Bill Bell

This article was written by Warren Corbett

“He is a major leaguer if ever one was born.” That was Branch Rickey’s scouting report on 17-year-old Bill Bell. To underline Rickey’s point, the tall right-hander pitched back-to-back no-hitters in Class-D ball the next spring. Then he pitched a third one later in the same season.

Bill Bell couldn’t miss. Until he did. Even Branch Rickey wasn’t always right. Bell pitched in only five major-league games and never won one. He couldn’t find home plate with a GPS.

William Samuel Bell was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina, on October 24, 1933, to the former Mary Sutton and Frank Lovelace Bell, a service manager for the telephone company. Growing to be 6-foot-2 and around 200 pounds, Billy was a three-sport standout at Goldsboro High. Big-time college football programs including Duke and Clemson recruited him as a fullback, but there was quick money to be made in baseball.

The major leagues had repealed their bonus rule, which required a club to keep a young player on its roster if he received a payment of more than $6,000 or risk losing him in the draft. When Bell graduated in 1951, teams were tossing around bonus checks in the tens of thousands — Pittsburgh spent $496,000 that year.1 Bell had impressed scouts when he pitched against adults in the Albemarle League, a fast semipro circuit. The Cardinals, Red Sox, and Cubs made offers, but he chose the Pirates.

Scout George Pratt took Billy and his father to Pittsburgh to meet general manager Rickey and sign a contract. His bonus was variously reported as $10,000 to $30,000. When he put on a Pirates uniform for a workout, he discovered that the man receiving his warmup pitches, bullpen catcher Sam Narron, was a distant cousin.

Bell reported to Mayfield, Kentucky, in June 1951 to begin his professional career in the Class-D Kitty League. The results were mixed, as his 6-8 record reflects. In one start he struck out 15 in six innings, and he fanned 17 in a postseason playoff game, but he had no clue where his explosive fastball was going. He walked 106 men in 104 innings while striking out 124.

At the end of the season, Rickey assembled 65 of the Pirates’ top prospects for an instructional school in Deland, Florida. It was there that he wrote a detailed scouting report on Bell. The document was not hype for public consumption, but the private opinion of one of the game’s premier judges of talent who had seen practically every fireballer since Cy Young. It is worth quoting in full:

He throws everything. A great fastball, a great straight drop curve, a marvelous change of speed on his fastball and he will have a great change of pace curveball. He is a major leaguer if ever one was born.

Bell is a scaredy-cat, - knows nothing about pitching, and knows he knows nothing. Has no confidence in himself and is highly receptive to advice. He has big ears. Rickey probably meant he would listen to coaches. Bell’s ears appear to be normal size.

This boy should not be coached at any time by more than one person. Doubtless has to be taught to hold men on bases, and to field his position, and should be given a lot of batting practice. He is worthy of a lot of attention.2

No wonder Bell was scared, finding himself the youngest among the best young ballplayers he had ever seen. The crop included Vernon Law, a 21-year-old pitcher who was trying to learn to play third base and the outfield, and Ron Necciai (pronounced “NETCH-eye”), a gawky 19-year-old right-hander who had quit the game temporarily in his first season, discouraged because he was every bit as wild as Bell — but also every bit as fast.

Rickey was still gushing after watching Bell for a month. He described the prodigy in a memo to team owner John Galbreath: “The wildest man in the entire group is a boy named Bill Bell, a right-hander, scared to death. Possibly a proper subject for a practical [practicing?] psychiatrist. Young, even below his years, but a chap to be patiently handled for he has unlimited greatness as a future major-league pitcher.”3

Bell was one of a dozen or so players from the low minors who were invited to the big-league spring training camp in 1952. Farmed out to Class-B ball at Burlington-Graham, North Carolina, he was the opening night starter, possibly in front of family and friends, because Goldsboro was only 112 miles away. It was a humiliating disaster. Bell walked the first three batters and failed to finish the first inning. It didn’t get any better. In four games, he walked 18 in eight innings and was booted down to the Class-D Appalachian League.

In Bristol, Virginia, which is right across the street from Bristol, Tennessee, Bell joined George Detore’s home for wayward pitchers. Detore, already a veteran minor-league manager at 44, had been entrusted with three of Rickey’s prize prospects who were also projects: Bell, Necciai, and left-hander Frank Ramsay.

By the time Bell arrived, Necciai had become a national sensation when he struck out 27 batters in a no-hit game on May 13 to set a professional baseball record. Three nights after that, Bell made his first start, against Bluefield, West Virginia, and struck out 20. On May 21, “Ron Necciai Night” at Bristol’s Shaw Stadium, the guest of honor whiffed 24 while allowing only two hits. The next night Bell pitched his first no-hitter. He struck out 17 Kingsport Cherokees, but walked 11.

Four nights later, Bell did it again. He fanned the first seven batters he faced and held Bluefield without a hit, striking out 20 this time. The Sporting News reported that only two others had pitched consecutive no-hitters in all of baseball history: Johnny Vander Meer of Cincinnati in 1938 and Clarence Eugene Wright of Class-A Dayton in 1901.

Asked which of his aces was better, manager Detore ducked: “That’s impossible to say, because they are different types of hurlers. Bell’s fastball has got a lot of hop, perhaps more than Ronnie’s, but Ronnie has a better curve. Both are great and should reach the top.”4

Both flamethrowers acquired colorful nicknames from a Bristol sportswriter — “Rocket Ron” and “Bomber Bill.” Teammates, showing less imagination, called them “Necktie” and “Ding-Dong.” Necciai was promoted to Class B in May after piling up 109 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings, almost 23 per nine innings. He had added a killer curve to his live fastball and gotten both pitches under control. Bell was left behind in Bristol to continue his search for the strike zone.

He soon had bigger trouble. After he won seven straight complete games, a sore muscle behind his shoulder put him out of action for most of June. “It felt sort of like a sprain,” he said later.5 He returned to the mound after three weeks and struck out 15, while walking 14, in a six-hitter. Then he missed most of July before picking up his ninth victory on August 8.

In the first game of an August 25 doubleheader, scheduled for seven innings, Bell spun his third no-hitter, walking four and striking out nine. Nobody could find any record of any pitcher at any level doing that three times in the same year.

The next night Frank Ramsay pitched a no-hitter. All these feats — Necciai’s, Bell’s, and Ramsey’s — were accomplished at home. Was the Bristol ballpark lit with candles?

With an 11-3 record and 2.09 ERA, Bell had walked 113 in 112 innings and struck out 194, more than 15 per nine innings. The Pirates, staggering through a 112-loss season, were eager to show off their hopes for a brighter future. Necciai had joined the big club in August and was clobbered for five runs in the first inning of his debut. Bell was called up from Class D to make his first start on September 5 against the Cardinals. He lasted six innings, walking eight and giving up two homers to take the loss, 4-0. He struck out only one batter, opposing pitcher Vinegar Bend Mizell.

Bell made three more appearances in relief and saved his best performance for last. He held the Boston Braves hitless for 2 2/3 innings, but walked four while striking out just one. His September totals: 13 bases on balls in 15 2/3 innings, eight earned runs, and only four strikeouts.

If Necciai and Bell were the crown jewels of the Pirates’ farm system, they were not coddled. Necciai, who turned 20 during the season, pitched 230 2/3 innings while being treated for stomach ulcers. Bell, not yet 19, worked only 136 innings, but his pitch counts had to be astronomical with all the walks and strikeouts. Pitch counts were practically unheard-of in 1952. No one questioned their workloads.

The next stop for Pittsburgh’s pitching phenoms was the US Army. Necciai was drafted in January 1953, despite his painful ulcers. He spent much of his service time in a hospital and received a medical discharge two months later. Returning home “a walking pile of bones,” he felt a pop in his shoulder during one of his first spring workouts.6 “One sore arm and it lasted forever,” he said.7 Rickey would later call Necciai “the greatest all around pitcher I ever saw.”8 His career was effectively over before he reached his 21st birthday.

Bell was drafted in April and missed the next two seasons. He faced his own struggles when he was discharged in February 1955. He spent most of spring training on the sidelines trying to work himself back into shape. The Pirates kept him on the Opening Day roster, and he mopped up in the ninth inning of a 6-0 loss to Brooklyn on April 16. It was his final major-league appearance.

Sent to Class-A Lincoln, Nebraska, he quickly learned that he had lost his best fastball. He was in and out of the starting rotation, roughed up for a 5.52 ERA in 168 innings. His control did not improve; he walked 133, and his strikeout rate fell to six per nine innings, still better than average. After the season he underwent surgery for a ganglion cyst, a lump on his right wrist. “That must have had some effect on him,” said the Pirates farm director, Branch Rickey Jr., “because a boy who can throw that hard just doesn’t fold without some explanation.”9

Bell was still only 22, and the Pirates handled him with care, hoping the real Bomber Bill would reappear. Demoting him to Class B in 1956, they sent him to Kinston, North Carolina, where he could commute from his home in Goldsboro. He was inconsistent all season. When he was on, he could still dominate, once striking out 19. But in another start he walked six in the first inning.

While insisting he had no pain in his arm, Bell had trouble repeating his delivery. “My confidence, and I think confidence is everything, is not as high, but I haven’t given up,” he told a writer. “Back in May I struck out 19 in one game against Fayetteville and felt like my arm troubles were clearing up. But two games later it was bothering me again. It doesn’t hurt me. I just can’t throw the ball fast enough sometimes. … I guess I’ve been guilty of nursing it out there on the mound, changing my motions and rhythm.”10 He finished 6-13, 4.56, with 130 bases on balls in 154 innings. One ray of hope: His strikeout rate was far above average, around eight per nine innings.

Back in Lincoln the next season, Bell showed signs of reviving his career. Manager Larry Shepard, a future Pittsburgh manager and pitching coach, converted him to a straight overhand delivery, and he was able to throw hard again. He struck out 151 in 159 innings while walking 101, a dramatic improvement. He won his last five decisions to finish 11-4, but his 4.08 ERA was not impressive. Still, it was his best season since his breakout in Bristol five years earlier.

That was all he had left in his arm. In 1958 he drifted from major-league spring training down to Triple-A, then Double-A, pitching rarely and ineffectively. By August he was at Class-A Lincoln again. He rallied to pitch a one-hitter in his first start, but walked nine. That was his only victory. He allowed 29 bases on balls in 23 innings for Lincoln. After he struggled with three teams in 1959, the Pirates released him in September.

Bell regretted that he hadn’t gone to college before signing a baseball contract, so he had begun preparing for the rest of his life.11 Following military service, he had started taking courses at Guilford College in North Carolina. After his release he completed his B.A. degree in business administration at East Carolina.

He moved to Fort Myers, Florida, where he had enjoyed several pleasant spring trainings, and worked as a salesman for Al Gallman Pontiac, whose owner provided cars for Pirates players every spring. By 1962 he was planning a summer wedding.

On the evening of January 24, 1962, Bell lost control of his car on wet pavement and slammed into a palm tree. He was thrown through the windshield, suffering a devastating brain injury. He lingered in a coma for more than eight months before he was pronounced dead on October 11 at the veterans hospital in Durham, North Carolina.12

The boy who was born to be a big leaguer was buried a few days before his 29th birthday.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Jan Finkel and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.

 

Notes

1 Les Biederman, “Bonus Race Cost Rickey $496,000 in ’51,” The Sporting News, November 28, 1951: 4.

2 Scouting report dated October 1, 1951, in Branch Rickey papers at the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss37820.05208/?sp=9.

3 Andrew O’Toole, Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000), 47. Rickey usually dictated his thoughts to his secretary, Kenny Blackburn, who may not have accurately transcribed every word in the daily torrent.

4 “Bristol Ace Handcuffs Bluefield, 4-0, While Striking Out 20,” Knoxville (Tennessee) News-Sentinel, May 27, 1952: 14.

5 Earl McGuire, “Nurses Arm, Hopes for 3rd Try,” Raleigh (North Carolina) News and Observer, July 4, 1956: 16.

6 Steve Buckley, “Rocket Ronnie’s Moment in the Sun,” Collector’s Sportsbook, April 1994, 36.

7 Pat Jordan, “Kid K,” Sports Illustrated, June 1, 1987. http://www.si.com/vault/1987/06/01/115475/kid-k-in-1952-ron-necciai-19-struck-out-27-batters-in-nine-innings-the-three-greatest-pitchers-branch-rickey-had-known----were-christy-mathewson----dizzy-dean----and-ron-necciai, accessed April 14, 2016.

8 Jimmy Jordan, “Rickey Pays Tribute to Wallace, Necciai,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1959: 27.

9 “Chiefs Get First Pick in Class A Draft,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, November 29, 1955: 13.

10 McGuire, “Nurses Arm.”

11 Bill Bell player questionnaire, in his file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, Cooperstown, New York.

12 Biederman, “Ex-Pirate Pitcher Bill Bell Fights For Life In Hospital,” Pittsburgh Press, February 23, 1962: 30; “Ex-Pirate Farmhand Bill Bell Dies of Auto Crash Injuries,” Fort Myers (Florida) News-Press, October 13, 1962: 8.