“The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell:
Speed, Grace and the Negro Leagues”
The publishing info:
Released Feb. 9, 2021
The review in 90 feet or less
In documenting any parts of the incredible Negro League baseball history, when an author can’t differentiate fiction from fact, and the pursuit of a true and accurate biography becomes one more hand-woven by legend and other indisputable yarns, perhaps there’s frustration in the process for the researcher and the reader.
Or, it’s one very cool, dog-gone delightful journey.
Lonnie Wheeler, who ends up finishing his time on the planet with this project, leaves us with a perpetual smile and pure enjoyment in not just finding out more about Baseball Hall of Famer James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell — for all that was wrong about why the Negro Leagues existed, Bell was one of many unable to ushered into the more wide-spread “Big League” movement — there is a way that skillful prose and the turn of a simple sentence in what might otherwise be a difficult double play makes the experience far more appreciated.
And Wheeler admits for many years, he struggled to find a way to do this. More on that soon.
But for starters, how cool is this: You may know that line Satchel Paige told about how Bell was “so fast that when he goes to bed, he can turn out the light and be under the covers before it’s dark” … it has its roots in L.A.
Saunter over to Chapter 13, page 143. There’s another dose about the value of the California Winter League and its impact on interracial baseball in the early part of the 20th Century (which we previously learned from William F. McNeil’s incredible 2008 book, also by McFarland). As Wheeler amplifies, this was an annual respite where black players could come to L.A. as “a place to regroup and thrash some white teams.”
Los Angeles had its own All-Black White Sox Park in Boyle Heights (not so much in South L.A. as is recorded here) for the start of it in the 1920s, but then games moved to the Pacific Coast League’s far more credible Wrigley Field (future home for the inaugural years of the 1961 Los Angeles Angels). Accounts of these lucrative out-of-season contests between the White and Black All Stars of their day were endorsed by “the Los Angeles press …(that) took the maverick attitude that good baseball is good baseball.”
Wheeler decides the genesis of the Paige-Bell yarn “almost certainly derives from the 1934-35 Winter League season” as Paige and Bell, as roommates in a hotel or boarding house that had some funky fluorescent lighting. Bell recalls it as an opportunity to dupe Paige – and even take some money from him. Bell realized that when he hit the off switch, as the lights took a few seconds to flicker off, he says it was “the only time I ever saw Satchel speechless. Anyway he’s been tellin’ the truth all these years,” as Bell recounts in a 1981 Negro League reunion, documented in a St. Louis magazine, and given new examination here.
“One iteration of the story has Cool winning $10 from Paige on the initial gambit,” Wheeler writes. “And if that was the case, another twist seems highly plausible: that the enterprising roomies turned the trick a number of times for skeptical teammates willing to put up a few dollars behind their doubts.”
That’s the prime example about how Wheeler finds things in his wheelhouse and takes healthy cuts.
Wheeler writes that Bell’s life has “cried out” for a biography, but a shortage of raw material made that problematic, full of “chasms and complications.” So much of it was oral history passed down and muddied. Not that Bell’s eventual induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 was in doubt, even based on somewhat inaccurate record keeping. Wheeler, who already did thorough bios on legends such as Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson and Mike Piazza, said he “came crawling back to Papa, determined this time to give stubbornness a chance.” It led to the realization that for a “proper portrait” of Bell, “the place for imagination was not in my mind, but the reader’s. Fiction it mustn’t be. Rather let the absent material play its part. The abiding myth, after all – the player so fast he once stole two bases on a pitch out, so instantaneous he could flip off the light switch and be under the covers before it got dark – is the essence of Bell’s gossamer legacy. May that myth be documented where possible and cherished where not.”
(Really, how often is “gossamer” the right adjective at the right time?)
But therein lies a truth, as far as we’re led to believe, that Bell did those things, because from legend comes a truth magnified — including the story about how he really did score from first base once on a sacrifice bunt (laid down by Paige, no less), because he could take advantage with his speed of fielders being just enough out of position to fumble around and then having only to out-race the catcher back to home plate.
Maybe if we see Mookie Betts ever try it, we’d find a link to Cool Papa Bell, who also once gave Maury Wills some advice on how to easier steal bases by convincing those Dodgers’ hitters behind him in the lineup to change their stance in ways that would give him a better jump.
We re-discover how Cool Papa got his nickname based on his agile fielding ability as a soft-tossing left-handed pitcher, especially when chasing down those who dared tried to bunt on him. It was later, as a center fielder, where he put his wheels into motion as one covering ground like few others.
But we also find how he got his last name — born to Mary Nichols in 1903, he was the son of a Mississippi sharecropper named Jonas Bell. When he applied for a job at a slaughtering house recommended by his other half-brothers, the boss simply changed to Bell.
There would be no “Cool Papa” Nichols.
There’s also a coolness that he was fortunate to live 17 years in glory after his Cooperstown induction, even able to see himself fictionalized for pop culture as “Cool Papa Blue” in the 1973 book “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” which became a famous Richard Pryor movie, and then have his name stamped in the lyrics of a Paul Simon song.
There’s a reason that a statue of him exists outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis, where he lived and had a connection with the Cardinals’ Lou Brock. Time remembers him well. And with this approach and execution, we’re bona-fide chill with how it is pulled off, as well as how other Negro League stars of that time are also given a chance to shine again with Bell as the entry point.
Bell played his first professional game 100 years ago. He died on this day 30 years ago.
We now can better celebrate someone who former Negro League player Judy Johnson once said of him: “If everybody was like Cool, this would be a better world.”
How it goes in the scorebook
Truth or dare, a perfect steal.
And a bittersweet hail and farewell.
Wheeler’s bio includes the insertion (1952-2020) and then it begins that he “was the author of many books on baseball” … For all the MLB Hall of Famers we lost last year, Wheeler’s name shouldn’t be overlooked. He died last June of muscular dystrophy. Broadcaster Dick Stockton posted this remembrance and another from his time Cincinnati reflected on his former colleague.
Over the last year’s time of COVID lockdown, pouring through new books such as Isabel Wikerson’s “Caste,” Ibram X. Kendri’s “How to be an Anti-Racist,” and Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land,” trying to keep learning about the Black experience, this will be shelved appropriate with them as another documented way that shows how, if there wasn’t a Black Lives Matter movement back then, Cool Papa Bell’s existence definitely mattered to many.
Maybe the publishers already smell success with this book – it is already taking pre-orders for the paperback version that’s scheduled to come out in February, 2022 (at $17). Don’t shortchange yourself. It’s a cool summer read for a summer coming up when you need to get out.
More to cover
== Bell’s Baseball Hall of Fame bio
== The SABR biography of Bell by Dave Wilkie
== Bell’s career statistics between the ages of 19 and 43, from the Seamheads Negro League database
== More statistics provided by Baseball Reference, including his pitching numbers.
== A SABR historical look at the value of the California Winter League of the 1900s to 1946 at this link.
== Other books on Bell include the children’s version of “Cool Papa Bell: Lightning Fast Center fielder” by Hallie Murray for Enslow Publishing, 2019
== In 2015, Wheeler talked to Ron Kaplan (RonKaplansBaseballBookshelf.com) about “Intangiball” and “Pitch by Pitch” with Bob Gibson
== Late in 2020, artist Gary Cieradkowski explained he wanted to share some of the drawings he did for my ill-fated Negro League Card Set. “The bios will be bite-sized as it is taken from the text I wrote for the backs of the cards.” Which brings us to “Cool Papa” Bell.