"I mean..." I said, "I'd always heard Mantle had the fastest time, at 13.1 or something. Although I guess Vince Coleman and some of these later guys.... Twelve seconds?"
"Jamie will tell you himself," Mac said.
I tried to think who Jamie was. Must be somebody I ought to recognize. "I wish I could talk to Cool Papa himself," I said.
"Jamie," said Mac Farlane. "That's what I call him, but that's family. You should just call him Cool Papa at first." He picked up the phone, and the next thing I knew I had an appointment to visit Cool Papa Bell in his house on James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue in St. Louis.
Cool Papa, who will be 83 on May 17, sat nonchalantly on his living room couch and told me how fast he was. In 1948, Satchel Paige talked him into playing against some barnstorming major league all-stars in Los Angeles. Bell didn't want to play because he was out of shape and hadn't felt quite himself since somebody practiced witchcraft on him and poisoned his food when he was in the Mexican League. But he agreed. Then he had to drag Paige out to the park and by the time they got there they had no time to loosen up. Bell hit a single off the all-stars' pitcher, Bob Lemon, and Paige laid down a sacrifice bunt. Bell had studied Lemon on television, so as soon as the pitcher looked over at him hard once and then turned back to the plate, Bell took off. Everybody converged on Paige's bunt except the shortstop, who covered second. By the time catcher Roy Partee started to throw to second, Bell was rounding it. And nobody was covering third. So Partee ran toward third. By the time Partee got to third, Bell was rounding it. And nobody was covering home. As Bell scored, Partee was running down the line hollering "Time! Time!" But you can't call time when the ball is in play, even against Cool Papa Bell.
"I got that on paper," Cool Papa said. "All on paper's not true, but that's true. I was sick, I was 45 years old when I did that. I did that a gang of times. They clocked me going around the bases in 12 seconds, but then another time I went from home plate to third in eight seconds. They wanted me to break my 12-second record but then it rained. And the league broke up."
The Sporting News
had covered Cool Papa the way it covered the Georgia Peach? Bell doesn't let it bother him. "We never had no reading lessons in school, in Mississippi," he said. "Sitting on a hill, that's the only way it was a high school. I had to learn myself. I'd read
The Sporting News
, about Babe Ruth, Bill Terry, Chuck Klein. Seemed like everything it was, Chuck Klein was leading in it. I just liked a ballplayer."
I returned to Mac Farlane. "Cool Papa says he ran from first to third in eight seconds," I said. "That's..."
"Jamie," said Mac, "is factual."
Mac Farlane can be a factual bastard himself, at least from official baseball's viewpoint. Five years ago he uncovered evidence that in 1910 somebody altered the batting records of Cobb and Napoleon Lajoie. His research established that Lajoie, not Cobb, had won the batting championship that year and that Cobb's lifetime batting average was .366 instead of .367, and his career hit total was 4,190 instead of 4,191. But .367 and 4,191 are sacred numbers. Bowie Kuhn, then baseball's commissioner, refused to allow the new figures to be etched in stone. Mac Farlane can't get over this. "Baseball could never live with facts!" he says.