James “Cool Papa” Bell and St. Louis Stars’ ParkJuly 29, 2010
Baseball is so big in St. Louis it is often referred to as being more of a religion than a sport. We talk about the St. Louis Cardinals and sometimes the Browns, but how often are the Giants or Stars brought up?
How about the 1880s St. Louis Black Stockings? Luckily there are some who remember these important teams, particularly the Negro Leagues and many great memories have been preserved. One Cardinals fan has recently made the news for spreading awareness of the past’s under-appreciated greats, by placing headstones at the all too often unmarked final resting places of Negro Leaguers. There are many stories to be told about the thousands of players in the Negro League, but I have chosen to focus on one of the better known locals: James “Cool Papa” Bell. He may not be in need of a headstone, but he is certainly worthy of some more recognition.
Some say he was the fastest man to ever live.
He never ended up racing Jessie Owens but one thing is for sure – if the finish line was home plate, Cool Papa would win. He helped the St. Louis Stars win championships and called our city home since first moving here as a teenager from Mississippi, despite playing baseball for teams all over the Midwest each summer and in Latin America during the winter. The highest salary he earned was in Mexico where at one point he was making 450 dollars a month. After retiring from baseball he worked as a night watchman at City Hall. One year after retiring from his job at City Hall, James “Cool Papa” Bell was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Recognized as a National Hero he still stayed in St. Louis. He loved St. Louis and we love him back. Dixon Street, where he spent most of his life was renamed James “Cool-Papa” Bell Avenue in 1987, just four years before his death.
He has a star on the Loop’s Walk of Fame, and also has a statue in front of the new Busch Stadium, a very fitting tribute to one of our city’s greatest ball players.
Although records from the Negro Leagues are for the most part unavailable, Cool Papa Bell’s long career is full of highlights. He claimed “to have stolen 175 bases in 200 games during the 1933 season,” was said to have hit a line drive that tagged him out as he slid into second, and could hit the light switch, and be in bed before the room was dark. While some of the stories may be exaggerations, some are in fact verifiable. At age 45, Bell scored from first on a bunt while playing a white major league All-Star team – at a time when blacks were still banned from “the Majors.” To me, this is evidence that talk of him cheating by skipping second base (he was so fast it was hard to keep track of his path) is the result of counter-rumors spread by his detractors. Either way, the man’s speed was so impressive that it is still being debated to this day.
Although Bell started off playing baseball for various local teams, his first professional team was the St. Louis Stars. Bell is recognized on a Plaque marking the site of Stars’ Park near the corner of Market and Compton – one of four markers in St. Louis installed by the Society for American Baseball Research. He played at this park for his first ten years in baseball and won three championships there with the Stars. A baseball field still occupies the spot this very day as it is now on the campus of Harris-Stowe State University. I wonder how many of the ball players there this year know about the site’s history – I hope the stories are being told.
Of the three other markers like this that have been placed around the city, two others are very close to this one. One of them, the Compton Avenue Grounds (also known as Red Stockings Park and currently on Metro property just south of Market), was the home of the St. Louis Black Stockings who I mentioned earlier. The other was Federal League Park near Grand and Laclede, currently SLU student Housing and highway. For further reading please check out the links below.