On the third base corner outside new Busch Stadium, there is a silent platoon of statues to great Cardinals of the past, and one statue to a native St. Louis player, the great James “Cool Papa” Bell.
We’ve got some time before Game 3, so I’ll tell you my Cool Papa Bell story. Across the street from the new park is where old Busch Stadium stood and when I was a young baseball writer, Bell visited the Phillies clubhouse one day during the 1982 season.
It was beastly hot, as St. Louis always is during the summer, and the old man – he was 78 then – creeped slowly into the clubhouse to meet the players and say hello. He signed some balls for the players and Phillies outfielders Gary Matthews, Garry Maddox and Dick Davis crowded around to hear some of the stories he could tell.
Bell was reputed to have been the best centerfielder in the Negro Leagues, and certainly was the fastest in any league. He was said to have been timed rounding the bases in 12 seconds and, most famously, Satchell Paige, his teammate for a time, said Bell could “turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark.”
Paige, of course, said a lot of things. He also said that one time he was pitching against Bell and the outfielder hit a line drive that whizzed past Paige’s head, but the batter was out because the ball hit him in the butt as he slid into second.
By 1982, Bell was bent and slow, and his hands were gnarled and swollen like a string of shiny chestnuts as he worked them around the ball to sign it. He said most of Paige’s stories were “damn foolishness,” but he did allow that he was pretty fast, and did confirm that he scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt, although that had something to do with a defensive rotation that didn’t figure on him trying such a thing.
Pete Rose Jr. was traveling on that trip, acting as a bat boy and clubhouse kid, and he was perhaps 12 or 13 years old. Matthews took Pete Jr. aside after Bell left and repeated some of the stories for him, trying to impress upon the young man what a baseball eminence had just been in their midst. Pete Jr. was schooled in baseball, but Matthews wanted to make sure he knew the legacy of the Negro Leagues as well.
He ended the story, saying, “And that’s Coooool Papa Bell,” drawing out the vowel until it sounded as sweet and cool as the man’s game had been
And Pete Jr. repeated, “Coooool Papa Bell.”
And, unfortunately, for the rest of the four-game stand in Busch Stadium, every time Pete Jr. passed by Matthews, he would say, extending the “o’s” a little more each time, “Cooool Papa Bell.”
Matthews was a patient man and, well, he had started this thing. So, he would say, “Yeah, Petey. Uh huh. Cool Papa Bell.”
Until the last day in St. Louis, when Pete Jr. greeted him at the clubhouse door before the game and said, “Hey, Sarge. Coooool Papa Bell.” And Matthews said, “All right, Petey. Knock it off. That’s enough of that (stuff).”
That’s my Cool Papa Bell story. He was a very nice gentleman, and you could see how he could have been very fast, and he was pretty cool.