'Cool' memories for native son

June 18, 2009

Danny P Smith -

 

STARKVILLE â€" The staff at the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum want to make sure the memory of former Negro League baseball player and Starkville native James “Cool Papa” Bell isn’t forgotten. 

 

On the suggestion by The Greater Starkville Partnership, the museum has put together a lasting tribute to Bell. 

 

Museum volunteer Bill Poe knew Bell and supported the idea to create an exhibit for visitors to learn more about him. 

 

Bell, who was born in Starkville in 1901, worked as a teenager at the creamery at Mississippi A&M College (known today as Mississippi State). 

 

Once Bell left Mississippi for St. Louis with his brothers to find work, the city of Starkville lost touch with him and the fact he was a native son. 

 

That changed after William Rogers traveled with a group of people to Kansas City to visit the Negro League Museum. 

 

“They only had a statue of one player per position in the infield and outfield setting where they put statues of great players of Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige on the pitcher’s mound,” Rogers said. “In center field was Cool Papa Bell, and it said he was born in Starkville, Mississippi. Everybody in the group I was with assumed I must have known all about him. I didn’t even know he was from Starkville.” 

 

Embarrassed by the situation, Rogers vowed to learn more about Bell and to let others know the Negro League great was from Starkville. 

 

Rogers organized a group of people that spearheaded the creation of a historical marker for Bell at McKee Park and organized Cool Papa Bell Day in 1999. 

 

The street leading into McKee Park also was named after Bell. 

 

Rogers hopes the McKee Park marker from the Department of Archives and History will keep the thought of Bell in the minds of children who play baseball. 

 

“We want them to know that somebody from Starkville made it all of the way to the Hall of Fame,” Rogers said. “We don’t want kids in Starkville not knowing about Cool Papa Bell.” 

 

Poe wanted to do more and contacted the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., and had several items pertaining to Bell sent to the museum. He even received assistance from the Smithsonian Institution, an educational and research organization and associated museum complex. 

 

“They had a display on the Negro Baseball League,” Poe said. “A lady from there even offered to come and would be glad to help. That was really kind of them to do that.” 

 

The exhibit includes a life-size mannequin of Bell in a baseball uniform. Vonn Camp, the son of former Starkville mayor Dan Camp, sculpted the mannequin’s wax face. 

 

Poe also contacted Harry Weber, who created the bronze statues around Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Weber still had the mold of an 18-inch replica of the statue of Bell and was willing to make another for the museum. 

 

“He said I hit a soft spot in his heart,” Poe said. “He said Cool Papa was one of his most favorite baseball players of all time. 

 

“He said he could also do a bust and I told him I felt like a kid going after a new puppy. I couldn’t decide which one, so he did both.” 

 

Weber first sculpted the 18-inch statue of Bell in 2002 that showed him running around third base. There were only 20 of the statues of Bell sold 10 years ago and cost between $5,000-$10,000, so Poe considers it a “really nice gift they gave.” 

 

The exhibit also shows paraphernalia from Bell’s playing days and a history of his life. 

 

Bell began playing organized baseball in 1922. He signed with the Negro League’s St. Louis Stars for $90 per month. He later played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and in 1932 was a member of one of baseball’s most famous baseball teams. Six members of that team (Bell, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Ray Dandridge, and Judy Johnson) were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. 

 

Frank Davis, a former Starkville alderman, is another fan of Bell. He was amazed a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame was from Starkville and that not many people know about Bell. 

 

“Here is someone (who) is one of the fastest if not the fastest baserunner in the history of the game, and he’s from Starkville,” Davis said. 

 

Bell was considered the fastest man to play baseball. He was clocked running around the bases in 12 seconds. 

 

He played for 12 teams in his career and had a batting average of .341 with 175 stolen bases in 200 games. 

 

Family members appreciate what Rogers, Davis, Poe, and the museum staff have done to keep the public aware of Bell. 

 

“It means so much because so many people in Oktibbeha County didn’t have any idea he existed,” said Lisa Hart, Bell’s niece. “We never had anyone to uplift him like that. It’s been great, and the museum has been wonderful. Everything they’ve done has been really good. We’re real proud of it and Oktibbeha County for recognizing him. It’s been a long time coming.” 

 

Bell was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, four years after his death. The street leading to the museum in Jackson also is named after him. 

 

With the historical marker at McKee Park, the streets named in his honor, and the exhibit at the Heritage Museum, there are more reminders than ever about Bell and his accomplishments. 

 

“It’s wonderful Cool Papa Bell has a prominent place in the Heritage Museum in Starkville because if someone has made it to the Hall of Fame, that’s a big deal,” Rogers said. 

 

Poe believes the Bell exhibit is something special for the museum. He said he would like to do the same thing for other prominent sports figures from Starkville. 

 

The Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum is at the corner of Russell and Fellowship Streets. It is open from 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.