- Historic Sites
How To Score From First On A Sacrifice
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Editor’s note: For many years professional baseball contained a shadow land in which some of the finest players in the game spent their athletic careers earning hardly any money and precious little fame. These players, of course, were black men, barred from organized baseball by an unwritten but seemingly unbreakable agreement that the big leagues were for white men only. In 1947 the late Branch Rickey smashed that barner, once and for all, by bringing in Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since the color line was erased, the talented Negro ballplayer has been able to gam the headlines and the high salary brackets; the years in which organized baseball pretended that he did not exist are over.
The big-league players themselves had known all along that he existed. Over and over, after the regular season ended, white allstar teams entered the shadowland to play one or another of the Negro professional teams, often enough getting roundly whipped for their pains; and the big-leaguers readily confessed that among the underpaid black professionals they saw some players who were good enough to be stars on any team, white or black. For years the fabulous pitcher Satchel Paige was legendary. He was in his forties when the color line was erased—an old man, as ballplayers go—but he was still good enough to win a place on the Cleveland Indians and to stay in the majors for a number of years.
One of the black stars who was a little too old to follow in Paige’s footsteps was James “Cool Papa” Bell, whom some observers consider the fastest man ever to play baseball—Paige once remarked that Bell was so fast “he could turn out the light and jump in bed before it got dark. ” Bell played baseball for twentynine years, and the most money he ever got was $220 a month. Today he is a night watchman in the St. Louis city hall, and in the following article he tells what it was like in the black leagues of the old days, when teams like the Washington Homestead Grays, the St. Louis Stars, the Chicago American Giants, the Black Yankees, the Lincoln Giants, and the Kansas City Monarchs played in games the ordinary newspaper reader rarely learned about.
What it was like … well, you watched all the angles. A few years ago, long after the color barrier had been broken, Cool Papa gave some advice to a rising black star named Maury Wills, who was setting records as a base stealerfor the Los Angeles Dodgers. Have the batters who followed him (said Bell) stand far back in the box when Wills got to first and hold their bats back as far as they could. “What does that make the catcher do?” asked Bell. “Move back a step, right? That gives you one more step advantage in beating that ball to second. ”
Said Wills: “I never thought of that. ”
Just a bit of lore from the black leagues, where a man had to think of everything.
I was born in 1903 in Starkville, Mississippi, so I was sixty-six last May , and in all I played twenty-nine years summer ball and twenty-one years winter ball. I started playing at sixteen, when I came to St. Louis in 1919 with my four brothers who were playing for the Compton Hills Cubs in the old City League. I made thirty-five to forty dollars a week at the packing house and twenty dollars on Sunday to play ball. It was more than I could make playing ball full time.
In 1922 I was ready to quit baseball. I figured it was time to get a steady job, but the East St. Louis Cubs needed a pitcher to throw against the old St. Louis Stars of the Negro league and they asked me to come out for just one more game. I beat the Stars, and they made me such a good offer that I decided to stick with baseball. When they saw how I could run and throw, they made me an outfielder. I was a natural right-handed batter, but I was a switch-hitter.
They thought I’d be afraid of the crowds, but I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve played before crowds on the sand lots—we used to draw ten to eleven thousand people.” And they said, “Oh, that guy, he’s taking it cool, isn’t he?” So they called me Cool Bell. But my manager said, “We’ve got to add something to it; we’ll call him Cool Papa.” That’s what everyone called me. Most people don’t know my real name’s Jim.
What a team we had: Quincy Troupe, High-pockets Trent, Mule Suttles, George Giles, Leroy Matlock, Newt Allen, Willie “Devil” Wells, Frog Reddus, Dewey Creacy … We played at the park at Compton Avenue and Market Street by the old car barns. We had a lot of fun. And we had a lot of ballplayers better than some of those in the majors today. But some of our owners didn’t think we were good enough to play in the majors. They said, “You’d have to learn a whole new system in the majors.”That shows how much they knew about baseball!
The first time I played against the big-leaguers was against the Detroit Tigers in 1922. I was nineteen then. Cobb and Heilmann didn’t play. Cobb had played against a Negro team in Cuba in 1910 and got beat and said he’d never play against us again. But Howard Ehmke pitched. We beat them two out of three. After that Judge Landis, the commissioner, wouldn’t let them play a Negro team under their real names. They had to call themselves all-stars. Then if they got beat, we couldn’t say we beat a big-league team. For five years we played a postseason series against the Cardinals-Browns all-stars, and they didn’t win one series.