"Sure enough, boy. You'd think I'd lie? Then there is two old boys named Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Well, they don't miss a ball and they never strike out!"
"Never miss a ball?" gasped Papa. "Never strike out? Is that right?"
"I'm tellin' ya, boy. I've been to the cities and I know!"
"Well, mmmm, mmmm," Papa would shake his head. "Only one thing bother-in' me. What happen when this here Walter Johnson is pitchin', and these other two boys are battin'?"
"Y'all go on!" the old man would yell, jumping up. "Y'all leave me alone. I'm not talkin' anymore. Don't none of ya believe. I should know. I've been to the cities!"
By 16 Papa was up North in St. Louis with several of his brothers and sisters, who were already in the packinghouse. "Didn't want to know 'bout ball then," says Papa. "Jist wanted to work like a man." His brother suggested that he play ball on Sundays. " 'James,' he said, 'you a natural. You throw that knuckleball, and there ain't nobody going to hit it.' " Soon he was getting $20 to pitch, until finally he was facing the lethal St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League. "They were a tough club," says Papa. "And mean! They had a fella named Steel Arm Dicky. Used to make moonshine as mean as he was on the side. His boss killed him when he began to believe Steel Arm weren't turnin' in all the profits."
Bell impressed the Stars, and they asked him to join them. "All our players were major-leaguers," says Papa. "Didn't have the bench to be as good like them for a whole season. We only carried 14, 15 players. But over a short series we could have taken the big-leaguers. That October, I recall, we played the Detroit Tigers three games and won two of them. But old Cobb wasn't with them, 'cause 12 years before a black team whipped him pretty good, and he wouldn't play against blacks anymore. Baseball was all you thought of then. Always thinkin' how to do things another way. Curve a ball on a 3-2, bunt and run in the first innin'. That's how we beat big-league teams. Not that we had the best men, but we outguessed them in short series. It's a guessing game. There's a lot of unwritten baseball, ya know."
The Stars folded under the Depression. Papa hit the road. An outfielder now, he was even more in demand. He finally began the last phase of his career with the Washington Homestead Grays; with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and Bell, it was one of the most powerful clubs in the black league's history, or anybody's history for that matter. "I was 'bout 45 then," says Papa. "Kinda sick. Had arthritis and was so stiff I couldn't run at times. They used to have to put me in a hot tub. I had to git good and warm before I could move." Yet, he had enough left to convince Jackie Robinson that he should never try to make it as a shortstop.
"It was all over the place that Jackie was going to sign with the Dodgers," says Papa. "All us old fellas didn't think he could make it at short. He couldn't go to his right too good. He'd give it a backhand and then plant his right leg and throw. He always had to take two extra steps. We was worried. He miss this chance, and who knows when we'd git another chance? You know they turned him down up in Boston. So I made up my mind to try and show him he should try for another spot in the infield. One night I must've knocked couple hundred ground balls to his right and I beat the throw to first every time. Jackie smiled. He got the message. He played a lot of games in the majors, only one of 'em at short."
Papa was named to manage the Kansas City Monarchs' B team in 1948, the agreement being that he would get one-third of the sale price for any player who was developed by him and sold to the majors. He had two prospects in mind for the Browns. "But the Browns," says Papa, shaking his head, "didn't want them. I then went to the Cardinals, and they say they don't care, either, and I think to myself, 'My, if they don't want these boys, they don't want nobody.' " The Monarchs eventually sold the pair: Ernie Banks and Elston Howard. "I didn't get anything," says Papa. "They said I didn't have a contract. They gave me a basket of fruit. A basket of fruit! Baseball was never much for me makin' money."