Cover Image: The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell

The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell

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For anyone who loves baseball, but doesn't know about Cool Papa Bell, well you're missing out. 

Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, Bell's incredible speed and switch hitting made him one of the greatest players to ever play the game. 

An incredible athlete, he wowed Hall of Fame pitcher, Satchel Paige, who spoke his praises of Bell in his ironic quote, "Once he (Bell) hit a line drive past my year. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second.:" 

A chronological telling of Bell's life from his early beginnings as a child of Mississippi sharecroppers to his rise in the Negro Leagues as well as his time playing in the Dominican Republic, and Mexico all while battling American racism. 

Wheeler brings Bell's life to the pages for a new wave of baseball fans that should be all too excited to read about this legend of America's great pastime.
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A very well-deserving biography on the extraordinary James Bell aka Cool Papa Bell. I am very honored to have gotten a glimpse of the respectable, talented and humbling star athlete, son, brother, a devoted husband and a friend to many. The late Lonnie Wheeler, a notable baseball writer and historian provided a voice to this legend and painted such phenomenal and honest portrait of Cool Papa. One of the first fully-written biography dedicated to Cool Papa Bell, it also recounts key members that played alongside with Cool Papa in the Negro League teams. 

Lonnie Wheeler did not hesitate to note the recordkeeping on the statistics in the Negro League to be questionable. Negro Leagues between the 1930's to 1940's were not organized especially with their recordkeeping. Majority of the statistics were obtained through anecdotes and unable to be verified. Even with limited information, Lonnie Wheeler does the impossible. He delved into the basic outline of Cool Papa Bell's life and its era. The animated way the author describes about the Negro League and the key players of the league including Satchel Paige, Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson and many more leapt off the pages of history. I couldn't help admire the Negro League infused with their passion and their fearless games they played. Witnessing the changes over time in Cool Papa Bell's life and career and in baseball was engrossing in itself. The integration in the major league happens however, the downfall part of this book was this happens in later part of Cool Papa Bell's life. By this time, it was too late for him to play in the major leagues. As a notable athlete, due to the color line it was even difficult for him to find a respectable job after his retirement from his baseball career. 

"James Bell, he knew even then, was an invisible man who played in an invisible time." Cool Papa Bell and other key players were denied the opportunity to compete against the world best games but their persistent and the belief in not limiting their possibilities was inspirational and admirable. Lonnie Wheeler's open-minded and empathetic approach truly reflected the voice of Cool Papa Bell. It is through his keen eye for details, accuracy and its nuance where his high quality work is clearly evidenced. His compassionate nature is reflected in the way he captures the essence of his subject and baseball. Filled with compelling account on Cool Papa Bell and other key players' noteworthy achievements and its captivating era of the Negro League, this book is a testament to all baseball fans. A reminder of how baseball is closely interwoven to our history and the impact it made in our country and lives. Lonnie Wheeler's wondrous storytelling evokes the love and respect in baseball and "The Bone Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell" is a reflection of an American story that connects all generations. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Abrams Press providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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The legend of Cool Papa Bell is already familiar to many baseball fans, especially those interested in the history of the sport. But Lonnie Wheeler has given us the first dedicated full biography of Bell, chronicling his life and baseball career.

Bell was a Negro League legend, his legacy diminished and lesser known to many casual fans only because of systemic racism within the sport. Though things are changing, we still live in a world where the Negro Leagues have yet to be recognized as Major Leagues. 

Despite the odds against him, Bell still managed to make his mark on the baseball world. Despite being underappreciated for his skill at the sport, he is an elected member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

This biography does very well with the baseball elements of Bell’s life and is less successful with the personal stuff. This is perhaps not the fault of the author (the material he had to work with was decidedly richer on the baseball side of things). It does however make the book a little slow when it isn’t focusing directly on baseball. 

That slow pacing and lack of dynamic content outside of the baseball components keep this one from being a must read for baseball fans, but it’s still a “should read,” as Cool Papa Bell is baseball legend worth getting to know better for any fan of the sport.
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A worthwhile addition to the baseball book canon, The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell does an admirable job of recapping and analyzing Bell's life and legacy with the small amount of information out there while also contextualizing the time period and Black baseball. There are many short detours to give a fuller picture of some of the other players and people in and around the league to pain a broader picture of the time and also pad out the length where there may not have been enough information on the title subject. Working with incomplete records, the author acknowledges that many statistics are not and will never be known and when there is conflicting information on a story he tells each side and gives a weighted view to what is probably the truth.
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Most baseball fans have heard of the story that James "Cool Papa" Bell was supposedly so fast that he could turn out the lights and be in bed before the room was dark. The actual story behind that myth is just one of the many wonderful passages about this Hall of Fame outfielder in this book by the late Lonnie Wheeler. 

Baseball was Bell's ticket out of a working life in the slaughterhouses in St. Louis, where his family relocated from Mississippi when James was a boy.  He started as a pitcher and was a good one, but his coaches wanted to utilize his speed more fully and, in the outfield, he became one of the most legendary figures in the Negro Leagues.  Because of the nomadic nature of the Negro League teams and their usual travel to wherever they could find a decent paying audience to cover the bills and earn a little extra money, there are many teams for which Bell plied his trade.

On those teams, Bell became a teammate with some of the other great players in Negro League history such as Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Turkey Stearns.  Whether it was the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays or even playing in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, Bell always played hard and usually was one of the best players on the field.  His legend only grew wherever he played.

"Legend" is a good word to use for much of the information known on Bell and the Negro Leagues because, as noted in the book, the recordkeeping was questionable at best.  That would be whenever there were statistics kept or recorded.  The black newspaper in Pittsburgh was the closest to anything official, but it could only publish what it was provided.  Therefore, as noted by the author, much of the information on Bell was obtained through sources that were anecdotal and were not able to be verified.  One humorous example is one season when it was decided to see just how many bases Bell had stolen.  The official stats say 5, which seems awfully low given his legend.  However, if we are to believe Cool Papa's own running tally, he amassed 312. This illustrates the challenge one can face when trying to gather cumulative statistics on the Negro Leagues.
Some of the best chapters are those in which Bell is playing outside the United States, as mentioned earlier.  This is mainly due to Satchel Paige wandering to wherever he wanted to play, even when he was supposed to be part of another team.  He also had the charm to convince other stars to join him, including Bell.  How he was able to do that in the Dominican Republic and play for the campaign of a ruthless dictator was quite interesting, both in a chapter in this book and in more detail in a separate book on Paige's time in this country.

Through the stories of the players, it was also clear how they felt much more welcome and relaxed in foreign nations, especially Mexico, because of the segregation of not only the game but also the racism in the United States in general.  What made this quite interesting is the interaction of the Negro League stars with their white Major League counterparts.  Many of the latter felt that these men were just as good or better than their fellow MLB players.  The eventual integration of baseball is covered in the book – sadly, too late for players like Bell to be able to play.

Even Bell's life after baseball is good reading, especially when he was giving baseball advice to up and coming players through the St. Louis Cardinals' system as Bell lived with his wife Clara in that city after his playing days were over.  One of those players to whom he gave baserunning advice was a young Lou Brock. 

Covering much more than just Cool Papa Bell's life, this book would be a wonderful addition to any reader who wants to learn more about the Negro Leagues and some of the legendary players who made the stories rich and entertaining. 

I wish to thank Abrams Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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A must have for baseball fans, this is the story of a remarkable player who could have rivalled any of his superstar contemporaries, but just because of the colour of his skin had been relegated to the Negro League.
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Baseball is my favorite sport and I was thrilled to read the story of Papa Bell. I knew very little about him or the negro league, but it was great to finally get educated on this subject. During these turbulent times this book should be very received and I'm so glad that this story was written.
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More than a biography of a single player, but rather it is an homage to an era and a league that should not be forgotten or overlooked. Cool Papa Bell was a superstar, and should be remembered as one. I loved the storytelling and admiration in this book. This book will remind you why you love baseball, and what a shame it was that baseball was not integrated for the duration of the inception of the sport.
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Cool PaPa Bell  “Reserved, Unworldly, Mindful of his Mom and Serious about his craft”. This is The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell. 

Lonnie Wheeler was  given the great opportunity to interview Cool Papa, his memories were said to be remarkably accurate and detailed.   Cool Papa was so fast he, once stole three bases including home on three straight pitches. As a outfielder he nabbed everything hit in his direction, and kept runners “honest” with his accurate throws. 
This very  interesting read is  full of life, baseball stories and stats  that will keep ALL Baseball enthusiasts turning the pages.    There are many great photos of the NNL players throughout the book which gives us the faces to go with the names. 

Referring to his time playing Baseball , A lot of people tell, me I was born too soon” I (Bell) replied I wasn’t born too soon, they just opened the door too late for the Blacks.”. 
This is a very interesting read that is loaded with stories of life and BASEBALL. 

Susan W/ Booklover/ BASEBALL Lover
Thank you for allowing me the privilege of reading this AMAZING book.
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There is so much that is unknown about the Negro Leagues and its players. This despite the fact that they played in the same century as guys like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, who had forests worth of paper dedicated to their feats. This book will help bridge that knowledge gap.

Cool Papa Bell is, above all else, cool. The picture painted of him is a dignified and calm player who had to seek out opportunities where his white counterparts had them brought over on a silver platter. We learn about the loose and shambling nature of the Negro Leagues themselves. A team randomly moves because their stadium got sold, players go to play in foreign countries for a season or two before returning, etc. It's a wonder that these guys ever got the chance to actually play the games. 

I liked the material talking about the times Cool Papa and Josh Gibson spent together. Gibson has long been one of the enigmatic figures I'd like to know more about. But, because of the dearth of press coverage of the Negro Leagues and the nomadic nature of the players, it's unlikely those mysteries will ever be brought to light.

The later half of the book shows how Cool Papa Bell was one of the bridges between the Negro Leagues and the post-integration major leagues. After retiring, he bought a house in St. Louis about a mile from Busch Stadium. There, he advised Lou Brock and gave tips to Maury Wills. He seems to have had a spare, but generally fine retirement.

I recommend this book. We need more like it too,
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There are few better summer reads than a good baseball book. But far more than this, The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell offers readers a thoughtful and though-provoking perspective on a lost age of baseball. It is a tonic for these troubled times without r4sorting to simplistic historical judgments. It offers the life of this fascinating man for review, consideration, reflection. It may be safe to save that most baseball fans recognize the name of Cool Papa Bell, but it is equally clear to say that they doubtlessly know very little about the man. And this is not surprising. Baseball book typically rely on a vast amount of statistical and descriptive records that facilitate the recreation of key moments and emotional events. Furthermore, most authors can count on the reader’s familiarity with the teams, the competitions, the major players that form the background for almost story. For me it is this sense of familiarity that is one of the more compelling features of books about baseball. I expected to find these features in this book. Fairly early in the reading experience, however, it became clear that this book would not have these familiar, safe features.  The detailed box scores that exist and that form the heart of so many baseball books are nonexistent here. Even newspaper accounts were sketchy at best. Even the most basic statistics are lost to time: did he steal 27 or 12 bases? Was his batting average .366 of .317? Did he play in 128, 200 or more games? This ambiguity  is compounded by the fact that Mr Bell and his Negro League contemporaries are not easily associated with this team or that team. Teams, affiliations, even leagues appear a secondary thought (if that). Players move back and forth among teams, sometimes in the course of a few days or a single doubleheader. Indeed, there is even little sense of an actual ‘season’. A championship series (played in a number of different cities, some of which had no obvious connection to either team) would end and the teams would play again the next day. Hard work for a historian indeed. Yet this is where Mr Wheeler shines. The facts and details are fuzzy, but Cool Papa Bell shines through; his skills, his qualities, his character. And for me it is here, where the reader is offered a glimpse into the character of a man that this book stands out. The world as a whole and the baseball world in a smaller change changed dramatically over the course of Cool Papa Bell’s career and life. Mr. Wheeler has captured this world and these changes through his writing on authentic life of this man. As I began to write these words I was saddened to learn of the passing of Mr. Wheeler. This book will stand as a tribute to one of our great chroniclers of our beloved sport of baseball. It is with deep appreciation to Netgalley that I offer this review in exchange for receiving an advance copy of this book.
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The book, "The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell," carries with it more than a little poignancy before reading a single page.

Author Lonnie Wheeler had just finished this book when he died in June. He was a sports writer who had written 12 books. The best-known of those efforts might have been with Henry Aaron and Bob Gibson. Most of the books were about baseball, although Wheeler could do more than that.

For whatever reason, the good folks at NetGalley provided reviewers like me an electronic copy of the book about six months before it was scheduled to be sold to the public. This is kind of like getting a Christmas gift in July, or at least having ice cream before dinner.

In any event, it is good to note that Wheeler - by all accounts a fine person and a fine writer - at least exited with another winner for his legacy. And who wouldn't want to write a book about a man named "Cool Papa?" The Negro Leagues had a great way with nicknames, with such names as "Turkey," "Mule," "Boojum," and "Double Duty." Cool Papa is lovely.

Wheeler admits in the opening pages that tracking down the full story of Bell's life is not exactly easy. We can get the idea of the music he created on the field during a career that lasted well over 20 years, but it's difficult to see all of the notes individually. After all, the Negro Leagues of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were not particularly well organized, especially in the area of record keeping. We don't know how many games Bell played, or how many batting titles he won, or how many hits he had. We just know that he was really good.

There may have been faster people that played baseball, but not many. What's more, Bell played with a sense of daring that isn't seen in today's game. For example, how many players can score from first on a sacrifice bunt. Bell did it. When a batter bunted toward the third-base side of the pitcher's mound, Bell took second. Seeing that many of the fielders were out of the position, Bell rounded second and saw an open third base. He only had to beat a catcher to take third, and that was easy. But then when Cool Papa got to third base, he noticed that there was no one close to home - and he had a running start to get there. Mookie Betts sometimes goes from first to third on a sacrifice, but I don't think he has scored on that play.

The story that most people have heard about Bell involves a hotel. He had already established a reputation for speed when he noticed that a switch in his room when thrown had a delay of a few seconds before the light went out. Bell called in a teammate, and told him he was so fast he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room was dark. The response was along the lines of "yeah, sure," and then Cool Papa did it thanks to the pause.

Wheeler goes through the outline of Bell's. He was born with the name James Nichols, but eventually took the last name of Bell as a teen. Jim moved from Mississippi to St. Louis as a youngster, and used that city as a home base for the rest of his life. It was the launching point for his career in baseball. Bell did some pitching early in his career, but found a home in the outfield. Center field was a place where hits went to die in Bell's glove, because he covered so much ground.

The author makes one good move here in his approach to the book. He supplies the information that he has compiled about Bell, but he's more concerned with providing a look at his life and times. Bell played with many of the greats of the Negro League over the years  - Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, etc. The book gives a good idea what the era was like for all concerned. It's hard not to fall in love with the idea of the Negro Leagues - top players who were denied the opportunity of playing against the best competition in the world because of the color line, but who pressed on anyway.

By the time integration came to major league baseball, it was too late for Bell. His playing days were about over. After retirement, he couldn't even find a job in the sport although he was an obvious expert in hitting, running and fielding. Bell became a janitor and then a night watchman in St. Louis.

Happily, though, Bell lived long enough to learn that his skills were appreciated. (This is in contrast to Gibson, who died of what was said to be a broken heart when he realized he was too old to go to the majors.) The Baseball Hall of Fame started taking Negro League stars in its ranks when Paige entered in 1971. Cool Papa went in in 1974. Bell had about 20 years to tell stories about his exploits in the Negro Leagues before he died in 1991, so Wheeler did have a good supply of oral interviews with Bell available that he could use to fill in some gaps.

We're coming up on the 100th anniversary of Bell's first pro game in 1922. Certainly that's a little dusty for some people, who prefer their history to be a bit more timely. But those looking for an overview of Bell and his times should be quite satisfied by "The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell."
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This is an excellent read for any baseball fan who is interested in finding out more about the players and the running of the Negro Leagues. I enjoyed finding out more information about Cool Papa and the league that received very little publicity in its day, despite the quality of the players that were part of the Negro Leagues.
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A great study of one of my all time favorite ballplayers. Mr Wheeler does an excellent job of bringing the legend of Cool Papa Bell to life. With the lack of record keeping and news coverage, he was able to dig deep to bring us a great view of a great ballplayer and human being. This book does the Hall of Famer justice. Of all of the biographies of the Negro League players, this one is top notch.
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