Cool Papa Bell

In a more fair and just Mississippi, James Thomas Bell — JT to his family and friends around Starkville — probably would have attended his hometown college, then Mississippi A&M, where he surely would have become a baseball star.

Of course, in a more fair and just Starkville, Bell and other Black children could have attended 12 years of high school and not had to work the fields to help feed their families. Those schools did not exist in Bell’s day.

Yes, and in a more fair and just America, Bell would have become a famous Major League Baseball player — and/or perhaps an Olympic track star — and never had to worry about money the rest of his life.

Sadly, there was little fair or just for a child of African American and Native American descent, born in 1903 on a farm three miles from downtown Starkville. So at age 17, JT Bell moved to St. Louis to live with older brothers, earn money in the factories there and attend high school in night classes.

Rick Cleveland

The high school thing never happened. Factory work didn’t last long. Baseball discovered Bell, his dazzling foot speed, natural baseball instincts and quick bat. He became a professional baseball player in the old Negro Leagues. He became Cool Papa Bell, the most accomplished Mississippi-born baseball player ever, the only native-born Mississippian enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. Bell was inducted  in 1974 despite never having played in the Major Leagues.

And if you are wondering why this is written today, you should know that his hometown college — now Mississippi State University — will pay tribute to him Thursday night. An area on the left field terrace at Dudy Noble Field will be dedicated as Cool Papa Bell Plaza, replete with a handsome plaque.

“Cool Papa Bell remains one of the greatest players in the history of the sport,” State athletic director John Cohen said. “No, he didn’t go to school at Mississippi State but he worked on our campus as a child. He should be recognized in his hometown and at our stadium. He will be.”

The moral of this story: It is never too late to admit — and correct as best you can — old mistakes.

Cool Papa probably said it best himself when asked if he had any regrets about never having played Major League Baseball. Bell replied that he did not and then added, “They say I was born too soon. I say they opened the doors too late.”

“They say I was born too soon. I say they opened the doors too late.”

Cool Papa Bell

For those who don’t know the Cool Papa Bell story, he is widely recognized as the fastest player in the game’s history. For Cool Papa, a walk or a single quickly became a triple because he usually stole both second and third bases. He achieved a lifetime batting average of .341 in the Negro Leagues, playing for several different ball clubs. He also starred on teams in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Cuba.

What would he have done in Major League Baseball? We have strong clues. Bell played in many exhibition games between barnstorming players from the Negro Leagues and Major League ballplayers. Facing some of the best pitchers in the history of the game, Bell hit .391.

Satchel Paige, the great pitcher and Bell’s teammate, once said, “Bell was so fast he could shut the light off in his hotel room and be under the covers before it got dark.”

What we know of Bell’s early life comes mainly from interviews of him late in life. We know his father was African American and his mother was largely of Native American descent. We know he was fourth of eight children and that his maternal grandfather owned 200 acres of land outside Starkville where he grew cotton, corn, fruit trees and vegetables. We know that Cool Papa Bell not only worked those fields but also worked at the college’s creamery and at the agricultural experiment station. In a recorded interview in 1981, Bell told of having to dodge rocks thrown at him by some of the agriculture students.

Although he didn’t attend State, Bell knew all about the rivalry between State and what he called “Old Miss.”

When “Old Miss” came to town to play, Bell said State students would “soap” the train tracks to stop the train from running. He laughed as he told the story.

He also told about coaching Jackie Robinson with the Kansas City Monarchs before Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball.

“Jackie wasn’t the best player in the Negro Leagues, but he was the best to represent us in the Major Leagues,” Bell said. “He played better in the Major Leagues than he did in our league.”

Bell took great pride in Robinson’s Major League success. He called his own induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame his second greatest thrill, second only to Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color line.

We can only imagine what it would mean to the great Cool Papa to be honored all these years later at his hometown university – the one where he worked as a child but could not attend.

•••

The dedication of “Cool Papa” Bell Plaza and the plaque noting the life and career of Bell is a joint project between MSU athletics and the University’s Student Association. MSU Director of Athletics John Cohen, Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill, student association Vice President Kennedy Guest and Bell’s cousin Allen Landfair will each speak during Thursday’s pregame dedication.

Fans are encouraged to be in their seats at Dudy Noble Field at 7:15 p.m. prior to the game. First pitch is set for 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU. The ceremony will be shown on the video board as the “Cool Papa” Bell Plaza, located on the left field terrace, will be dedicated.


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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.