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.
We didn’t play baseball like they play in the major leagues. We played “tricky baseball.” When we played the big-leaguers after the regular season, our pitchers would curve the ball on the 3-2. They’d say, “What, are you trying to make us look bad?” We’d bunt and run and they’d say, “Why are you trying to do that in the first inning?” When we were supposed to bunt, they’d come in and we’d hit away. Oh, we played tricky baseball.
That’s why we beat the major-league teams. It’s not that we had the best men, but in a short series we could outguess them. Baseball is a guessing game. The majorleaguers would play for one big inning. They go by “written baseball.” But there’s so much “unwritten baseball.” When you use it, they say it’s unorthodox.
In our league if a guy was on first and had a chance to go to third, he’d go just fast enough to make the outfielder throw. That way the batter could take second, you see. We’d go into third standing up so the third baseman couldn’t see the throw coming and it might go through him. Jackie Robinson learned that from some old players he saw in the Negro leagues. Sometimes you can teach a guy something and he can do it better than you.
The Chicago American Giants had the smartest players you ever saw. They used to bat in a run on a base on balls. If they had a man on third and the batter walked, he’d just trot easy-like down to first and the man on third would just sort of stand there, looking at the stands. At the last minute the batter would cut out for second as fast as he could go; the coach would yell, “Heh, look at that!” The pitcher would whirl around, the guy on third would light out for home, and like as not they wouldn’t get anybody out.
I could score from second on a long fly. I’ve even scored from first on a sacrifice. And I scored from first base on singles lots of times. If the ball isn’t hit straight at the outfielder, I’d score. You have to be heads up and watch those things. Or I’d stand back from the plate and chop down on the ball. That’s something I learned from the old players. By the time the ball comes down, they can’t throw me out.
Stealing home, now that’s a dangerous job. I didn’t do that too often. You’ve got to have a good man at bat. And you have to watch the pitcher. When he’s working with a windup, as soon as he brings his arm down, that’s the time to go. By the time he can bring his arm up again to throw, he can’t get you.
You had to know how to steal signs, too. Buck Leonard, our first baseman, was a great hitter, but he didn’t hit the curve ball as well as he did the fast ball. I said, “If you knew what was coming, could you hit the ball?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, I bet I can tell you every time a curve’s coming. If it’s a curve and I’m on first, I’ll stand with my hands on my knees. If it’s a fast ball, I’ll stand straight up. And if I don’t know, I’ll sort of swing my arms to say I didn’t catch it.”
How did I do it? It’s easy. Every time a curve is coming, what would the catcher do? He’d move his right foot over a little to be ready to catch it, wouldn’t he? I remember the 1964 World Series, the Cardinals and the Yankees, I kept telling the guy next to me, “It’s a curve, it’s a fast ball.” Heck, all I did was watch the catcher.
Earl Whitehill was the toughest big-league pitcher I ever faced. In 1929 we beat the major-league all-stars six out of eight games, and Whitehill beat us both times. The other pitchers were George UhIe and Willis Hudlin. I ran the bases against them the same as I did any other time. If it was time to steal, I’d steal.
Now Pepper Martin of the Cardinals was a pretty good base runner. He ran kind of wild in the World Series in 1931, when he stole five bases. I played against him in 1930 on the Pacific coast. When we played those fellows, they’d come and ask us how we did this or that, and I told Pepper how to get a lead off the pitcher. If you have a catcher with a great arm, you have to get a bigger lead. You can’t steal on the catcher much, it’s with the pitcher you’ve got to get the jump. A lot of people don’t know this—you can’t outrun that ball.
When you get a hit, some people are satisfied if they get a single. But if you run hard, just like you’re trying to beat out a bunt, and make your turn at first, if the outfielder has to go over to get the ball, you can go to second. That’s how you take your extra base, by hustling all the time. And if you’re stealing second, don’t be satisfied. Look up, the infielder might miss the ball and you can get up and go to third. A lot of players expect the coaches to tell them, but the coach can’t think as fast as the player can.
Well, after Martin had that good year in the Series the next year, he gave all the credit to me for stealing all those bases. They asked him if colored players could play in the majors, and he told them about playing against me and how I had helped him.
The best year I ever had on the bases was 1933. I stole one hundred and seventy-five in about one hundred and eighty to two hundred ball games, all of them against other Negro league teams.
In 1935 I played against Rogers Hornsby’s all-stars in Mexico. They had Jimmy Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Boob McNair, and Max Bishop in the infield, Heinie Manush and Doc Gramer in the outfield, Steve O’Neill catching, and Whitehall pitching. It takes about a week to acclimate to the altitude and they’d been down there about two weeks while we’d just arrived, but we had them beat, 6-4, with two out in the ninth, when Manush was safe on first. Foxx took a 3-2 count and then he got a ball up around his letters and hit it into the bleachers for a home run. The umpire called the game. The sun was up in the sky, but they called the game. That night we all had dinner at an American restaurant, and Foxx told us that the third ball the umpire called was a strike, but he said he wasn’t going to argue.
Next day Hornsby hit a ball way over my head. I ran back and caught it over my head. He said, “Come here, Lefty. That was the hardest ball I ever hit. How come you caught it?” Earle Mack, Connie Mack’s son, said, “If the door was open, you’d be the first guy I’d hire. I’d pay you seventy-five thousand dollars a year to play ball.”
They beat us the last two games, so the next year we said we’re going to get a good team and beat Hornsby.
In 1936 we had ten games scheduled against Hornsby in the states. He was slowing up then, but they had him advertised. Satchel Paige never could remember names. In the first game, in Davenport, Iowa, he said, “I want you to tell me when Hornsby comes to bat,” so I yelled, “Here’s Hornsby.” Well, there was a lot of applause, but when the ball hit the catcher’s glove, Hornsby would swing. Satch struck him out two times. Andrew Porter—we used to call him “Pullman Porter”—struck Hornsby out twice, but it was a night game, dark, rainy, and foggy. We got five hits and they got two, but they beat us, 2-1. Johnny Mize got both hits. It was tied, 1-1, and Mize hit a little pop fly behind second. The outfielder ran in to get it and kind of lost the ball in the fog. It was wet and he threw it into left field and Mize went home.
Bobby Feller was just coming up then, and he pitched three innings against us in Des Moines. We got only one hit off him and no runs, but we beat them after he left, 5-2 or 5-3. We beat them a double-header in Denver, came back to Des Moines and beat them again, and they just cancelled the last five games.
I remember one series against Dizzy Dean’s all-stars, about 1937 or ’38. We opened in York, Pennsylvania, and in the first inning we got four runs off Diz. I hit, Jerry Benjamin hit, Leonard walked, and Josh Gibson hit the ball over the fence. Next time Gibson hit another four-run homer. The people started booing and Diz went into the outfield for a while. He hated to just take himself out of a game. Satchel Paige was pitching for us, and we beat them 13-0.
In New York I got two doubles off Diz in one game. When Gibson came up with me on second, Diz kept telling the outfield, “Get back, get back.” Jimmy Ripple was playing center field. He said, “How far do you want me to get back?” But Dizjust said, “Get back, get back.” It was a scoreless tie. Gibson hit a fly deep to Ripple. I rounded third and made my turn, and Dick Lundy, who was coaching at third, yelled, “Stop.” But the shortstop was just getting the throw from Ripple, so I started for home.
The catcher caught the ball high and I slid in—and the umpire called me out. The umpire said, “Look, you don’t do that against a big-league team—score from second on an outfield fly.” So he called me out.
That winter this guy Trujillo was running the Dominican Republic, only he was having some troubles. He figured since his people liked baseball so much, if he came up with a top-notch team they wouldn’t want to see him lose his job. So he imported a bunch of us from the States. There was Paige and Gibson, George Perkins, Samuel Bankhead, Orlando Cepeda’s daddy, and me. We didn’t know we were being used for a political reason until we got there. Then Trujillo told us if we didn’t win the title we would be executed. Some of our boys got so nervous they couldn’t play. But we won. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here to tell about it.
I led the Washington Homestead Grays in hitting for three years. In 1944 I hit .407. In 1945 I was sick, I had a stiff arm, I couldn’t throw, I couldn’t run. I hit .308, the lowest I ever hit in my life. In 1946 my arm had loosened up and my legs, and I hit .411.
I gave Monte Irvin my batting title. He was our best young player at the time, and he was trying to get into the National League. He hit .389, but they reversed it to read .398. They gave Irvin the batting championship; they said I hadn’t played enough games. The fans were mad, but they didn’t know what we were trying to do. We were trying to give Irvin the batting championship so he could get a tryout in the majors. After the season was over they were supposed to give me two hundred dollars for giving Irvin my batting title, but they never did give me the two hundred dollars.
Now jackie Robinson surprised me. He played better in the majors than I thought he would. In 1945 he was with the Monarchs and we were playing them in WiImington. Frank Duncan, our manager, came to me and said, “Robinson wants to play in organized ball. He wants to play shortstop.” But he couldn’t play shortstop. He would have made it at first base, second base, or third base, but not shortstop.
If he missed his chance, I don’t know how long we’d go before we’d get another chance. Because, you know, he’d tried out up there in Boston, and they’d turned him down. That’s what had been happening all the time. They’d have a tryout and then say, “We didn’t see anybody worthwhile.” Well, we wanted to show Jackie that he should try out at another position.
Sam Bankhead, Dan’s brother, was with the Grays then. We looked at Robinson, and Sam said, “I want you to hit the ball to his right.” I was leadoff, and the first time I did it, Jackie caught the ball all right, but you’ve got to catch it and throw in one motion. Jackie had to take two extra steps. He couldn’t backhand it and pivot. He couldn’t throw me out. The next time up I walked two times and stole off him both times. I’d step right over his hands, or slide past him and reach back and touch the base. Now the umpire would call you out, but in our days we played “tricky baseball.” I stole four times that night. But Robinson was fast, too. We just played back on him anyway. We just wanted to see him run. Sam Jethroe could outrace him, but Robinson would steal more bases.
In 1948 Satchel Paige wanted me to manage the Kansas City Monarchs’ farm team. He told me, “You never made money in baseball; this may be your chance to make some money.” So I said, “Here’s a boy I want, Elston Howard, just out of high school here in St. Louis.” I recommended him to Buck O’Neill, the Monarchs’ manager. And I said, “I’ve got another boy I want in school in Dallas, Ernie Banks.” O’Neill said he didn’t need a shortstop. But I said, “Look at him work out,” and that’s how they found him. Later I offered Howard and Banks to the Browns, to Mr. Peters, who was director of their minor-league system. But he didn’t want them. The Cards also tried out Howard, and they didn’t take him, either, and I said, “If they don’t want those two boys, who do they want?”
That year was also the last time I ever scored from first on a sacrifice. I’d done that many times, but this time I was forty-five years old. We were playing the major-league all-stars in California, and I was hitting eighth. I got on base, and Satchel came up and sacrificed me to second. Well, Bob Lemon came off the mound to field it, and I saw that third base was open because the third baseman had also charged in to field it. Roy Partee, the catcher, saw me going to third, so he went down the line to cover third and I just came on home past him. Partee called, “Time, time!” but the umpire said, “I can’t call time, the ball’s still in play,” so I scored.
I retired after that. I figured it was time to find a steady job before I was too old. I went to work for the city, first as a custodian and then as a night watchman. Even after I quit, people still were after me to play. But my legs were bad, I had varicose veins, I couldn’t run. I got tired, you know. That was in 1951. Heck, I was fortyeight years old at the time!
People told me I should have tried for a big-league job just for the money, but I couldn’t do it just for a paycheck. I never had any money, so I never worried about it. I just didn’t want the fans to boo me, and if I had played at that age they sure would have. Sometimes pride is more important than money.
Now they’ve got Roy Campanella heading a committee to name Negro players to the Hall of Fame. But he only knows those he played against. He never saw some of the older ones. If some of these fellows don’t get into the Hall of Fame, it’s no use putting anyone in there. There were two or three hundred of those fellows to put in there. I’d put in four, five, six at one time.
Now they’re trying to set it up so Paige and Josh Gibson get in. In pitching, I’d put Paige in with Smokey Joe Williams, Bullet Joe Rogan, and Stringbean Williams. Those guys were fast, they were smart, and they knew how to pitch. In our league they threw the spitter, the screwball, emery ball, shine ball—that means vaseline ball; there was so much vaseline on it, it made you blink your eyes on a sunny day. Then they threw the mud ball —the mud on its seams made it sink. The emery ball would break either up or down, but if a sidearmer threw it and didn’t know what he was doing, it could sail right into the hitter. It was a dangerous pitch.
Well, Satch could pitch right in there with those boys, and they weren’t any faster than he was, but Satch made the majors, so now they’re going to pick him over everybody. Satchel was the fastest pitcher I ever saw. He was so fast you couldn’t time him. He had this hesitation pitch. When he was a kid, he’d fight with a gang, and a little guy would get behind a tree and stick his head out and duck when Satchel threw at him. So Satchel developed this hesitation pitch. He’d make a move to throw, the kid would duck, then Satchel would really pitch and hit the kid when he peeked out again. There’s nothing in the world against that in the rule books, but after he went to Cleveland he was fooling those big-league batters. They didn’t want that, so they outlawed it.
Josh Gibson I’d put in with a group of four or five catchers. Some of those catchers might do more than he could. The long ball was the only thing he could do better. Gibson wasn’t the best defensive catcher. There were two things Campanella could do better than him: catch pop flies and receive the ball. But Gibson was a smart catcher. He was smart and he was fast. Sometimes he just dropped the ball on purpose to get some guy to run. And he threw a light ball. You could catch it without a glove. Campanella threw it like a brick.
I was the man who kept records on Gibson—sometimes they didn’t even keep a box score. But when I got with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, I started to count Gibson’s homers—seventy-two in one year, 1933. Josh hit one over the center-field fence in Griffith Stadium. The longest ball ever hit in Yankee Stadium, Josh hit it. He hit it against the back of the left-field bullpen—almost out of the park.
Take Larry Brown, who used to play for Nashville, Memphis, and Philadelphia. He was a great little catcher. Cobb happened to see him play, and they were talking about getting the colored into baseball. Brown was a very light fellow, and Cobb told them to send him to Cuba and teach him to speak Spanish so they could recruit him. It came out after Cobb died that he said if Brown ever got to the majors, he wanted him on his side, he didn’t want to have to run against him.
Did you ever hear of Oscar Charleston? Some people said he was the greatest Negro ballplayer, but John McGraw said he was the greatest ball player he’d ever seen. He was a left-handed hitter, but it didn’t make any difference—left-handed or right-handed pitchers, he hit them all. Against the major-league all-stars in Mexico in 1935, every time he’d come up with men on base they’d walk him, because they’d heard so much about him.
He was a center fielder like Willie Mays, and I’d have to pick him over Mays. He was a sensational ballplayer like Mays. If they hit the ball high, he’d walk just fast enough to catch it, or he’d turn a flip and then catch it. And he played right behind second base, closer than Mays. But Charleston could go back and get the long balls.
Charleston was one of those rough boys. He had nerve, he’d fight, do anything. Like Ty Cobb. He’d run over you, spike you, tell the pitcher, “Throw it at me, I’ll hit it down your throat.” I heard that he pulled the hood off a Ku Klux Klansman in Indiana once. I didn’t see that myself, but it sounded like him. He wasn’t afraid of anything.
Now I couldn’t pick an all-time all-star team. It wouldn’t be fair. Who would you leave off? Who would I put at third base? Oliver Marcelle was supposed to be the greatest third baseman of all time, but all around, Judy Johnson was better than Marcelle was. Judy was a little fellow, but he could hit, he could throw, and he was smart. He’s a scout for the Phillies now. A little later there was Ray Dandridge. They thought he was a Mexican—he was very light—and they went down to scout him, but they found out he was a Negro and they wiped him out.
Now Willie Wells was the greatest shortstop in the world. They were scouting him in Chicago at the Negro East-West game, which is what we used to call our allstar game. But the older fellows would say Pop Lloyd was the greatest. He played against Cobb in Cuba in 1910. Cobb used to spike guys, but our guys were used to that because we did the same thing, so it didn’t bother Lloyd. He beat Cobb hitting in one series, and after that Cobb said he never would play against a Negro team anymore. I didn’t see Lloyd in his best days, but if anyone was better than Wells, he had to be perfect.
At second base, who would you pick, Sammy T. Hughes or Bingo Demoss? Demoss played for the Chicago American Giants, smart, a great bunter, and a great runner. He died about a year ago.
In the outfield there was Martin Dihigo, the Cuban—they say he’s one of Castro’s boys now. Doby Moore of Kansas City, who was shot and killed in 1932, didn’t play very long, but he was a long-ball hitter. And Chino Smith, who also died young, could hit that ball hard. Then there was Sam Bennett, who died last year. He gave Tris Speaker pointers on how to play center field.
Those were great times. We used to play a night game Saturday, get in the bus, and play a double-header Sunday and then play another night game Sunday night. You show me a ballplayer in our old league and I’ll show you a guy that can sleep standing, sitting, or walking. When I went out East baseball was easier to play than in the West. They’d play only five days a week, so we had time to sit around the lobbies and talk baseball. The rest of the time we’d be cramped up, riding the bus.
The worst was the pay, and it didn’t matter who you were playing for. The most I ever made was two hundred and twenty dollars a month. Most of the others were getting ninety to one hundred and twenty-five dollars a month.
During the Depression some of the teams just stopped paying salaries. But the players didn’t have anywhere else to work so they stayed. They got expense money, but a lot of times it was so little you didn’t have enough money to eat on. And some of the owners were pretty tricky. I remember one team hired me and told me to pay my transportation from St. Louis to Memphis and they’d pay me back. But when I got there they said, “Our players pay their own expenses.” And then this guy told me, “And the owner of the club is a dentist and all our players have their teeth fixed here.” I didn’t have a toothache and I wasn’t about to pay a man to fix what didn’t need fixing, so I just turned around and went home.
We had some players in our league better than those in the major leagues now, but when the doors were finally open, they were too old. Look at Luke Easter and Sam Jethroe: they were thirty-five.
But I’ve got no kicks, no regrets. I made my share of money. Of course it would have been nice to play in the majors, but I have my memories.
My greatest thrill? Well, everyone has his own favorite day. But I’ve got to say my biggest thrill was when they opened the door to the Negro. When they said we couldn’t play and we proved that we could, that was the biggest thrill to me. There were more guys before me who didn’t have a chance, and I wanted us to prove it to ’em all, black and white alike.