Heroes: James “Cool Papa” Bell

This past September my sons and I met in Kansas City MO for our annual baseball trip. During the day, we journeyed to the Negro League Museum. The museum is testimony to both a shameful time in the history of sports as well as a testament to courage, hope, and, above all, a love of the game. Most of the great African-American baseball players of the 50s and 60s had their roots in the Negro Leagues. Of course there was Jackie Robinson. But there also were great players such as Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks whose careers began in the Negro Leagues. They were also players who followed Jackie Robinson across the barrier that had kept African-American ballplayers out of the Major Leagues. Some other great ballplayers never had the chance to cross that barrier. One such player was James “Cool Papa” Bell.

I greatly admire Cool Papa Bell. He did not make much money. He played amid adverse circumstances, enduring poor playing conditions much less discrimination when it came to travel and lodging. And yet he still played! Clearly he sensed he had gifts and found joy in being able to express those gifts. Cool Papa apparently was one of the fastest ball players ever, his running feats becoming the stuff of legend. It is said, for example,  that he once scored from first base on a bunt. He was further blessed with impressive ability to hit and to field.

Playing well into his 40s, Cool Papa then briefly became a scout for the St. Louis Browns. For many years after, he worked as a security guard and custodian at the St. Louis City Hall. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 and so, toward the end of his life, was given at least some of the attention he’d deserved years before.

I look at Cool Papa Bell and I wonder what sustained him. Clearly it had to be a love of the game, a passion for where he was gifted. I have long stressed to others the importance of uncovering one’s gifts but Cool Papa’s story challenges me in an additional way. If I manage to identify my gifts, do I then have the courage and passion to express those gifts in the absence of attention and adulation? Can I live my gifts with passion even if my efforts go unrecognized? Do I have the courage to express my gifts in the face of hardship? Or am I more inclined to not try out of fear and resentment?

Some years ago, I wrote to Cool Papa Bell, hoping to obtain his autograph on a baseball card. A few weeks after writing to him, I was pleased to hear back from him and to receive his autograph. But he included something else with the baseball card. He included a Xerox from an article in a Baltimore newspaper in which the writer argued for recognition of Cool Papa as one of the greatest players ever in any league! He got that recognition in 1999, 8 years after his death, when he was named to Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. I hope that made him smile.

Reflection: What price have you paid to embrace your gifts? Have you let fear keep you from embracing and living them?

Further Reading and Viewing: The classic book on the Negro Leagues is Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball Was White which is also available in DVD documentary form. Another book is titled We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson. This is worth having also because of the beautiful illustrations by Nelson.