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Cool Story

The life of a Negro leagues legend gets the rich treatment it deserves.
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The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell

By Lonnie Wheeler

Last December, MLB announced it was officially recognizing Negro leagues stats, a move that was long overdue but underscores a sad reality: Many Negro leagues records simply don’t exist, so we still will never know how Cool Papa Bell, who reputedly once swiped two bags on the same pitchout, compared with fellow outfielder Rickey Henderson, the all-time stolen base leader. In his book on Bell, Lonnie Wheeler (who died of cardiac arrest at age 68 last June) used that relative shortage of resources to his advantage. Many baseball biographies rely too heavily on numbers and day-to-day results. Wheeler instead turned Bell’s life into an actual story, and he crafts vivid scenes—some rollicking, some poignant—as Bell goes from working in a St. Louis slaughterhouse to the Dominican Republic, where the games he played in the employ of dictator Rafael Trujillo were literally life-or-death. It’s a sweeping saga that’s exciting—fitting for one of the most electric players the game has seen. —Mark Bechtel