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No Place In the Shade
Mark Kram
June 20, 1994
Cool Papa Bell could play with the best of them, but in this SI Classic from 1973 he tells why baseball was a bittersweet gig for Negro leaguers
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June 20, 1994

No Place In The Shade

Cool Papa Bell could play with the best of them, but in this SI Classic from 1973 he tells why baseball was a bittersweet gig for Negro leaguers

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"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.

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