In the language of jazz, the word "gig" is an evening of work; sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, take the gig as it comes, for who knows when the next will be. It means bread and butter first, but a whole lot of things have always seemed to ride with the word: drifting blue light, the bouquet from leftover drinks, spells of odd dialogue, and most of all a sense of pain and limbo. For more than anything the word means black, down-and-out black, leavin'-home black, what-ya-gonna-do-when-ya-git-there black, tired-of-choppin'-cotton-gonna-find-me-a-place-in-de-shade black.
Big shade fell coolly only on a few. It never got to James Thomas Bell, or Cool Papa Bell as he was known in Negro baseball, that lost caravan that followed the sun. Other blacks, some of them musicians who worked jazz up from the South, would feel the touch of fame, or once in a while have the thought that their names meant something to people outside their own. But if you were black and played baseball, well, look for your name only in the lineup before each game, or else you might not even see it there if you kept on leanin' and dreamin'.
Black baseball was a stone-hard gig. Unlike jazz, it had no white intellectuals to hymn it, no slumming aristocracy to taste it. It was three games a day, sometimes in three different towns miles apart. It was the heat and fumes and bounces from buses that moved your stomach up to your throat and it was greasy meals at fly-papered diners at three a.m. and uniforms that were seldom off your back. "We slept with 'em on sometimes," says Papa, "but there never was 'nough sleep. We got so we could sleep standin' up or catch a nod in the dugout."
Only a half-mad seer—not any of the blacks who worked the open prairies and hidden ball yards in each big city—could have envisioned what would happen one day. The players knew a black man would cross the color line that was first drawn by the sudden hate of Cap Anson back in 1883, yet no one was fool enough to think that some bright, scented day way off among the gods of Cooperstown they would hear their past blared out across the field and would know that who they were and what they did would never be invisible again.
When that time comes for Papa Bell—quite possibly the next Hall of Fame vote—few will comprehend what he did during all those gone summers. The mass audience will not be able to relate to him, to assemble an image of him, to measure him against his peers as they do the white player. The old ones like Papa have no past. They were minstrels, separated from record books, left as the flower in Gray's Elegy to "waste its sweetness on the desert air." Comparisons will have to do: Josh Gibson, the Babe Ruth of the blacks; Buck Leonard, the Lou Gehrig of his game; and Cool Papa Bell—who was he?
A comparison will be hard to find for Papa. His friend Tweed, whom Papa calls the Black Historian, a title most agreeable to Tweed, says that you have to go all the way back to Willie Keeler for Papa's likeness. Papa's way was cerebral, improvisational; he was a master of the little things, the nuances that are the ambrosia of baseball for those who care to understand the game. Power is stark, power shocks, it is the stuff of immortality, but Papa's jewellike skills were the meat of shoptalk for 28 winters.
Arthritic and weary, Papa quit the circuit 23 years ago at age 47, ending a career that began in 1922. During that time he had been the essence of black baseball, which had a panache all its own. It was an intimate game: the extra base, the drag bunt; a game of daring instinct, rather than one from the hidebound book. Some might say that it lacked discipline, but if so, it can also be said that never has baseball been played more artfully, or more joyously. "Before a game," says Papa, "one of our big old pitchers, he'd say, 'Jist git me a coupla runs, that's all.' You see, we played tricky ball, thinkin' all the time: we git a run they got to git two to beatcha. Right?"
The yellow pages of Tweed's scrap-books don't tell much about the way it was, and they don't reveal much about Papa, either; box scores never explain. They can't chart the speed of Papa Bell. " Papa Bell," says Satchel Paige, "why he was so fast he could turn out the light and jump in bed before the room got dark!" Others also embellish: he could hit a hard ground ball through the box and get hit with the ball as he slid into second; he was so fast that he once stole two bases on the same pitch. "People kin sure talk it, can't they?" says Papa.
Papa says he did steal two bases on one pitch, which was a pitchout. "The catcher, why he was so surprised the way I was runnin' that he just held the ball," says Papa. "I ask him later what he doin' holdin' that ball, and he say he didn't know, 'cept he never seen a man run like that before in his life." It is also a reliable fact that once in Chicago, on a mushy field, he circled the bases in 13.1 seconds, two-fifths faster than Evar Swanson's major league record. "On a dry field," he says, "I once done it in 12 flat."
Papa could run all right and he could hit and field as well. He played a shallow center field, even more so than Willie Mays when he broke in. "It doesn't matter where he plays," Pie Traynor once said. "He can go a country mile for a ball." As a hitter Bell had distance, but mainly he strove to hit the ball into holes; he could hit a ball through the hole in a fence, or drag a bunt as if it were on a string in his hand. Bell never hit below .308, and on one occasion when he was hitting .390 on the last day of the season he gave his title up; he was 43 at the time.