In the language of jazz, the word gig is an evening of work; sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, take the gig as it comes, for who knows when the next will be. It means bread and butter first, but a whole lot of things have always seemed to ride with the word: drifting blue light, the bouquet from leftover drinks, spells of odd dialogue and most of all a sense of pain and limbo. For more than anything the word means black, down-and-out black, leavin'-home black, gonna-find-me-a-place-in-the-shade black.
Big shade fell coolly only on a few. It never got to James Thomas Bell, or Cool Papa Bell as he was known in Negro baseball, that lost caravan that followed the sun. Other blacks, some of them musicians who worked jazz up from the South, would feel the touch of fame, or once in a while have the thought that their names meant something to people outside their own. But if you were black and played baseball, well, look for your name only in the lineup before each game, or else you might not even see it there if you kept on dreamin'.
Black baseball was a stone-hard gig. It was three games a day, sometimes in three different towns miles apart. It was the heat and fumes and bounces from buses that moved your stomach up to your throat and it was greasy meals at fly-papered diners at three a.m. and uniforms that were seldom off your back. "We slept with 'em on sometimes," says Papa, "but there never was enough sleep. We got so we could sleep standin' up."
Only a half-mad seer—not any of the blacks who worked the open prairies and hidden ball yards in each big city—could have envisioned what would happen one day. The players knew a black man would cross the color line that was first drawn by the sudden hate of Cap Anson back in 1883, yet no one was fool enough to think that some bright, scented day way off among the gods of Cooperstown they would hear their past blared out across the field and would know that who they were and what they did would never be invisible again.
June 19, 1994
When that time comes for Papa Bell—quite possibly the next Hall of Fame vote [he was, in fact, inducted into the Hall in 1974]—few will comprehend what he did during all those gone summers. The mass audience will not be able to relate to him, to assemble an image of him, to measure him against his peers as they do the white player. The old ones like Papa have no past. They were minstrels, separated from record books, left as the flower in Thomas Gray's Elegy to "waste its sweetness on the desert air." Comparisons will have to do: Josh Gibson, the Babe Ruth of the blacks; Buck Leonard, the Lou Gehrig of his game; and Cool Papa Bell—who was he?
A comparison will be hard to find for Papa. His friend Tweed, whom Papa calls the Black Historian, a title most agreeable to Tweed, says that you have to go all the way back to Willie Keeler for Papa's likeness. Papa's way was cerebral, improvisational; he was a master of the little things, the nuances that are the ambrosia of baseball for those who care to understand the game. Power is stark, power shocks, it is the stuff of immortality, but Papa's jewellike skills were the object of shoptalk for 28 winters.
Arthritic and weary, Papa quit the circuit 23 years ago, at age 47, ending a career that began in 1922. During that time he had been the essence of black baseball, which had a panache all its own. It was an intimate game: the extra base, the drag bunt; a game of daring instinct, rather than one from the hidebound book. Some might say that it lacked discipline, but if so, it can also be said that never has baseball been played more artfully, or more joyously. "Before a game," says Papa, "one of our big old pitchers, he'd say, 'Just get me a coupla runs, that's all.' You see, we played tricky ball, thinkin' all the time: We get a run, they got to get two to beat ya. Right?"
The yellow pages of Tweed's scrapbooks don't tell much about the way it was, and they don't reveal much about Papa, either; box scores never explain. They can't chart the speed of Papa Bell. "Papa Bell," says Satchel Paige, "why he was so fast he could turn out the light and jump in bed before the room got dark!" Others also embellish: He could hit a hard ground ball through the box and get hit with the ball as he slid into second; he was so fast that he once stole two bases on the same pitch. "People can sure talk it, can't they?" says Papa.
Papa says he did steal two bases on one pitch, which was a pitchout. "The catcher was so surprised the way I was runnin' that he just held the ball," says Papa. "I asked him later what he doin' holdin' that ball, and he said he didn't know, 'cept he never seen a man run like that before in his life." It is also a reliable fact that once in Chicago, on a mushy field, he circled the bases in 13.1 seconds, two fifths faster than Evar Swanson's major league record. "On a dry field," he says, "I once done it in 12 flat."
Papa could run all right, and he could hit and field as well. He played a shallow centerfield, even more so than Willie Mays did when he broke in. "It doesn't matter where he plays," Pie Traynor once said. "He can go a country mile for a ball." As a hitter Bell had distance, but mainly he strove to hit the ball into holes; he could hit a ball through the hole in a fence, or drag a bunt as if it were on a string in his hand. Bell never hit below .308, and one time when he was hitting .390 on the last day of the season he purposely gave up his batting title; he was 43 at the time.
"Jackie Robinson had just signed with the Dodgers, and Monte Irvin was our best young player," says Papa. "I gave up my title so Monte would have a better chance at the majors. That was the way we thought then. We'd do anythin' to get a player up there. In the final two games of the season, a doubleheader, I still needed a few times at bat to qualify for the title. I got two hits in the first game and sat out the second. The fans were mad, but they didn't know what we were trying to do. After the season I was supposed to get the $200 for the title anyway, but my owner, he say, 'Well look, Cool, Irvin won it, didn't he?' They wouldn't give me the $200. Baseball was never much for me makin' money."
Papa Bell earned $90 a month his first year, back in 1922. He would never make more than $450 a month, although his ability was such that later he would be ranked on Jackie Robinson's all-time team in the same outfield with Henry Aaron and Mays. Bill Veeck, who also saw Bell play, puts him right up there with Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio and Mays. "Cool Papa was one of the most magical players I've ever seen," says Veeck.
The money never bothered Papa; it was a game, a summer away from the packinghouse. " 'Cept one time," adds Papa, "when one team told me to pay my expenses from St. Louis to Memphis. They'd give it to me back, they said. I get there, and they say no. Owner of the club was a dentist. I say to 'em I didn't come down here 'cause I got a toothache. So I went back home. Owners are owners, whether they are blue or green."
Papa spent the winters in the packinghouse until he learned of places like Havana and Vera Cruz and Ciudad Trujillo that competitively sought players from the Negro leagues. He will never forget that winter in Ciudad Trujillo. It was in 1937, he thinks, when Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo was in political trouble. He had to distract the people, and there was no better way than to give them a pennant. First, Trujillo had his agents all but kidnap Satchel Paige from a New Orleans hotel. Then he used Paige to recruit the edge in talent from the States: namely, Papa Bell and Gibson, who, along with Orlando Cepeda, the storied father of the current Cepeda, gave the dictator a pat hand.
The look of that lineup still did not ease Trujillo's anxiety. "He wanted us to stay in pajamas," says Papa, "and all our meals were served to us in our rooms, and guards circled our living quarters." Thousands would show up at the park just to watch Trujillo's club work out, and with each game tension grew. "We all knew the situation was serious, but it wasn't until later that we heard how bad it was," says Papa. "We found out that, as far as Trujillo was concerned, we cither won or we were going to lose big. That means he was going to kill us." They never did meet Trujillo. They saw him only in his convertible in the streets, all cold and white in that suit of his that seemed to shimmer in the hot sun. "A very frightenin' man," says Papa.
Trujillo got his pennant and his election. A picture of Papa's, taken near a large stream, shows the team celebrating; the dictator had sent them out of the city—along with their fares home and many cases of beer. It had been a hard buck, but then again it had never been easy, whether it was down in Santo Domingo or back up with the St. Louis Stars or the Pittsburgh Crawfords or the Homestead Grays or the Chicago American Giants. East or west, north or south, it was always the same: no shade anywhere as the bus rattled along, way down in Egypt land.
Papa took the bumps better than most. Some, like Gibson, died too young; some got lost to the nights. Coolpapa, as his name is pronounced by those who came from the South, well, Coolpapa, he just "went on movin' on." That was the way his mother taught him back in Starkville, Miss., where he was born in 1903; look, listen and never pounce, those were her words, and all of them spelled survival. Work, too, was another word, and Papa says, "If I didn't know anythin', I knew how to work."
Long days in the sun and well after the night slipped across the cotton fields, all that Papa and his friends could talk about was "goin' off." Papa says, "One day some boy would be there along with us, and then he'd be gone. 'Where'd he go?' I'd ask. 'Why that boy, he done gone off!' someone'd say. Next you'd see that fella, why he'd be back home with a hat on and a big, bright suit and shiny shoes and a jingle in his pocket." They would talk of the great cities and what they would have when they, too, went off, and only sometimes would they hear about baseball. An old, well-traveled trainman used to sit under a tree with them on Sundays and tell them of the stars he had seen.
"Why, there's this here Walter Johnson," the trainman would say. "He can strike out anybody who picks up a bat!"
"Is that right?" Papa would ask.
"Sure enough, boy. You think I'd lie? Then there is two old boys named Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Well, they don't miss a ball, and they never strike out!"
"Never miss a ball?" gasped Papa. "Never strike out? Is that right?"
"I'm tellin' ya, boy. I've been to the cities and I know!"
"Well, mmm, mmm," Papa would shake his head. "Only one thing botherin' me. What happen when this here Walter Johnson is pitchin', and these other two boys are battin'?"
"Y'all go on!" the old man would yell, jumping up. "Y'all leave me alone. I'm not talkin' anymore. Don't none of ya believe. I should know. I've been to the cities!"
By the time he was 16, Papa was up north in St. Louis with several of his brothers and sisters, who were already in the packinghouse. "Didn't want to know 'bout ball then," says Papa. "Just wanted to work like a man." His brother suggested that he play ball on Sundays. " 'James,' he said, 'you a natural. You throw that knuckleball, and there ain't nobody going to hit it.' " Soon he was facing the lethal St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League. "They were a tough club," says Papa. "And mean! They had a fella named Steel Arm Dicky. Used to make moonshine as mean as he was on the side. His boss killed him when he began to believe Steel Arm weren't turnin' in all the profits."
Bell impressed the Stars, and they asked him to join them. "All our players were major leaguers," says Papa. "Didn't have the bench to be as good as them for a whole season—we only carried 14, 15 players. But over a short series we could have taken the big leaguers. That October we played the Detroit Tigers three games and won two of them. But old Cobb wasn't with them, 'cause 12 years before a black team whipped him pretty good, and he wouldn't play against blacks anymore. Baseball was all you thought of then. Always thinkin' how to do things another way. Curve a ball on a 3-2, bunt and run in the first innin'. That's how we beat big league teams. Not that we had the best men, but we outguessed them in short series. It's a guessin' game. There's a lot of unwritten baseball, ya know."
The Stars folded under the Depression. Papa hit the road. An outfielder now, he was even more in demand. He finally began the last phase of his career, with the Washington Homestead Grays; with Gibson and Leonard and Bell, it was one of the most powerful clubs in the black leagues' history, or anybody's history for that matter. "I was 'bout 45 then," says Papa. "Had arthritis and was so stiff I couldn't run at times. They used to have to put me in a hot tub. I had to get good and warm before I could move." Yet, he had enough left to convince Jackie Robinson that he should never try to make it as a shortstop.
"It was all over the place that Jackie was going to sign with the Dodgers," says Papa. "All us old fellas didn't think he could make it at short. He couldn't go to his right too good. He'd give it a backhand and then plant his right leg and throw. He always had to take two extra steps. We was worried. He miss this chance, and who knows when we'd get another chance? You know they turned him down in Boston. So I made up my mind to show him he should try for another spot in the infield. One night I must've knocked couple hundred ground balls to his right, and I beat the throw to first every time. Jackie smiled. He got the message. He played a lot of games in the majors, only one of 'em at short."
Papa was named to manage the Kansas City Monarchs' B team in 1948, the agreement being that he would get one third of the sale price for any player who was developed by him and sold to the majors. He had two prospects in mind for the Browns. "But the Browns didn't want them," says Papa, shaking his head. "I then went to the Cardinals, and they say they don't care, cither, and I think to myself, My, if they don't want these boys, they don't want nobody." The Monarchs eventually sold the pair: Ernie Banks and Elston Howard. "I didn't get anythin'," says Papa. "They said I didn't have a contract. They gave me a basket of fruit. A basket of fruit! Baseball was never much for me makin' money."
Life began all over for Papa. He took a job at the city hall in St. Louis as a custodian and then a night watchman. For the next 22 years the routine was the same, and only now and then could he go to a Cardinal game. He would pay his way in and sit there in the sun with his lunch long before the game began; to those around him who wondered about him, he was just a Mr. Bell, a watchman. He would watch those games intently, looking for tiny flaws like a diamond cutter. He never said much to anyone, but then one day he was asked by some Dodgers to help Maury Wills. "He could run," he says. "I wanted to help." He waited for Wills at the players' gate and introduced himself quietly.
"Maybe you heard of me," Papa said, "maybe not. It don't matter. But I'd like to help you."
Wills just looked at him, as Papa became uneasy.
"When you're on base," said Papa, "get those hitters of yours to stand deep in the box. That way the catcher, he got to back up. That way you goin' to get an extra step all the time."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Wills, who went on to steal 104 bases.
"Well," Papa smiled, "that's the kind of ball we played in our league. Be seein' you, Mr. Wills. Didn't mean to bother you."
After that year Papa seldom went to the ballpark anymore. He had become a sick man, and when he walked, his arthritic left side seemed to be frozen. There was just his job now. In the afternoons he would walk up to the corner and see what the people were up to, or sit silently in his living room turning the pages of his books of pictures: all the old faces with the blank eyes; all of those many different, baggy uniforms.
Nights were spent at city hall, making his rounds, listening to the sound of radio baseball by the big window, or just the sound of the hours when winter mornings moved across the window. When it was icy, he would wait for the old people to come, and he would help them up the steps. Often, say about three a.m., he would be looking out the window, out across to the park where the bums would be sleeping, their wine bottles as sentries, and he would wait for their march on the hall. They would come up those steps and place their faces up against the window, next to his face and beg to be let in where it was warm.
"We're citizens, old Bell, let us in," they would yell.
"I know," Papa would say.
"It's cold out here," they would say.
"I know," he would answer.
"No, you don't, you...." And Papa would just look away, thinking how cold it was outside, trying to think of all the things that would leave him indifferent to those wretched figures. Then it would be that he sometimes would think of baseball, the small things he missed about it, things that would pop into his mind for no reason: a certain glove, the feel of a ball and bat, a buttoning of a shirt, the sunlight. "You try to gel that game out of your mind," he says, "but it never leaves ya. Somethin' about it never leaves ya."
Papa Bell is 70 now [he died in 1991, at 87]. He lives on Dickson Street in North St. Louis, a neighborhood under siege: vacant, crumbling houses, bars where you could get your throat cut if you even walked in the wrong way, packs of sky-high dudes looking for a score. They have picked on Papa's house a couple of times, so now when he feels something in the air, hears a rustic outside of his door, he will go to the front window and sit there for long hours with a shotgun and a pistol in his lap. "They don't mess with Papa anymore," says his friend Tweed, looking over at Papa sitting in his city hall retirement chair. "It's a reclinin' one," says Tweed. "Show 'im how it reclines, Papa."
Now the two of them, Tweed and Papa, who sits in his chair like a busted old jazz musician, torn around the edges but straight with dignity, spend much time together in Papa's living room. They mull over old box scores, over all the clippings in Tweed's portable archives. They try to bring continuity of performance to a man's record that began when nobody cared. They assemble pictures to be signed for people who write and say that they hear he will be going into the Hall of Fame; the days are sweet.
"Can't believe it," says Tweed. "Can you, Papa? Papa Bell in the Hall of Fame. The fastest man who ever played the game."
"Ain't happened yet," cautions Papa, adjusting his tall and lean figure in his chair.
"Tell me, Papa," says Tweed. "How's it goin' to feel? The Hall of Fame...mmm, mmm."
"Knew a fella blowed the horn once," says Papa. "He told me. He say, 'Ya got to take the gigs as they come.' "
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.