James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell (May 17, 1903 – March 7, 1991) was an American center fielder in Negro league baseball, considered by many baseball observers to have been the fastest man ever to play the game. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
James Thomas Nichols was born May 17, 1903, in or near Starkville, Mississippi. The 1910 U.S. Census shows him as the fourth of seven children living with his widowed mother, Mary Nichols, in Sessums Township, just outside of Starkville. When and why he changed his name to "Bell" is unknown. He joined the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League as a pitcher in 1922. By 1924, he had become their starting center fielder, and was known as an adept batter and fielder, and the "fastest man in the league". After leading the Stars to league titles in 1928, 1930, and 1931, he moved to the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League when the Negro National League disbanded. Detroit soon folded, leaving Bell to bounce to the Kansas City Monarchs and the Mexican winter leagues until finding a home with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the reorganized NNL. In Pittsburgh, he played alongside Ted Page and Jimmie Crutchfield to form what is considered by many to have been the best outfield in the Negro Leagues. Bell left the Crawfords in 1938 to return to Mexico, coming back to baseball in the United States in 1942 to play for the Homestead Grays, who won Negro League titles in 1942, 1943, and 1944 with his help. He last played for the semi-pro Detroit Senators in 1946. He coached for the Monarchs in the late 1940s, managing their barnstorming "B" team, scouting for the club, signing prospects, and teaching the ins and outs of the game to future major-league baseball greats Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson, and Elston Howard, among others.
Because of the opposition the Negro Leagues faced, and because of the lack of reliable press coverage of many of their games, no statistics can be given for Bell with any accuracy. What is undeniable is that Bell was considered to be one of the greats of his time by all the men he played with (including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson). He is recorded as having fully rounded the bases in 12 seconds. As Paige himself noted in his autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, "If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking."