Negro League star left behind more that stats

Maryville author Bryan Steverson, left, meets Negro League great Buck O’Neil at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Mo., four years ago.

Maryville author Bryan Steverson, left, meets Negro League great Buck O’Neil at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Mo., four years ago.

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James “Cool Papa” Bell was married to the same woman, Clara, for 62 years.

If you think that’s something, there’s a lot more to be learned about one of the greats of the game in the book “Amazing Baseball Heroes: Inspirational Negro League Stories,” author Bryan Steverson said. Some of the most important stories, he added, reach well beyond the segregated playing fields of professional baseball and remain timeless.

“This is not a baseball book, although there’s a lot about baseball in it,” Steverson said. “It’s not a book about race, although most of the stories are about players of one race. It’s a book about inspiration.”

None more inspiring, perhaps, than Bell.

Steverson will sign copies of the book at Hastings Books, Music and Videos in Foothills Plaza on Saturday, Aug. 6, from 4 to 6 p.m. The book is published by Tennessee Valley Publishing and is available online and locally at Hastings. “Amazing Baseball Heroes” profiles 20 American baseball legends, with each player getting his own chapter.

Largely acknowledged as “the fastest man in baseball history,” Bell was once timed circling the bases in a truly stunning 13.1 seconds - “on a wet field,” Steverson said. Bell would lower the mark to 12.1 on a dry surface at a later date.

In 1933, the Pittsburgh Crawfords’ centerfielder recorded 175 stolen bases in a 200-game season. After Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the St. Louis Browns offered Bell a contract four years later. Bell, 51 at the time, declined.

An eight-time Negro League All-Star with a .341 lifetime batting average, Bell was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

Those facts and others like it are in the book, but there’s a deeply more personal side to Bell’s story, one Steverson said says more about the man than anything Bell ever did on a baseball diamond.

Born May 17, 1903, in Starkville, Miss., Bell endured every hardship in the segregated South of early 20th century, including an incident involving a close family member Steverson said simply wasn’t fit for a book intended for school children. Also, as noted, Bell never made it to the Major Leagues.

That withstanding, at Bell’s death in March of 1991, two months after Clara had passed, family members honored a notation in his will that there be 12 pallbearers at his funeral: “six black, six white.”

A great ballplayer, Steverson said, an even greater man.

“If we could take their character and put it into the people of today,” said Steverson of the 20 individuals portrayed in the book, “we’d have a much better world.”

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