James Thomas Bell was born May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Mississippi. Playing baseball as a 19 year-old rookie Bell earned the nickname “Cool Papa” after proving to his older teammates that he was not intimidated by playing professionally in front of large crowds. Signing with the St. Louis Stars in 1922, Bell entered professional baseball as a pitcher, reportedly throwing a wicked curveball and fade-away knuckleball.
The speed of Bell would become apparent when he beat the Chicago American Giants Jimmy Lyons in a race for the title of “fastest man in the league.” He immediately switched to center field, where he would play shallow and always manage to run down long hits. Bell stayed with the Stars until 1930 when the league disbanded, and led them to league titles in 1928 and 1930.
His speed would become legendary throughout his career. Bell once stole first on an infield bunt. Being timed on a wet field, Bell was recorded running the bases in a record 13.1 seconds. Bell claimed to have run it in a flat 12 seconds on a dry field, posting a time of 3.1 seconds from third to home.
His longtime teammate and Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige would tell media that Bell was so fast he could get out of bed, flip the light switch, and be under the covers before it got dark, or that he once caused an out at second by running into his own line drive. In his autobiography, Paige says that if colleges had known about Bell, “Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.”
During a career spanning over 20 years and numerous leagues in the United States and Latin America, Bell held well over a .300 career batting average, and batted over .400 in his first and last seasons in the American Negro Leagues. In one span of 200 games, Bell stole 175 bases. Bell retired in 1946, just one year before Jackie Robinson broke into the Major Leagues. A mentor to Robinson, Bell described it as the greatest moment of his career.
At age 44 in a 1948 all-star game, two years after his retirement and for the first time in front of a large, predominantly white audience, Bell shocked everyone by using his speed and awareness to steal home from first base on an infield bunt from Satchel Paige.