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No Place in the Shade
Mark Kram
August 20, 1973
Cool Papa Bell could run, hit, field and all that jazz, but for him and other players in the old Negro leagues, baseball was a bittersweet gig
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August 20, 1973

No Place In The Shade

Cool Papa Bell could run, hit, field and all that jazz, but for him and other players in the old Negro leagues, baseball was a bittersweet gig

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Life began all over for Papa. He took a job at the city hall in St. Louis as a custodian and then a night watchman. For the next 22 years the routine was the same, and only now and then could he go to a Cardinal game. He would pay his way in and sit there in the sun with his lunch long before the game began; to those around him who wondered about him, he was just a Mr. Bell, a watchman. He'd watch those games intently, looking for tiny flaws like a diamond cutter. He never said much to anyone, but then one day he was asked by some Dodgers to help Maury Wills. "He could run," he says. "I wanted to help." He waited for Wills at the players' gate and introduced himself quietly.

"Maybe you heard of me," Papa said, "maybe not. It don't matter. But I'd like to help you."

Wills just looked at him, as Papa became uneasy.

"When you're on base," said Papa, "get those hitters of yours to stand deep in the box. That way the catcher, he got to back up. That way you goin' to git an extra step all the time."

"I hadn't thought of that," said Wills, who went on to steal 104 bases.

"Well," Papa smiled, "that's the kind of ball we played in our league. Be seein' you, Mr. Wills. Didn't mean to bother you."

After that year Papa seldom went to the ball park anymore. He had become a sick man, and when he walked his arthritic left side seemed to be frozen. It was just his job now. In the afternoons he would walk up to the corner and see what the people were up to, or sit silently in his living room turning the pages of his books of pictures: all the old faces with the blank eyes; all of those many different, baggy uniforms. There is one picture with his wife Clarabelle on a bench in Havana, she with a bright new dress on, he with a white suit on, and if you look at that picture hard enough it is as if you can hear some faraway white-suit, bright-dress music.

Nights were spent at city hall, making his rounds, listening to the sound of radio baseball by the big window, or just the sound of the hours when winter mornings moved across the window. When it was icy, he would wait for the old people to come and he would help them up the steps. Often, say about three a.m., he would be looking out the window, out across to the park where the bums would be sleeping, their wine bottles as sentries, and he'd wait for their march on the hall. They would come up those steps and place their faces up against the window next to his face and beg to be let in where it was warm.

"We're citizens, old Bell, let us in," they would yell.

"I know," Papa would say.

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