifice bunt. In an exhibition game against white all-stars, Bell is said to have broken for second on a bunt and run, with Satchel Paige at the plate. By the time the ball reached Paige, Bell was almost to second and rounded the bag, seeing the third baseman had broken towards home to field the bunt. The catcher, Roy Partee of the Boston Red Sox, ran to third to cover the bag and an anticipated return throw from first. To his surprise, Bell rounded third and brushed by him on the way home; pitcher Murry Dickson of the St. Louis Cardinals had not thought to cover home with the catcher moving up the line, and Bell scored standing up. Another states that he stole two bases on a single pitch, which is difficult but feasible if a catcher making the throw to second made a mediocre throw and had a shortstop unable to catch the runner at third with a throw. There are many other, possibly exaggerated anecdotes about Bell, such as running a full trip around the bases in 11 or 12 seconds.
Death and legacy"Cool Papa" Bell died in his home on Dickson Street in St. Louis, Missouri at age 87. In his honor, the city renamed Dickson Street as "James 'Cool Papa' Bell Avenue". He has also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Also named for him is Cool Papa Bell Drive, the road leading into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson, of which he is a member. The Hall and Drive are adjacent to Smith-Wills Stadium, longtime home of the Jackson Generals of the Texas League, now home to the Jackson Senators of the independent Texas-Louisiana League.
The St. Louis Cardinals have recognized Bell's contributions by erecting a bronze statue of him outside Busch Stadium along with other Hall of Fame St. Louis baseball stars, including Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson.
In 1999, Cool Papa Bell was ranked 66th on The Sporting News list of Baseball's Greatest Players, one of five players so honored who played all or most of his career in the Negro leagues, and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. John Holway in his book says that James finished in the Top 5 in stolen bases 9 times.