MLB counting the Negro Leagues in reminds me of my boyhood visit with Cool Papa Bell | Opinion

When I was younger, I lived on the same street as the gentleman once considered the fastest man in baseball: Negro Leagues baseball great and Hall of Fame player James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell.

For years in the mid-1980s, I lived with my mom and older brother in a townhouse in the 2900 block of — wait for it — James “Cool Papa” Bell Avenue in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood of north St. Louis. Our residence was about a three minute walk from the home where Cool Papa Bell still lived.

At the time, Bell was older and frail. Even then, at the ripe age of 11, I knew the presence of greatness was about a block away.

One day during the early summer of 1985, a childhood buddy and I worked up enough nerve to knock on Cool Papa’s door. As best I recall, his wife, Clara Bell, answered. We begged her to let us meet Cool Papa Bell, who she said didn’t move around all that well those days.

Undeterred, we insisted the visit would be brief. I can’t recall every single detail of the moment but my buddy and I each took turns introducing ourselves and shaking hands with the baseball legend. Back then, you couldn’t tell either of us anything. For months, we were on Cloud 9. We’d met one of baseball’s greatest players in person. To this day, meeting Cool Papa Bell is still one of my fondest childhood memories.

I’ve been thinking about Cool Papa Bell a lot lately. When Major League Baseball announced this week that it would include statistical accomplishments of Negro Leagues players in its record book, I recalled my encounter in his home. Even at his advanced age, Bell personified the grace, class and humility often associated with Negro Leagues players such as Kansas City’s own Buck O’Neil.

Cool Papa Bell’s nickname was born in 1922, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. As a 19-year-old pitcher for the St. Louis Stars, “his calm demeanor on the mound … earned him the colorful sobriquet,” the Hall of Fame website states.

“But stories of his base running speed are legion, advancing two and even three bases on a bunt, beating out tappers back to the pitcher and also playing a shallow center field — because his speed allowed him to catch up to just about anything out there,” the site reads.

Cool Papa Bell’s stint as a pitcher was short-lived, though, according to the Hall of Fame. He played center field for the majority of his career.

Statistically, it’s difficult to quantify Cool Papa Bell’s speed. According to the Hall of Fame, Bell may well have been the fastest man to ever play baseball.

“I remember one time I got five hits and stole five bases, but none of it was written down because they forgot to bring the scorebook to the game that day,” Bell said, according to the Hall.

Satchel Paige stretched the truth about Bell’s speed

Years ago, during research for a personal writing project (shameless plug — my first novel titled “James Cool” is available on Amazon in digital and paperback forms), I read several larger-than-life tales of Cool Papa Bell’s legendary speed.

For instance, famous Negro Leagues baseball pitcher Satchel Paige once stretched the truth about how fast Bell was. As Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick told me this week, Paige was as colorful as they came, and his recollection of Bell’s quickness was slightly exaggerated.

The pair bet each other that Cool Papa could turn off the lights and be in bed before the lights went out, but Bell held a secret that Paige left out when recounting the story, according to Kendrick.

“What Satchel forgot to mention was there was an electrical short in the light switch,” Kendrick said. “Cool Papa took his roommate’s meal money that day.”

In the coming days, baseball enthusiasts should look to learn more about the on-field exploits of Negro Leagues luminaries and Hall of Fame players such as Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes, George “Mule” Suttles, Walter “Buck” Leonard and many others.

Names such as “Bullet”Joe Rogan, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd and Martin Dihigo shouldn’t be overlooked either, Kendrick said.

But Bell holds a special place in my heart. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974, the same year I was born. He died on March 7, 1991, the spring before my senior year of high school.

I’m forever grateful Cool Papa Bell was gracious enough to greet two random kids from down the block. Even more remarkable, he did it without fuss.

During this triumph time for the Negro Leagues, I couldn’t help but think of that moment.