Herman Bell

This article was written by Margaret A. Gripshover

In his lifetime Herman Bell was a highly regarded defensive catcher for the Birmingham Black Barons, but one who could not catch a break. His career in the Negro Leagues was marred by untimely injuries and complicated by unexpected happenstances and the harsh reality of being an African-American baseball player in the Jim Crow South. His story is not unlike that of other African-Americans who found their baseball footing in Birmingham’s industrial leagues in the 1930s and 1940s and later gained entry into professional baseball through the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League.

Herman Bell was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 18, 1915, the first of Henry and Mamie Lee Smith Bell’s three children. A second son, Lucious Bell, was born in 1916. The youngest, daughter Marian (sometimes spelled “Marion” or “Mary”), was born in 1919. In 1915 the family lived with Herman’s maternal grandparents, Anderson and Gertrude Smith, in East Birmingham. Henry Bell worked at cottonseed-oil mills alongside his father-in-law.

The Bell family’s roots can be traced to 120 miles south-southeast of Birmingham, in Alabama’s cotton-belt country. Herman’s great-grandfather Joshua Bell was born into slavery around 1840, near Tuckers Store, a now-defunct community in southeastern Montgomery County. Evidence from the US Census population and slave schedules suggests that Joshua and his wife, Hester Ann Prince, were the property of Orsmond Robert Bell, a cotton-plantation owner and member of a prominent Alabama family. Joshua and Hester lived near Tuckers Corner even after Emancipation and the Civil War and continued to do so for the remainder of their lives. Their son George Bell, Herman Bell’s grandfather, was born a slave in 1861. George worked in the cotton fields with his parents and siblings but by 1900 left the farm and headed north to Birmingham to seek work in an iron furnace.

George married Millie Warner in 1884, in Montgomery County. Millie, whose name also appears in the record as Minnie, was born there in 1868. After they moved to Birmingham, George and Millie had at least four children — one daughter and three sons. Their eldest son, Henry Bell, born in 1894, was Herman Bell’s father.

Herman Bell’s mother, Mamie Lee Smith, was born in Georgia around 1898. Her parents, Anderson and Gertrude Bearden Smith, were born in Georgia, but were married in Birmingham. Anderson Smith was a laborer at a fertilizer factory and cottonseed-oil plants in East Birmingham. Anderson and Gertrude played an important role in Herman Bell’s early years. Herman and his family lived in his maternal grandparents’ household throughout much of his early childhood.

After Anderson Smith’s death, on March 2, 1920, at the age of 55, Herman and his family continued to live with his grandmother Gertrude Smith. The temporary stability of the Smith-Bell household was likely due to home-ownership, Henry Bell’s paycheck from the oil mill, and Gertrude’s work as a laundress.

In 1928, when Herman was 13 years old, for the first time in his young life he did not live in his grandmother Smith’s house. In fact, neither did Gertrude Smith. Household data from the 1930 Census illustrates Herman Bell’s fractured family situation. His mother’s marital status was listed as “widow” although her husband, Henry, was very much alive. Herman was 14 years old. Gertrude Smith was no longer a home-owner. Instead, the Bells rented a house for $25 per month in East Birmingham. In 1930 Mamie was the only wage earner in the household; she supplemented her meager income as a laundress by taking in two boarders.

Between 1930 and 1935, Henry Bell was in and out of the family picture. For several years he was not part of the household. In 1934, the family was briefly reunited, but the following year, when Herman was 10 years old, Henry was absent once more.

Henry Bell’s frequent absences from the family household during the 1920s were likely due to marital problems rather than work obligations. Although one baseball historian asserts that Henry played for the Birmingham Black Barons,1 a review of box scores and newspaper articles provides no evidence to support that assumption, and other Negro League histories do not corroborate this assertion. Further, Henry Bell did not work for ACIPCO or Stockham, two Industrial League training grounds for Black Barons players. This is not to say that Henry Bell did not play baseball — there is no evidence to support or refute that claim — but it is highly unlikely that Henry Bell ever wore a Black Barons uniform.

Herman Bell lived just a short walk from his first employer, Stockham Pipe and Valve Company, for whom he likely played his first organized baseball on the company’s Industrial League team. On March 22, 1936, he married Lillie Harris, who lived across the street. Herman was 21 years old and Lillie was 20. Bell worked for Stockham Pipe before and after his marriage to Lillie and played baseball for the company’s Birmingham Industrial League team; he later played for Stockham’s archrival, the American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO). As it turned out, Bell’s baseball career lasted much longer than his marriage to Lillie. The 1940 Census provides some clues about their abbreviated marital life. In November 1939 Lillie gave birth to daughter Eva May Bell. By April 1940, Lillie and 6-month-old Eva May (also spelled “Eva Mae”) moved out of the Bell household and never returned. The census gave Herman’s marital status as “married, spouse not present.” It noted that Herman was 25 years old, had one year of high school to his credit, and was a “catcher” employed as a “ball player.”

In April 1940 when the census enumerator documented that Herman Bell was “absent” from the household, it was because he had already joined up with Hank Rigney’s Toledo/Indianapolis Crawfords of the Negro American League. He had embarked on a new life as a barnstorming baseball player, an adventure that lasted for more than a decade. The 1940 Census provides evidence that Herman Bell began his Negro League baseball career before he joined the Black Barons. Most biographical entries for Herman Bell state that his Negro League career began in 1943 with Birmingham, but clearly it began as early as 1940 with the Crawfords.

Bell had hitched his wagon to a circus in the form of Hank Rigney’s Toledo Crawfords. The previous season was not financially successful for Rigney’s Crawfords. He was punished by the Negro League for poaching players from the Homestead Grays and was not permitted to schedule games for the Crawfords until he paid a fine.2 Rigney claimed that the league had conspired against him and blamed them for his red ink.3 After being given the go-ahead for the 1940 season, Rigney ostensibly moved the team from Toledo to Indianapolis although the team more often than not was referred to in the press as the Toledo Crawfords.

In February Rigney entered into an agreement with Syd Pollock for the Crawfords to barnstorm with the Ethiopian Clowns with an “extraordinary sports carnival and baseball show.”4 In the center ring of the “sports carnival” was Olympic track star Jesse Owens, whom Rigney managed in the early 1940s. Owens and Rigney also were co-owners of the Toledo Crawfords, with Owens serving as the club’s president.5

Rigney was also the business manager of the Toledo White Huts of the National Basketball League. He attracted some controversy in 1941 with his inclusion of two African-American players on the Toledo squad in what was otherwise an all-white league. In response to the scorn Rigney received, he blasted the press by saying, “Hell, I don’t give a hang about their color. What I want to do is to win.”6

Bell ended up as the catcher for the 1940s Toledo Crawfords after the previous season’s starter, Tommy “Dixie” Dukes, decided to play in the Mexican leagues. Backup catcher Willie “Pee Wee” Spencer was a contract holdout, leaving the starting job open for rookie Bell. Spencer eventually rejoined the team, but he had lost his starting position as catcher to Bell.

If there had been any uncertainty surrounding who would serve as the Crawfords’ backstop in 1940, there was even more confusion over the name of their new catcher. Some of the omissions and errors regarding Herman Bell’s baseball career are linked to his name. Reporters covering the Crawfords at the start of the 1940 season referred to Herman as “James Bell” or “Steel Arm Bell.” Bell’s name was most likely changed to James based on confusion with a better-known Negro Leaguer, James “Cool Papa” Bell, who had played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1933 to 1938. Cool Papa Bell played several positions with distinction in his long and illustrious career, but catcher was not one of them.

Herman Bell was referred to as Steel Arm Bell for the 1940 season with the Crawfords but not during his tenure with the Birmingham Black Barons. By all accounts, he earned his nickname through his excellent throwing skills, but it was also appropriate given his work in Birmingham’s steel and iron manufacturing sector. The first use of this nickname was in the spring of 1940 when the local press touted Steel Arm Bell as a “catcher who can hit and throw”7 before the Crawfords played the Monarchs at Monroe, Louisiana. Bell was last referred to as Steel Arm in 1942 when he played in a game featuring a Birmingham Industrial League all-star team versus the Atlanta Sunshine Stars.8

After one homestand, Bell and the Crawfords headed to Storm Lake, Iowa, for a game, at which Jesse Owens held a sprinting exhibition against Irwin Crotty, a former Notre Dame football star.9 When the Crawfords headed back home, Rigney chose Owens and two Crawfords — pitcher Ernest “Spoon” Carter and Bell — as traveling companions in his car. The four had driven nearly 500 miles when they reached Elgin, Illinois, around noon on Saturday, June 8. Rigney was behind the wheel when his car stuck another vehicle that was entering the highway. Both cars were “heavily damaged” and Owens was taken to the hospital with “lacerations about the arms, head and face.”10 Bell, Carter, and Rigney were also hurt but no report was given as to the extent of their injuries. Bell was out of the lineup for several weeks after what came to be the first of several misfortunes that beset his career in the 1940s. As Bell recuperated, Willie “Pee Wee” Spencer reclaimed the Crawfords’ catcher’s position.

The highlight of Bell’s season with the 1940 Crawfords must have been the doubleheader he played against the Birmingham Black Barons at Rickwood Field on July 7. The game was billed as a “homecoming” for “two of the most valued members of the Crawfords, Herman ‘Steel Arm’ Bell, the league’s deluxe catcher, and John ‘Lefty’ Smith, hard-hitting left fielder.”11 The Chicago Defender wrote, “Both of these boys formerly starred in the fast Birmingham Industrial league here and have a host of followers in this city who are anxious to see them for the first time in big league competition.”12

After the 1940 Negro League season, Bell returned to Birmingham. He worked as a laborer at ACIPCO and played for its Industrial League team. It was not a happy homecoming because he and Lillie were still separated and would remain so until they divorced after his discharge from the US Army in 1944.

Bell continued as the starting catcher for the ACIPCO team through the summer of 1942. The squad was undefeated in league play and was viewed by some as the “best industrial league team of all time”;13 the Industrial League champions finished with a 49-1 record and Bell’s batting average was .351.14

Bell joined the Birmingham Black Barons late in the 1943 season after the team had become shorthanded in the catching department. Starting catcher Paul Hardy had been lost to the draft, which left the team with only 35-year-old John Huber, who had the lowest batting average on the team. The Black Barons were headed for a matchup with the Homestead Grays in the 1943 World Series but were in dire need of a backstop, which set the stage for Bell to join the team. If Bell thought his luck was changing, he was wrong. After just eight plate appearances, and on the eve of the 1943 World Series, he was injured and missed his chance to play in his first Negro League championship. After Bell was hurt, the Black Barons found themselves in the World Series without a catcher. In an extraordinary concession by the Grays, the Black Barons were permitted to use the services of Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe, catcher and manager of the Chicago American Giants, for the duration of the series.15 In an odd twist of fate, after granting permission for Birmingham to use Radcliffe, the Grays’ own catcher, Josh Gibson, fell ill and was unable to play.16 Gibson recovered in time to return to the Grays lineup and hit a grand-slam in the fifth game of the eight-game series. Bell would have to wait until 1948 to get another chance to play in a World Series for Birmingham.

World War II and the draft initially had created an opening for Bell on the Birmingham roster, but then the draft took him away. Bell reported for Army duty at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, on January 25, 1944 at age 29. Herman’s civilian occupation fell under the category of “Athletes, sports instructors, and sports officials,” and this line of work would persist during his military service. He played baseball at Fort Benning, Georgia, for the Reception Center Tigers. The Army team crossed bats with civilian and military teams, including the Atlanta Black Crackers and the Tuskegee Army Fliers. It was during a game with Tuskegee, on June 24, 1944, that Bell became a baseball casualty of the war when he broke his right leg sliding into second, and “was removed from the diamond by an ambulance” with speculation that he would probably be lost to the team for the season.17

But Bell returned to his catching duties in early August 1944 after a brief six-week recovery. In October the Black Barons were once again in a World Series against the Homestead Grays without him. The Grays won, four games to one.

Bell was discharged from the Army, on December 6, 1944. By the end of March 1945, Birmingham announced its lineup for the season, which included catchers Bell and Pepper Bassett.18 Though Black Barons manager Winfield S. Welch maintained a positive outlook, not everyone outside of the organization was as enthusiastic. Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith favored Cleveland over Birmingham for the Negro American League crown, noting that the Black Barons had deficiencies in the “catching and infield departments.”19 In May the catching situation was still uncertain, and Bell platooned with Double Duty Radcliffe and Bassett. By June, only Bell and Bassett were sharing the catching duties.

On July 16 a Black Barons game in Cleveland to benefit a local community center was marred by a fight between Birmingham’s second baseman, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, and umpire Jimmy Johnson in which Davis broke the umpire’s nose in front of 12,000 fans.20 The brawl was just the beginning of the team’s troubles. The Black Barons were criticized by Negro American League President Dr. J.B. Martin for splitting the squad into two teams; however, since no official league games were involved, no more than an admonishment was forthcoming. In Battle Creek, Michigan, on July 22, Bell and pitcher Jimmie Newberry were the only two regular Black Barons who took the field as part of a makeshift team for an exhibition game.21 Fans had been expecting the full 1944 pennant-winning squad to appear, and Welch’s mea culpa was that the team had lost players like Radcliffe to the Harlem Globetrotters and John Britton to the Mexican League.22 The Battle Creek Clark Equipment team and the Lafayette Red Sox withheld travel expenses and Birmingham’s share of the gate receipts, which, in the case of the Battle Creek game, would have totaled around $350.23 A writer for the Battle Creek Enquirer mused, “It looks like there’ll be plenty of meatless days for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American league in the immediate future — and it won’t all be because of the short of ration points.”24

In early August the Black Barons and New York Black Yankees were scheduled to play a game at Knoxville, Tennessee. Bell was slated as the starting catcher.25 But the Black Barons’ bad luck followed them to Tennessee when the Black Yankees’ bus broke down near Chattanooga and the game was canceled.26 The result was another day without a paycheck for the team.

On September 8 the Black Barons played the Black Yankees in a two-day Labor Day holiday series that also featured games with the Cincinnati Clowns and the Philadelphia Stars. The games were played at Yankee Stadium before crowds of over 10,000. The Black Barons lost to the Black Yankees and were eliminated from the series finale, but they lost more than a game — they also lost Bell when he was “struck in the head by a New York batsman who swung late, the bat thudding against the catcher’s temple as he crouched behind the plate.”27 That was Bell’s last appearance for the Birmingham in 1945.

Off the field Bell had not fared much better; his marriage to Lillie Harris Bell finally ended in 1945. Bell did not remain a bachelor for long. On May 26, 1945, he married Mary Belle Cobb Boykin in Birmingham. Mary Belle Cobb was born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1919 and previously had been married to William Boykin with whom she had one son William Charles “Bo Pee” Boykin Jr., born in 1937.

When the 1946 Black Barons’ season began, Bell found himself watching from the dugout while Pepper Bassett did the bulk of catching, especially in official Negro League games. Bell made only sporadic plate appearances, mostly in exhibition games during barnstorming tours. His fortunes began to change in mid-July when his batting average improved to .300 and he regained his status as the primary catcher; for the first time that year, it was Bell who started the first game of Negro League doubleheaders.

By the end of July, Bell’s offensive production was getting noticed by sportswriters. In August, the Black Barons moved up in the standings and showed some of their old form but they could not catch up with Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs and finished in second place.

In 1947 baseball’s spotlight shifted to Brooklyn, where National League Rookie of the Year Jackie Robinson was becoming a star. Negro League teams struggled to draw fans through the turnstiles and to attract supportive press coverage. The Black Barons announced that they would conduct their 1947 spring training in Orlando, Florida. Bell was included in the team’s spring-training roster but Bassett was not; he and Newberry were in California “after playing winter baseball in Cuba and Mexico.”28 Manager Tommy Sampson named Percy Howard as Bassett’s replacement, but Howard did not graduate to Birmingham’s regular-season roster.

By the time the Black Barons played their first exhibition games at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, Bell was not in the lineup because Bassett had made a late return and had resumed his role as the starting catcher. As in previous years, Bell was a slow starter and seemed to hit his stride later in the season, especially with his bat. It appears that Bell was replaced in the Birmingham lineup by backup catcher Earl Ashby, who also filled in at first base. Ashby had started his 1947 season with the Homestead Grays and was “loaned to the Black Barons” for the remainder of the year.29 According to Atlanta Daily World sports columnist Emory O. Jackson, during spring training Bell was relegated to mentoring Birmingham’s rookies, including pitcher and first baseman Alonzo Perry.30

When Birmingham opened the regular season at Rickwood with a 5-2 win over Kansas City on May 10, 1947, Bell was on the bench. The next day he shared catching duties with Ashby in the first game of a doubleheader against the Monarchs. An error-prone Birmingham nine lost both games. When the Barons and Monarchs met three days later on the road in Shreveport, a local sportswriter noted, “Undoubtedly, ‘Pepper Bassett’ of ‘rocking chair fame’ is the most colorful and capable in the negro sic major league ... with William sic Bell as his understudy.”31 Not only was Herman Bell not getting any playing time or praise from the press, they could not even get his name right.

As had been the case the previous year, Bell began to get into the groove by midseason. In June he began to alternate starts with Bassett, and Ashby was no longer being used as the default backup. By the end of the month Bell was hitting a blazing .375, second on the team only to Piper Davis, who was batting .380.32 The Black Barons were on fire and were leading the Negro American League with an overall batting average of .303.33 But by August Bell’s bat had cooled off and he was once again demoted to being Bassett’s backup.

Bell’s 1947 season with the Black Barons was a vast improvement over his fortunes in previous years in the Negro League. First, he did not suffer any major injuries as he had in 1940 (car accident), 1943 (unspecified injury), 1944 (broken leg), and 1945 (head trauma). In spite of his typical slow start to his season, Bell played in 26 league games and ranked third among Negro American League catchers with a .304 batting average and a .976 fielding average.34

Bell and Bassett returned to Birmingham in 1948, but Bell was now 33 years old and in the twilight of his playing days. The two catchers were described by columnist Ellis Jones as the Black Barons’ “old guard,” part of a group of “oldtimers” that also included Ed Steele and John Britton.35

In March 1948 the Black Barons held spring training at the historically black Alabama State Teachers College (now Alabama State University) in Montgomery. Filling out the roster with top-flight players was becoming more difficult for Negro League teams, so owners were forced to come up with some new staffing strategies. The Black Barons held tryouts for players attending Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Florida A&M, Grambling, Knoxville College, and Lane College.36 Sharing spring training with collegians must have made some of the grizzled veterans like Bell feel particularly aged. However, it was not a youthful collegian who had the greatest impact on the Black Barons’ 1948 season. Instead, it was a 17-year-old high schooler named Willie Mays.

During spring training, on April 11, Bell’s mother, Mamie Lee Bell Smith, died in Birmingham at age 58. Bell was in Greenville, Mississippi, with the Black Barons for an exhibition game against the New York Cubans. To add to his grief, there would be no paycheck since the Cubans failed to show and 2,000 fans demanded a refund.37

The Black Barons opened the season against the Cleveland Buckeyes at Rickwood Field on May 1. Birmingham won the opener, 11-2, and took two of three games from Cleveland with Bell behind the plate for both wins. His career revival in early 1948 was noted by one sportswriter who said, “The youthful Bell has been doing the bulk of catching in the early games and his handling of pitchers, and his heavy stick work has been causing eyebrow lifting around the circuit.”38

At the end of May, with Birmingham sitting atop the NAL standings, Bell found himself spending more time in the dugout; Bassett had a blazing .444 batting average in mid-June that assured him the starting catcher job. Bell, his role diminished, still contributed to the team’s success and mentored younger players, including Willie Mays. Bell briefly took over the catching duties for the Black Barons when Bassett suffered a hand injury in July,39 but as soon as Bassett recovered, Bell resumed his backup duties.

The Black Barons were pursuing their first NAL championship since 1944, and Bell did his part when called upon. He was not known as a power hitter, but he had a flair for providing the occasional base hit or sacrifice fly when called upon at a pivotal moment in a game. Such was the case when the Birmingham took a doubleheader from the Cleveland Buckeyes at Rickwood Field before a crowd of 9,000 on August 8.40 Bell knocked a pinch-hit single to drive in two runs that lifted the Black Barons to a 4-3 victory.

The final weeks of the regular season proved costly for the Black Barons. They lost center fielder Norman “Bobby” Robinson to a broken ankle, though this injury resulted in Mays moving from left field to his natural position in center field. Player-manager Piper Davis was hobbled after being spiked, as was Bell.41 Bell’s injury came on September 10, the day before the playoffs were set to begin, as the Black Barons played the Chicago American Giants at Comiskey Park. With the Giants down two runs in the bottom of the ninth, Quincy “Big Train” Trouppe homered with the bases empty to narrow the margin to one run. Then, with the Giants’ Chet Brewer on first, Big Jim McCurrine42 grounded to second baseman Artie Wilson. Wilson was unable to get Brewer out at second so he threw to first. Wilson’s throw to first baseman Joe Scott was too late to get McCurrine. Brewer rounded third and headed for home at “full tilt.” When Bell applied the tag, the catcher’s “foot was cut and he was forced to retire from the game.”43 Bassett stepped in to replace Bell at that point. McCurrine later scored and tied the game, but the Black Barons answered with a run of their own in the top of the 10th inning and held on to win the game, 9-8. It was a satisfying win for Birmingham but a resolutely painful personal loss for Bell. Just as in 1943, when an injury had denied Bell the chance to play in the Negro Leagues World Series, a physical setback once again sent him back to the dugout.

The first two games of the seven-game NAL playoffs against the Kansas City Monarchs were played at Rickwood Field on September 11 and 12. Bassett was in the lineup and Bell was on the bench while Piper Davis did triple duty as manager, second baseman, and backup catcher.44 Birmingham swept the first two games, with Bassett providing the winning RBI in Game Two, and the teams headed to Kansas City. After leading three games to two, the Black Barons needed the seventh game of the series to punch their ticket to the Negro League World Series, which they did when they won the deciding game, 5-1.

Bell did not play in any of the games against the Monarchs, and his leg injuries did not heal in time for him to appear in the regular lineup in the Negro League World Series, against the Homestead Grays. He did make one plate appearance as a pinch-hitter in the second game of the Series, hitting a run-producing double, but the “lumber-legged Bell” was pulled from the game for a pinch-runner.45 The Black Barons lost the last Negro League World Series to the Grays in five games and, as in previous years, Bell returned to his life in East Birmingham after the season ended.

When spring training began in 1949, Bell was a 34-year-old catcher whose career was nearing its end due to an injury-worn body and the rapid decline of Negro League baseball. He and Bassett resumed their tag-team duties as the Black Barons’ catchers. Bell started out well, but by the end of the season, his batting average was in the neighborhood of .200. He remained a sharp defensive player, but age had caught up to him and his diminished skills at the plate relegated him to backup duties for most of the season. There may have been a second contributing factor to Bell’s declining performance: At the end of May he was batting .278,46 but he suffered an injury to his right hand in early June,47 and by early July, he was hitting just .240.48

In spite of Bell’s subpar performance in 1949, when the final East-West All-Star Game lineups were announced, Bell was listed as the reserve catcher for the West. He replaced Earl Taborn, who had been signed by the New York Yankees in late July.49 His selection was especially surprising given that he was hitting a paltry .207 at the time.50 The East upset the heavily favored West, 4-0. Bell pinch-hit for Memphis shortstop Orlando Verona, but popped up in his first and only appearance in an All-Star Game.51

The Negro National League had folded after the 1948 season, so no World Series was slated for 1949. After the regular season concluded, the Black Barons and other Negro League teams engaged in a series of games throughout the South, including contests with Jackie Robinson’s barnstorming All-Stars. After the last game was played, Bell returned home to Birmingham, where his widowed father still lived and worked at the cottonseed-oil mill. His younger brother Lucious was now married and he and his wife were part of the household. But his sister, Marian Bell Pearson Goodwin, had died on March 29, 1949, at the age of 29.

In March 1950 Bell was the starting catcher early in the season. He occasionally caught both games of a doubleheader as he did against the Indianapolis Clowns on April 16, one day after his 35th birthday.52 By early May, however, the lineup pattern from previous years emerged and Bell fell back into his familiar role as the backup catcher. One positive event in Bell’s life in 1950 was the arrival of his only son, Herman Bell Jr., who was born in Birmingham on June 21.

One of the Black Barons’ most notable baseball achievements in 1950 took place in Knoxville, Tennessee. Arguably more important and longer lasting than anything else the Black Barons ever accomplished, it has gone largely unnoticed by sports historians. A benefit game between the Black Barons and Houston Eagles at Caswell Park in Knoxville was organized by Claude Walker of the Knoxville City Recreation Bureau, a program developed for the city’s African American population. Walker had played for the Knoxville Colored Giants in the 1920s and was one of the organizers of the new 1945 edition of the Negro Southern League.53 The proceeds of the charity game were earmarked for what Walker claimed would be the first “Negro Little League team in the South.”54 Prior to the event, Walker said that the future of “Little League for Negro boys hangs in the balance at Caswell Park tonight.”55 The Black Barons returned to Caswell Park for a second benefit game in October against Luke Easter’s “All-Stars” and added more funds to the Little League’s coffers.

Today, Claude Walker Park Ballfields honor Walker’s contributions to Knoxville sports history and the African American community. Bound up within Walker’s legacy are Bell and the Birmingham Black Barons, who helped provide the seed money to create the first Little League team for African Americans in Tennessee and, most likely, the first such team in the South. It is also likely that the benefit game against Luke Easter’s team was the last game Bell played in a Black Barons uniform.

In 1951 Bell was among the veterans who signed up for another tour of duty, but he did not play with the Black Barons beyond spring training at Alabama State College in Montgomery. Pepper Bassett continued with the team in 1951 along with two new backup catchers, Louis “Sea Boy” Gillis and Roy “Willie” Patterson.

After his playing days ended in 1951, Bell returned to East Birmingham. He did not return to factory work at ACIPCO or Stockham; his post-baseball occupation, according to Birmingham city directories, was as a janitor and warehouseman for the Kirby-Pierce Paint Company in North Birmingham.

Herman Bell died in Birmingham on September 27, 1970, at the age of 55. His wife, Mary Cobb Bell, died on December 26, 1985. Herman’s brother Lucious, the last surviving Bell sibling, died in Milwaukee in 2007. Both Herman and Mary Bell were buried in Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens in Birmingham. After Bell’s death in 1970, his accomplishments — often overshadowed by the exploits of other Black Barons with better offensive skills and/or those who later played in the major leagues — were largely forgotten. He also had played much of his career at a time when press coverage of Negro League games was either absent or minimal, even in African-American newspapers. Bell did have one champion in the media, though: Atlanta Daily World columnist Othello Nelson “Chico” Renfro mentioned him often. Renfro had firsthand knowledge of Bell’s baseball talents, having played shortstop in the Negro Leagues for the Monarchs, Buckeyes, and Clowns between 1945 and 1950, during Bell’s tenure with the Black Barons.

In 1977 Renfro wrote a column in which he criticized New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson’s salary demands and included Bell among “the great catchers of the old Negro National and American League [who] could tie one hand behind their back and out catch Munson and when they came to bat they could untie the hand and blind fold them and they could out hit him.”56 A year later Renfro again referenced Bell, judging him to have been one of the best players on the 1942 ACIPCO team.57 Renfro continued his high praise of Bell into the 1980s when he referred to the catcher as being “among the unsung heroes of the Negro Leagues.”58 When Negro League historian Brent Kelley interviewed Willie Young, a one-handed pitcher for the Black Barons in 1945, he asked, “Who was the best player you saw?” Young replied, “In my time? Herman Bell was the best catcher.”59

 

This biography appears in "Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series" (SABR, 2017), edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin.

 

Notes

1 John Klima, Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend (New York: Wiley, 2009), 127.

2 “East-West Game Aug. 18,” Chicago Defender, March 2, 1940: 24.

3 Leslie A. Heaphy, The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960 (Jefferson North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), 89.

4 “Ethiopian Clowns Eye Another Big Season,” Atlanta Daily World, February 20, 1950: 5.

5 “Chicago at Indianapolis for a Double Header,” Chicago Defender, May 25, 1940: 5.

6 Fay Young, “The Stuff Is Here,” Chicago Defender, November 15, 1941: 22.

7 “Owens and Negro Clubs Coming Here,” Monroe Morning World, April 14, 1940: 8.

8 “Birmingham, Sunshine Stars Play Two at BTWHS Today,” Atlanta Daily World, August 30, 1942: 8.

9 “Jesse Owens Runs at Storm Lake Tonight,” Des Moines Register, June 6, 1940: 16.

10 “Jesse Owens Injured in Elgin Crash,” DeKalb Daily Chronicle, June 10, 1940: 7.

11 “Crawfords at Birmingham Sunday July 7,” Chicago Defender, July 6, 1940: 23.

12 Ibid.

13 “American Cast Iron and Pipe (ACIPCO): ACIPCO Dominates the Birmingham Industrial League,” Negro Southern League Museum Research Center, undated: 18.

14 Emory Jackson, “Birmingham ACIPCO Nine Lost 1 Game,” Chicago Defender, October 24, 1942: 24.

15 “Sox Park Is Site of Negro Game Today,” Chicago Tribune, September 26, 1943: A6.

16 Cum Posey, “Posey’s Points,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 2, 1943: 16.

17 “Reception Center Defeats Tuskegee,” Columbus Sunday Ledger-Enquirer, June 25, 1944: 10.

18 “Cubans Play Barons Sunday,” Chicago Defender, March 31, 1945: 7.

19 Wendell Smith, “The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 5, 1945: 12.

20 “Cleveland Group Demands Apology,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 4, 1945: 12.

21 “Birmingham Barons’ Actions Draw Fire of Unit President,” Battle Creek Enquirer, July 29, 1945: 14.

22 Ibid.

23 “Black Barons Denied Gate Receipts Share,” Battle Creek Enquirer, July 28, 1945: 8.

24 Ibid.

25 “Black Barons Play Yankees,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, August 2, 1945: 16.

26 “Negro Battle Is Called Off,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, August 3, 1945: 12.

27 “Black Yankees Win Two Games in Row in Stadium Tourney,” New York Amsterdam News, September 8, 1945: 11A.

28 “B’ham Black Barons to Leave for Spring Training March 9,” Atlanta Daily World, February 25, 1947: 5.

29 James A. Riley. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994), 39.

30 Emory O. Jackson, “Hits and Bits,” Atlanta Daily World, April 29, 1947: 5.

31 “Barons Who Play Monarchs, Second in 1947 Flag Race,” Shreveport Times, May 12, 1947: 11.

32 “Black Barons Hard Hitters of the N.A.L.,” New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947: 12.

33 Ibid.

34 Ellis Jones, “Art Wilson Cops League Batting Crown Honors,” Atlanta Daily World, February 11, 1948: 5.

35 “Ellis Jones, Hits and Bits,” Atlanta Daily World, April 1, 1948: 4.

36 “Birmingham to Try Out Collegians,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 6, 1948: 17.

37 “Greenville Club to Seek Initial Pre-Season Win,” Greenville (Mississippi) Delta Democrat-Times, April 12, 1948: 5.

38 “Black Barons Set to Face Famed Indianapolis Clowns May 16-18,” Atlanta Daily World, May 14, 1948: 6.

39 “Barons, First Half Negro Champions, Here Thursday,” Newark Advocate, July 20, 1948: 8.

40 “Barons Win Two From Cleveland,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 14, 1948: 10.

41 Emory O. Jackson, “Hits and Bits,” Atlanta Daily World, September 11, 1948: 5.

42 James “Big Jim” McCurrine’s last name appears in some sources as McCurine.

43 “Black Barons Win, 9-8, Game From Chicago,” Chicago Defender, September 11, 1948: 11.

44 “Birmingham Grabs First Two Games in Playoff Series,” Chicago Defender, September 18, 1948: 11.

45 Klima, 180.

46 “Negro American League,” Atlanta Daily World, June 1, 1949: 5.

47 “New York Cubans Lose Twice to First Place Black Barons,” Atlanta Daily World, June 15, 1949: 5.

48 “Negro American League,” Atlanta Daily World, July 6, 1949: 5.

49 “Yankees Purchase Two Players From Monarchs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 1949: 30.

50 “LaMarque and Porter Possible Starters for Annual East-West Baseball Classic,” Atlanta Daily World, August 7, 1949: 7.

51 Marion E. Jackson, “East Upsets West 4-0 in 17th Annual Competition in Comiskey Park, Chicago,” Atlanta Daily World, August 16, 1949: 5.

52 “Black Barons Stop Naptown Clowns Twice,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 22, 1950: 23.

53 “The New Southern Negro League,” Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, February 19, 1945: 8.

54 “Barons, Eagles to Clash for Little Loop Fund,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, August 15, 1950: 14.

55 Ibid.

56 Chico Renfro, “This and That in Sports,” Atlanta Daily World, January 27, 1977: 9.

57 Chico Renfro, “Let’s Remember the Old ‘Atlanta’ Black Crackers,” Atlanta Daily World, June 15, 1978: 8.

58 Chico Renfro, “Sports of the World,” Atlanta Daily World, May 16, 1986: 5.

59 Brent P. Kelley, I Will Never Forget: Interviews with 39 Former Negro League Players (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), 185.