During an eastern road trip in the middle of the 1912 season, Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey made two moves to strengthen his thin pitching staff. One was the purchase of Eddie Cicotte from the Boston Red Sox. The other was the acquisition of a hard-throwing youngster from the Burlington, Iowa club of the Central Association named Ralph “Lefty” Bell. Both prospects were highly thought of — but their careers took divergent paths. Cicotte won nine games over the rest of that year and was the mainstay of the Chicago staff until his permanent suspension by Commissioner Landis after the 1920 season. Bell, on the other hand, lasted just three games with the White Sox before being released, and never returned to the big leagues.
During the prime of Bell’s career, the White Sox were building a formidable pitching staff. Doc White and Ed Walsh were nearing the end of their careers, but in 1912 Comiskey added Reb Russell, and Jim Scott emerged as a dependable starter the next year. In addition to Cicotte, Joe Benz and Red Faber were brought in, and later Lefty Williams and Dickey Kerr rounded out the mound corps. The effort culminated in an American League pennant in 1917 and another in 1919.
Bell certainly seemed to have the credentials to join that group. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound left-hander won 20 games in the minors four times and had a career winning percentage of .634 (156-90) in professional baseball. In his three games with Chicago, Bell pitched well in two of them, but was bombed in his third. Did that one bad inning sour Comiskey on him for good? It’s possible that Bell was simply caught up in a numbers game in which there was no room for him on the talented White Sox staff.
Ralph Albert Bell was born on November 16, 18901 in Argyle, Iowa to Daniel and Ida Bell. Daniel, a native of Illinois, was a salesman and truck farmer and Ida was a native of Ohio. Ralph was the fifth of eight children, growing up with sisters, Eunice, Ada Mae, and Ruth, and brothers Thomas, Clinton, Harry, and Russell. His brother Harry, also a pitcher, signed a contract to play for a team in Winona, Minnesota in 19142 but was killed in France in 1918 while serving in the armed forced during World War I. When Ralph was young the family moved to Kahoka, Missouri, a small town in the far northeastern part of the state about 20 miles west of Keokuk, Iowa. Ralph called Kahoka his hometown the rest of his life.
Bell started out playing for a Y.M.C.A. team in Kahoka when he was about 14 years old3 and began his professional career in 1909 as an 18-year old with Pittsburg, Kansas in the Class C Western Association. He went 9-11 in 23 games before being sold to Springfield, Illinois in the Three-I League that July. After just a couple of weeks with his new club, Springfield owner Dick Kinsella, who worked as a scout for New York Giants manager John McGraw, sold Bell’s contract to his boss for $3,000.4 (Current Giants Larry Doyle and Fred Merkle5 had earlier been purchased by McGraw from Kinsella). Bell finished the 1909 season with Springfield, winning nine games, and then attended the Giants’ training camp the following spring.
Citing the need for more experience, McGraw released him back to Springfield in April. Kinsella, after dickering with the Davenport (Iowa) club, sold Bell to the Joplin (Missouri) Miners for $500.6 The Miners finished with a record of 90-34, winning the Western Association pennant by 22½ games, and Bell led the Western Association with 21 wins against just seven losses. He followed that up with a 21-14 mark with Burlington in 1911.
Starting the 1912 season with Burlington again, Bell had a 12-8 record, highlighted by a no-hitter against Muscatine on June 28. Less than two weeks later, he was sold to the Chicago White Sox for $3,500.7 Touted as possessing “wonderful speed and control,” in reality, Bell was nothing more than an emergency call-up. One report noted, “[Manager Jimmy] Callahan is desperately in need of twirlers. When he started for the east on Sunday, he had but five with him. They were Walsh, Joe] Benz, [Rube] Peters, Frank] Lange and White. Lange is not in condition and White can’t work often. Benz and Peters are youngsters, which leaves the South Side manager with only one seasoned pitcher who is in shape. That is Walsh. For that reason, Cal was eager to grab the first man who came his way.”8
Bell made his major-league debut against the Senators in Washington on July 16. Peters started for the White Sox but was knocked out of the game after giving up two first-inning runs. Bell entered the game in the second inning and held the Senators to one run on three hits over four innings before being lifted for a pinch-hitter. The run he allowed was a home run by opposing pitcher Walter Johnson9, one of two he hit that season.
Bell’s next appearance was two days later (July 18) in a game that would not count in the standings or Bell’s individual statistics. Chicago’s other new pitcher, Cicotte, took the mound against his old teammates at Fenway Park in Boston in a light rain and was hammered for six runs before Bell came in to get the final out. Ten Red Sox had crossed the plate in the first inning against both pitchers — but, fortunately for the White Sox, it began to rain harder and umpire Tom Connolly called the game, to be made up as a doubleheader the next day.10
In the first game of the next day’s twin bill, Bell pitched the eighth inning in relief of White Sox starter Joe Benz, allowing one hit and one run in an 8-0 Boston win. Three days later, on July 22, White Sox starter Peters surrendered eight runs over seven innings to the Yankees in New York and again Bell was brought in to pitch the eighth. This time he was roughed up for five runs (the Chicago Tribune sarcastically added the subtitle “Bell Rings Five Times” in the headline of its game story).11 Soon thereafter, it was deemed that Bell “could not show the necessary goods that the White Sox demand.”12 As a result, he was released to the St. Joseph (Missouri) Drummers of the Western League. In the three games that encompassed his big-league career, Bell had no won-lost record, and allowed eight hits and six earned runs in six innings pitched for an ERA of 9.00.
Bell went 2-5 in 17 games with St. Joseph over the rest of 1912. After spending the winter at his home in Pittsburg, Kansas, he returned to the club the following spring. However, in April, St. Joseph manager Jack Holland sold him under an option agreement to Winona (Minnesota) of the Class C Northern League. After a slow start, which he blamed on cold weather, Bell caught fire and had an outstanding season in Winona. He went 28-6, including 19 straight wins, and at one point hurled 46 consecutive scoreless innings.13 No earned run averages were kept, but he surrendered just 83 runs and 221 hits in 304 innings and reportedly threw eight shutouts.14
The White Sox still held Bell’s rights. Late in the season, Comiskey drove over to Winona to watch him work.15 Indeed, at one point the owner considered bringing him back to Chicago.16 But instead, after Winona had clinched the Northern League pennant, Bell was recalled to St. Joseph.17 Bell won his first two decisions for the Drummers to run his winning streak to 21.18 At the time, the baseball public was well aware of pitchers’ winning streaks because the previous season Rube Marquard of the New York Giants had won 19 straight games. No complete records of consecutive wins by minor-league pitchers are known to exist, but the local St. Joseph paper hinted that Bell’s streak might be some sort of professional record.19 The major-league record has subsequently been surpassed by Carl Hubbell, who won 16 straight at the end of the 1936 season and his first eight decisions in 1937 for a total of 24.
That fall, it was suggested that his performance in 1913 had earned Bell, along with Red Faber of the Des Moines Western League club, an invitation to the White Sox training camp for the following spring.20 Yet subsequently, there was no report of him going south with the big-league club. Perhaps the cause was some undisclosed illness21 that had slowed him at the end of the previous season. Instead, Bell was back with St. Joseph, which in turn sent him back to Winona for a second season. He didn’t duplicate his outstanding 1913 season, but still went 15-10 in 34 games.
The White Sox, apparently having given up on Bell, sold him to Topeka of the Western League in March 1915. Before playing with that club, Topeka sent him back to the Northern League, this time with the Fargo-Moorhead Graingrowers. He had his fourth 20-win season, winning 22 for Fargo in 1915. Returning to the Graingrowers the following season, he went 17-10. For someone who didn’t like to pitch in cold weather, Bell made a surprising decision to spend the off-season in Fargo and took a job managing a bowling alley.22 Coincidentally, another ex-major league pitcher, Charlie Boardman, operated a competing bowling alley in Fargo that winter.23
Fargo management chose Bell to manage the club in 1917, but that spring he also had other offers. One was to manage the Warren (Minnesota) Northern League club.24 He was also invited to play for a semipro club in Hibbing, Minnesota.25 Bell was still under contract with Fargo, though, and in March 1917 they sold him to Des Moines of the Western League.26 With three offers on the table,27 he decided to accept the one from Hibbing, which included a one-year contract at $125 per month for a clerical position, and an additional undisclosed amount for playing ball.28 On his draft registration card (dated June 5, 1917), Bell listed his occupation as an electrical helper in Hibbing, possibly the side job he was offered. No record could be found of Bell’s military service during World War I. It’s likely that he was granted a deferment because he was married and had a child.
The Northern League suspended play midway through the 1917 season. Many players from the league, and other parts of the country, flocked to Minnesota’s Iron Range for high-paying jobs in iron ore mines and shipbuilding plants. A Duluth-Mesabi baseball league was formed among area towns. Several players with major league experience such as Bill Upham and Frank Jude played in that circuit. The manager of the Duluth club even extended an offer to the great black pitcher John Donaldson to come pitch for his team.29
Bell played for Hibbing all of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. That June, however, he moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he took a job in a gas plant and pitched in the city league. The next season, 1919, Bell appeared in one more game in Organized Baseball. The reason wasn’t stated, but the Toledo Mud Hens decided to use two area semipro pitchers in their May 15 American Association game against Louisville. Bell started the game and was relieved by former Mud Hen and Cleveland Indian pitcher Allan Collamore. The two pitched respectably, losing 3-0 to the Colonels.30
Bell finished the 1919 season pitching in Toledo for the Rail-Lights, one of the top semipro clubs in Ohio. Late that year he picked up a 7-2 win over the Washington Americans in an exhibition game.31 He was listed as one of the Rail-Lights pitchers in May 1920, but by the time of that year’s US Census, Bell was working as salesman for an electrical supply company in Toledo and apparently had retired from pitching. By 1930 he was still working in sales in Toledo, this time in the roofing industry.
No marriage certificate could be located, but Bell married Vernia Stukey in Kansas City on December 27, 1910. She was a native of Pittsburg, Kansas; they likely met while Ralph was playing there in 1909. They had one child, a son named Norman Ralph, born September 2, 1914 in Winona, Minnesota. Vernia was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the Mayo Clinic and died in Toledo, Ohio on May 5,1931, Ralph married Blisa Trieber Jackson on October 11, 1934 and the couple moved to Burlington, Iowa.. He listed his occupation as proprietor in the 1940 US Census and indicated that he was self-employed in the insulation business on his World War II draft registration card. Ralph operated the Eagle Home Insulation Company in Burlington until the late 1950s
Bell died of lung cancer at Mercy Hospital in Burlington, Iowa on October 18, 1959. He was buried at Oakland Cemetery in Keokuk. He was survived by his wife Blisa, and his son Norman from his first marriage.
Ralph’s granddaughter, Vicki Boyer, contributed valuable family information.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Karen Holleran.
Unless otherwise noted, records from Bell’s playing career were taken from Baseball-reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and his contract card obtained from The Sporting News Player Contract Cards. Family and genealogical information was taken from Ancestry.com.
1 His death certificate lists a birth date of November 16, 1891, but all other sources indicate a birth year of 1890.
2 “Lefty Davis Will Have Large Number of Recruits and Regulars to Pick From”, Winona (Minnesota) Daily News, February 16, 1914.
3 “Kahoka Boy the New York”, Gate City and Constitution-Democrat (Keokuk, Iowa), August 21, 1909:3.
4 “Springfield Sells Players,” Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1909: 6.
5 A contemporary news report, “Springfield Gets,” Prescott (Arkansas) News, May 14, 1910: 6, indicated that Merkle was purchased from Springfield, but no other evidence to substantiate that claim could be found.
6 “Davenport to Purchase Bell,” Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), April 28, 1910: 3.
7 “Sox Get Pitcher from Burlington,” Quad City (Davenport, Iowa) Times, July 8, 1912: 7.
8 “Two New Pitchers for the White Sox,” Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, July 10, 1912: 3.
9 “Sox Fall Before Walter Johnson,” Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1912: 11.
10 “Red Sox Score 10; Then Skies Pour,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1912: 11.
11 “Sox Drop First to Yankees, 13-3,” Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1912: 11.
12 “Sporting News”, Gate City and Constitution-Democrat, July 30, 1912: 6.
13 “Goes 46 Frames Without A Score,” Grand Forks (North Dakota) Evening Times, August 15, 1913: 2.
14 “Bell’s Great Showing,” St. Joseph (Missouri) Gazette, August 20, 1913: 10.
15 “Star Southpaw To Become White Sock,” Rock Island (Illinois) Argus, August 11, 1913: 4.
16 “Comiskey Pulls Bell Back from Northern,” Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune, August 20, 1913: 10.
17 “Winona Wins Twice Sunday Tieing Record of Fourteen Made by Superior”, Winona (Minnesota) News, August 18, 1913: 2.
18 “Ralph Bell Still Winning Contests,” Grand Forks Evening Times, August 30, 1913: 7.
19 “Bell’s Great Showing”, St. Joseph Gazette, August 20, 1913: 10.
20 “Red Faber With Sox Next Year,” Quad City Times, October 9, 1913: 7.
21 “Ralph Bell, Pitcher, First Drummer Here,” St. Joseph Gazette, March 11, 1914: 7.
22 “Ralph Bell To Run Nestor Bowling Alleys,” Fargo (North Dakota) Forum and Republican, August 21, 1916: 4.
23 “Boardman to Manage Grand Bowling Alleys”, Fargo (North Dakota) Forum and Republican, September 16, 1916: 4.
24 “Warren Deal Looks Good to Bell; May Sign,” Fargo Forum and Republican March 26, 1917: 4.
25 “Hibbing Assured of Team That will Inflict Happy Spasms on All the Fans,” Duluth News-Tribune, February 11, 1917: 12.
26 “Bell Is Sold to Western,” Fargo Forum and Republican, March 14, 1917: 17.
27 “Too Many Deals on for Bell,” Fargo Forum and Republican, March 22, 1917: 12.
28 “Bell to Pastime in Bush,” Fargo Forum and Republican, March 31, 1917: 15.
29 “In New League,” Fargo Forum and Republican, May 24, 1917: 9.
30 “Toledo Blanked by Louisvilles,” Sandusky (Ohio) Register, May 16, 1919: 10.
31 “The Rail-Lights Have Classy Pitchers,” Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio) September 10, 1919: 6.