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Negro Leagues, Sidebars

The Speed of Legend: The myths and some truths about Cool Papa Bell

cool-papa

James “Cool Papa” Bell, who taught Jackie Robinson to slide, takes third at a Homestead Grays game at Griffith Stadium. Dude was definitely fast.

“James ‘Cool Papa’ Bell of the St. Louis Stars, the fastest man ever to play baseball.
John Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues

One of the things that Negro League fans love most is its lore. Sure, many of its tales have been elaborated, exaggerated, and elongated. And why not? These men had so little of the glory and riches their white counterparts received that it hurt no one to accentuate and punctuate their stories through the craft of memorable storytelling.

With continual advances at the amazing and recently relaunched Negro Leagues Database on Seamheads.com, we have a statistical picture to flesh out the stories. But facts are pesky things. They sometimes cast doubt on favorite old tales. And at risk of my being called a Negro Leagues heretic or a wet blanket, Cool Papa Bell’s speed appears to be one such instance of the myth not matching the math.

Tales of Speed and Base Path Derring-Do

“Contemporaries rated him the fastest man on the base paths.
National Baseball Hall of Fame plaque

There’s little doubt that Cool Papa Bell earned his status as a speedster. Here’s what his fellow Negro Leaguers told interviewers:

  • “If he bunts and it bounces twice, put it in your pocket.”—Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe
  • “If he hits one back to the pitcher, everyone yelled, ‘Hurry!’”—Jimmie Crutchfield
  • “If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.”—Satchel Paige
  • “…When we play the Homestead Grays and Cool Papa gets on second base and Jerry Benjamin comes up and lays a bunt down the third base line that’s all you need cause Cool gonna dust off at home plate.”—Bill “Ready” Cash

We’ve probably all heard the tall tales:

  • Called out when a ball he hit through the middle struck him as he slid into second
  • Able to switch off the light and be in bed before the room was dark.

We may also be aware of these feats frequently associated with his legend and probably true to boot:

  • Scoring from second on a fly ball
  • Going first-to-third on a bunt
  • Beating the throw on two hoppers in the infield
  • Stealing two bases on one pitch
  • Scoring from first on a bunt against major leaguers.

Everyone who saw him said he was a burner. So when I recently looked at the Negro League Database, I expected him to dominate in steals, triples, and perhaps in defensive range. Instead I found a fast player whose known exploits bear only tepid testimony to the stories of his diamond days.

Thou Shalt Not Steal

“…used his speed and daring to become the foremost base stealer in baseball and to ‘leg out’ extra-base hits….

James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro Leagues Baseball

If Cool Papa Bell’s speed was one of the Negro Leagues’ most potent weapons, then we should expect him to have dominated the leaderboards in stolen bases. When it comes to the Negro Leagues, leaderboards are a little more squishy than the majors. In most seasons, even ones with a defined league schedule, some teams played more often than others, while lesser teams frequently folded in mid-year. Other teams played an independent, non-league schedule. So we need to triangulate on questions like this. We have complete enough information on about two-thirds of Bell’s summer seasons to be able to make some discernments (this includes not only the Negro Leagues Database information but also information on his Mexican League seasons from other sources). So let’s start simple.

How well did Cool Papa Bell do on the stolen base leaderboards?

These rankings represent how he fared against all Negro Leaguers, not just those in his specific league. General disclaimer: In addition to those five summer seasons I mentioned, we are also missing his many years of winter-ball data.

  • 1925 Negro Leagues: 1st (32, led by six)
  • 1928 Negro Leagues: 5th (19, leader had 29)
  • 1932 Negro Leagues: 3rd (8, leader had 21)
  • 1933 Negro Leagues: 2nd (11, leader had 13)
  • 1934 Negro Leagues: 1st (14 led by 4 over someone who played about 55% as many games)
  • 1935 Negro Leagues: 5th (10, leader had 12)
  • 1938 Mexican League: t-9th (9, leader had 23)
  • 1939 Mexican League: 3rd (12, leader had 14)
  • 1940 Mexican League: 3rd (28, leader had 32)
  • 1941 Mexican League: t-6th (14, leader had 26)
  • 1943 Negro Leagues: 3rd (12, leader had 17)
  • CAREER Negro Leagues only: 26th (118, leader has 305)
  • Summary: Led twice, 2nd once, 3rd four times, 5th twice, 6th once, 9th once

That said, this is a good record for steals, but it isn’t dominant. Based on the above, no one would claim that Bell was as good a thief as Rickey Henderson or Lou Brock or Ty Cobb or even Tim Raines.

Let’s follow the example of Bill James’ black and gray ink tests. We award Bell two points of black ink for leading the league in steals and two points of gray ink for each appearance in the top ten. Then let’s make it a useful comparative by doubling the black ink and adding it to the gray ink. Cool Papa’s record would earn him 4 points of black ink and 18 points of gray ink. Our ink score for him is 22 points.

Here’s the leaderboard summaries for the five speediest MLB players from Cool Papa Bell’s era. These are leaderboards out of all MLB, not just their own league:

  • Max Carey (10 black ink, 12 gray ink: 32 points)
    1st five times; 2nd four times; 3rd once; 5th once; 7th once; 8th once
  • George Case (10 black ink, 6 gray ink: 26 points)
    1st five times, 2nd thrice
  • Ben Chapman (8 black ink, 8 gray ink: 24 points)
    1st four times, 3rd once, 5th twice, 8th once
  • KiKi Cuyler (8 black ink, 6 gray ink: 22 points)
    1st four times; 3rd twice; 7th once
  • Frankie Frisch (4 black ink, 20 gray ink: 28 points)
    1st twice; 3rd twice; 4th once; 5th three times; 6th twice; 7th once; 8th once

So Bell is obviously fast and does very well. If we include those missing seasons, he might well get near Frisch or Carey. Well, except that the Negro Leagues were not even with MLB in overall quality of play. So, personally, I’d say it’s unlikely that Bell would retain all of his base-stealing skill in MLB, just as a AAA player loses some offense when he’s called up. Given all this, Bell probably fits into this group of MLB speedsters, but it’s hard to say more than that.

Was Cool Papa Bell more prolific a base stealer than his Negro Leagues contemporaries?

Within the Negro Leagues, however, it’s clear that Bell was not their most prolific basestealer. Here’s the top base thieves of Bell’s era (1920–1943) with at least 500 career plate appearances currently in the Negro League Database. They are listed by their steals per 162 games:

  1. Eddie Dwight (1925–1936): 50 per 162
  2. George Carr (1920–1934): 36 per 162
  3. Fats Jenkins (1920–1940): 32 per 162
  4. Clint Thomas (1920–1938): 32 per 162
  5. Doc Dudley (1920–1924): 32 per 162
  6. Jerry Benjamin (1933–1943): 31 per 162
  7. Stanford Jackson (1923–1928): 30 per 162
  8. Cool Papa Bell (1922–1943): 29 per 162

If we take it back to 1915, then Oscar Charleston, Jelly Gardner, Bernardo Baro, and Charlie Blackwell jump ahead of Bell and Dave Malarcher ties with him. Since we’re missing five prime years of Bell’s career, how many swipes would he need in those years to reach Eddie Dwight’s 50 steals per 162 games? Based on his career games per season year, he’d need to steal 212 bases over 410 games to catch up. That’s an average of 84 per 162 games. Certainly not impossible, but rather unlikely given his known record. What if we add his Mexican league stats? He swiped another 63 bags south of the border in 287 games, or 36 per 162 games. Add that to his known Negro League total, and he’s at 181 steals in 942 games, or 31 per 162 contests. He still needs to steal an awful lot to catch up. It’s pretty clear that in league games, Bell was not an exceptionally prolific base stealer.

How often did Bell steal in comparison to the Negro-Leagues average?

To being with, the Negro Leagues stole more bases than the majors (as is commonly known), which puts his raw steals totals in an even less impressive light. Everyone else was doing it too. Bell stole at about twice the rate of his Negro League colleagues. In MLB, however, Max Carey stole at nearly three times the rate of his leagues. Others did even better. So just for giggles I did a little pretending. If we took Bell’s rate against his leagues’ average and applied the ratio to the MLB steals per game average, weighting each season by games played, then he would have ended up with about 250 MLB steals if his career lasted 10,000 PAs. And lower, of course, with fewer PAs:

10,000 PA: 252 (or 15 per 600 PA)
9,000 PA: 227
8,000 PA: 202

No MLBer of that time has those exact same numbers in those PA totals, but he ends up somewhere north of someone like Wally Moses (172 steals in 8,095 PAs). Our noted speedsters from above finish considerably better:

  • Case: 349 SB in 5,516 PA (38 per 600 PA)
  • Carey: 346 SB in 5,412 PA (38 per 600 PA)
  • Frisch: 404 SB in 9,902 PA (25 per 600 PA)
  • Cuyler: 328 SB in 8,100 PA (24 per 600 PA)
  • Chapman: 287 SB in 7,424 PA (23 per 600 PA)

To sum up about steals, nothing in Bell’s documented games against Negro Leagues and Mexican League teams suggests that Bell was the fastest man in the Negro Leagues let alone all of baseball. He was undoubtedly fast, but as yet, we have no hard information about his base running that bolsters the superlative claims of the old stories. All though we should note that without caught stealing information, we can’t say much more than that.

Rounding the Bases

“One of the fastest runners of all time anywhere, James (Cool Papa) Bell ran successfully for 3 inside-the-park homers at Aida Park, in Cienfuegos, on New Year’s Day 1929.
Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878–1961

So what about triples, the other offensive marker of speediness? How’d Bell do there? A little better actually. Here’s his leaderboards:

  • 1928: t-6th 7 (leaders had 13)
  • 1932: t-7th (3, leader had 6)
  • 1933: 4th (4, leader had 6)
  • 1934: t-10th (3, leader had 8)
  • 1935: t-3rd (6, leader had 11)
  • 1938: 3rd (9, led by 2)
  • 1940: 1st (15, led by 1)
  • 1941: 1st (15, led by 14)
  • 1943: t-5th (6, leader had 10)
  • CAREER: T-19TH (44, leader has 115)
  • Summary: 1st twice, third twice, 4th once, 5th once, 6th once, 7th once 10th once

Using our previous scoring system (with triples only worth 1 black/gray ink point per James), Bell records a score of 9 points. That’s substantially better than our fivesome of base blazers:

  • Carey (2 black ink, 2 gray ink: 4 points)
    1st once; 4th once; 10th once
  • Case (0 points)
    nada
  • Chapman (0 black ink, 3 gray ink: 3 points)
    3rd once, 6th once; 9th once
  • Cuyler (2 black ink, 2 gray ink: 4 points)
    1st once; 5th once; 6th twice
  • Frisch (0 black ink, 2 gray ink: 2 points)
    6th once; 8th once

He’d likely give back some of those triples in the big leagues, however. Why? Think about your little league team. Where did the worst fielder get stuck? Right field. Negro Leagues teams usually only carried around 13 players, so when a regular needed a breather, who would play right field? Pitchers and benchies who might not have any idea how to play the corner pastures. Back to little league. Where did the most athletically gifted kids play? Shortstop, pitcher, and centerfield. Guess what positions the Negro Leagues were deepest at: shortstop, pitcher, and centerfield (plus catcher). So someone like Bell could take fullest advantage of the least athletic people on the field and turn doubles into triples in a way that was far less likely in the majors.

In terms of his own leagues, Bell’s triples rate of 11 per 162 was nothing special. The career leader, Turkey Stearnes, poled 21 per season, Wild Bill Wright 20, Dobie Moore 19, etc…. I wondered whether a big part of Bell’s lack of triples related to Stars Park, his home field for most of the 1920s. He placed among the leaders only in 1928 among seasons we have of his on the St. Louis Stars, and Green Cathedrals shows the field was 425 to left center but just 250 down the left field line. However, the Stars routinely finished second or third in the NNL in team triples, so the park was unlikely starving them of three-baggers and could have played triples-friendly. Even so, counterbalancing his years in St. Louis, Bell played in famed triples haven Griffith Stadium (home of the Homestead Grays and Washington Senators). The Nats’ home park was the triplinest place in the AL, and the Senators swatted more triples than all AL teams from 1920 to 1950 and more than any NL team except the Pirates who played in an even better park for triples.

Now what if we repeat our thought experiment and take Bell’s rate of triples versus his own leagues and apply it to the majors? We’d get:

10,000 PA: 159 (or 10 per 600 PA)
9,000 PA: 143
8,000 PA: 127

Here’s how our speedsters actually did:

  • Cuyler: 157 in 8100 PA (12 per 600 PA)
  • Carey: 77 in 5412 PA (9 per 600 PA)
  • Chapman: 107 in 7424 PA (9 per 600 PA)
  • Case: 43 in 5516 PA (5 per 600 PA)
  • Frisch: 136 in 9902 PA (8 per 600 PA)

Pretty good! Now, setting aside those MLB players who toiled in Pittsburgh and Washington, Bell’s triples rate (without any league-quality adjustment) would be about the same as that of Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons, Rabbit Maranville, Bill Terry, and Harry Heilmann among others. None of whom really resembles Bell as a hitter.

So Bell’s speed may show up better in triples than in steals, though it’s still not as though it comes through looking transcendent.

The Lone Ranger?

“Teammate Sam Streeter claimed that [Spotswood] Poles could outrun “Cool Papa” Bell, regarded as the fastest player ever on the Negro Leagues base paths.
Lawrence D. Hogan, Shades of Glory

Finally we get to Cool Papa’s range in the field. Fielding stats are the least reliable in our toolkit, but they can tell us a lot too. Especially DRA, which adjusts for all kinds of things, such as pitcher handedness and flyball tendencies. Among Negro Leagues centerfielders of any era, Bell’s career DRA range score of 30.5 ranks 14th. (Note: The Negro Leagues Database doesn’t have fielding data available for 1924, 1925, and 1942 at this time.) But let’s look at it as a rate. We have records of Bell playing 2975 innings in center, which means his range was about +10 runs/1000 innings. Among all 25 Negro Leagues players with 1000 documented innings in centerfield, this figure ranks 18th.

Once again, with the caveats that we are missing some information, that fielding stats are not as solid as hitting stats, and that there may be park or team contexts that suppress his outfielding ratings, Cool Papa Bell’s speed doesn’t look like a game-changing trait on defense either.

Faster, Faster, Faster!

“…used his speed and daring to become the foremost base stealer in baseball and to ‘leg out’ extra-base hits….
James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro Leagues Baseball

I wish I could definitively tell you the truth about Bell’s speed. We’ll never have the granular level of information on the Negro Leagues that we have for the majors. And what we currently have is not complete for Bell either. When it finally arrives, and it will, we’ll check back.

What we know for now from the data we have are these things:

  • Cool Papa Bell’s speed does not show up in the statistical record as strongly as it does in Negro League mythology.
  • Bell’s stolen base totals are not indicative of the kind of speed in his legend.
  • Bell’s triples totals are more impressive than his steals though not indicative of truly unique speed.
  • We have no play-by-play level information on his other base running activities, which the lore describes as extraordinary.
  • Bell’s range in centerfield, with many caveats, is not indicative of amazing speed either.

On the whole, I’m left with two words: Bernie Williams. I listened to and watched a lot of Bernie’s games, and he was frequently described as “The Fastest Man in Puerto Rico” because he had been a world-class teenage sprinter growing up. But that speed only sometimes translated to baseball skills. Williams never stole more than 17 bags in a year, though to be fair, he tended to hit in the middle of the order. He was, however, a rotten base stealer with an awful 63% success rate. Overall, his base running was worth -3 runs during his career. He was not only bad at stealing bases, but he only took the extra base 43% of the time. Fifty percent and up is very good, and we’d have thought that a world-class sprinter might do better than Bernie did. His base running instincts never matched his foot speed. Williams did hit a fair number of triples (55), placing in the AL top ten four times, but not nearly so many as a sprinter might. As many of us know, Bernie was also a poor centerfielder. After displaying average range in his first several years, he suddenly lost it in 1996 and ended up with a career range total of somewhere between -35 and -90 runs depending on your defensive stat of choice.

To be fair to Cool, Bell is no Bernie. In fact, I suspect that Bell was a better total package than Williams. But you can sense a certain similarity here. Lightning fast, an inability to fully translate that speed into high-volume steals, some decent triples numbers, and less range than you’d think. Could I be horribly wrong?

Yeah.

So then why don’t the numbers—meticulously compiled and corroborated from multiple sources by the amazing Gary Ashwill—add up? My guess is that sometimes myths aren’t wrong, but they just aren’t right either.

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “The Speed of Legend: The myths and some truths about Cool Papa Bell

  1. I remember listening to Satchel Paige years ago and he had a dozen stories about Bell. As I’ve gotten older they remind me of Joe Garagiola’s Yogi Berra stories. I wonder how much the legend of each has to do with the quality of stories told by very good story tellers. I’m also aware that stories get better with age (mine certainly have).
    If I have to take one Negro League center fielder, I’m taking Charleston (with Stearnes and DiHigo on the corners).
    As usual, good, well thought out, article.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | January 16, 2017, 8:19 am
  2. Best historical baseball piece I have read in ages if ever…thanks for sharing Doc, plugging this at the Hall of Merit and Baseball-Fever!

    Posted by Ryan | January 16, 2017, 9:19 pm

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