Lefty Bell

This article was written by Frederick C. Bush

A pitcher whom the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first identified as Charles “Lefty” Bell posted a 3-0 record for the Homestead Grays in 1948. The fact that Bell’s first name was likely James, rather than Charles, is only the first obstacle in attempting to identify this player, whose life and career provide a prime example of the difficulties that are encountered in researching the Negro Leagues. According to the Post-Gazette, the Grays signed Bell in April 1948 after he had “won 27 and lost one, while pitching for the Laketon, Fla., club last season.”1 The city of Laketon is in Indiana; thus, the team Bell pitched for was based in Lakeland, Florida.

Compounding the difficulty in determining the identity of this pitcher is the fact that he was most often identified by the press simply as “Lefty” Bell. Additionally, conflicting information about Bell exists in the few available sources that mention him at all. Both James Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia and Dick Clark and Larry Lester’s The Negro Leagues Book list a pitcher named Charles “Lefty” Bell as having played for the Grays in 1948.2 The fact that his first name is given as Charles likely stems from the Post-Gazette’s article. Riley asserts that Bell “was a second-line pitcher ... but fashioned a perfect 3-0 record.”3

A pitcher named Charles “Lefty” Bell also is listed on baseball-reference.com, where it is alleged that he was born in Lakeland, Florida, in some unknown year. However, this player is listed on the roster of the 1929 Memphis Red Sox and split his time between Memphis and the Chicago American Giants in 1930.4 In light of those listings, two questions remain: Why does B-R.com not list this Bell on the roster of the 1948 Grays, and where did he spend the years between 1930 and 1946?

Further confusion arises from the fact that B-R.com, while not listing Charles Bell on Homestead’s roster, does list a 50-year-old pitcher named William Bell on the roster of the 1948 Grays.5 This pitcher has been identified as William Bell Sr. of Lavaca County, Texas, whose Negro League career spanned the years 1923-37 and 1948; his pitching line on B-R.com shows a 0-0 record in only 3⅓ innings pitched for Homestead in 1948. However, according to Riley, William Sr. was a member of the Homestead Grays in 1932 and “his last appearance in black baseball was as a manager of the [Newark] Eagles in 1948.”6 The differences in first name and statistics indicate that Charles “Lefty” Bell and William Bell Sr. have not accidentally been conflated into one and the same player.7

The Charles “Lefty” Bell who pitched for the Homestead Grays may have been a Mississippi native, and his true first name most likely was James. What may be the earliest mention of Bell in print appears in a news account of a game between the House of David team of Santiago, Cuba, and the Wechsler High Black Cats at Traction Park in Meridian, Mississippi, on April 29, 1931. Wechsler High’s coach started a pitcher identified as “Jas. (Lefty) Bell,” who allowed three runners to score when he made a wild pitch with the bases loaded in the game, which Wechsler lost, 8-6.8 The Mississippi location and the year 1931 match up well with what little is known about “Lefty” Bell, though the abbreviation “Jas.” for “James” indicates a different first name. While it is possible that there could have been both a James “Lefty” Bell and Charles “Lefty” Bell within short proximity of one another in Mississippi, such a scenario is improbable. More likely, in a time in which misspellings and typographical errors pervaded newspapers, is that “Jas.” accidentally became “Chas.” when Bell was signed by the Grays in 1948.

The likelihood that Wechsler High’s James “Lefty” Bell was the player who eventually joined the Homestead Grays in 1948 stems from the fact that a player who was referred to simply as Lefty Bell began to pitch semipro ball in Mississippi at some point in the early to mid-1930s. A 1934 press account touted Lefty Bell and Baby Face Green, “two of the best semi-pro pitching stars [who] hooked up” in a 1-0 pitchers’ duel in which Bell’s Laurel Big “M” Black Cats defeated the Colored “Y” Tigers.9 The following season, Lefty Bell was again in fine form as he led the Laurel Black Cats’ staff in their attempt to win the Mississippi state title over the Meridian Giants. In two separate 10-inning, 1-0 victories over Meridian, he struck out 14 and 18 batters.10 Bell continued to pitch for Laurel through at least 1938, but it is not certain where he might have played the next two seasons.

In April 1941 it was reported that the “Mobile Black Shippers [would] be strengthened for the occasion [of a doubleheader against the Ethiopian Clowns] by the addition of Lefty Bell of Laurel, Miss., and both Tommie Lee and Bill Tate, St. Louis.”11 However, whether or not Bell was simply on loan to Mobile, or had signed with the team was unclear. Bell may have led an itinerant existence that season, as he also spent time with the Reidsville, North Carolina, Black Luckies. On June 9, in Reidsville’s 9-7 victory over the appallingly-named South Boston Spooks, “Lefty Bell did the mound duties for the Luckies and struck out 13 Spooks.”12

Where Bell spent the years 1942-46, or how and when he ended up with the Lakeland team in the Florida State League is a mystery. Coverage of the league’s games was sparse and inconsistent, but an August 23, 1947, news article — with Bell’s last name misspelled as “Bill” — hints at Lefty’s sustained pitching acumen. The Palm Beach Post reported, “Lakeland’s Tigers used timely hitting and effective southpaw pitching by Bill to trim the local Yankees, 6 to 2, in a Florida State Negro Baseball League game at Wright Field Friday night.”13 Bell lost a shutout with two outs in the ninth inning but still earned the win in Lakeland’s triumph. Whatever Bell’s record may have been in 1947, he was certainly a known commodity prior to the 27-1 season attributed to him by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In April 1946 the Atlanta Daily World had reported that the Birmingham Black Barons had not “had any success trying to get ‘Lefty’ Bell, billed as a good slab prospect, away from his Mississippi home.”14

If pitching closer to home was important to him, it seems odd that Bell signed with the Homestead franchise — which played its home games in Pittsburgh and Washington — after not having signed with the much closer Birmingham franchise in 1946. Nonetheless, the first mention of a southpaw named Charles Bell occurs in the April 29 issue of the Post-Gazette. It is not far-fetched to suppose that since Bell was usually referred to simply as “Lefty,” a reporter who had seen his first name abbreviated “Jas.” may have remembered “Chas.” and inadvertently changed Bell’s first name to Charles. Errors in player names were not uncommon; for example, the April 10 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier reported that the Grays had acquired a new Cuban catcher named Ramon Sosa, whose actual first name turned out to be Victoriano.15

The Pittsburgh newspapers also appear to have embellished the new Gray’s previous accomplishments, though it is entirely possible that they were victims of misinformation spread by the Grays’ front office in an attempt to make its new signees appear to be star acquisitions. The April 10 Courier article claimed that Sosa had been “recently obtained from the Mariaona [sic] team, a member of the Cuban Winter League,” and that he had “won the Cuban Batting Championship in 1946.”16 In truth, Victoriano Sosa had spent his only season in Cuban baseball, which was 1946, with the Cerro team in Cuba’s new Summer League, and there is no evidence that he had won the league’s batting championship.17 It is not a stretch to believe that Charles Bell’s reported 27-1 record with Lakeland in 1947 may also have reflected hyperbole.

In any case, by July 17, 1948, Homestead’s new southpaw was named as “Charles (Lefty) Bell” in an article printed prior to a start he was scheduled to make against the Philadelphia Stars at Wilmington Park in Delaware. In that article Bell was touted as “one of the greatest pitching finds in Negro baseball,” who was “making his Wilmington debut for the Grays.”18 However, it appears unlikely that Bell pitched against the Stars that day; for reason(s) unknown, his stint with Homestead ended abruptly.

On Wednesday, July 21, 1948, the Atlanta Daily World reported that the Atlanta Black Crackers had defeated the Jacksonville Eagles, 2-1, three days earlier — on Sunday, July 18 — “behind the stellar three-hit pitching of Lefty Bell, colorful southpaw who formerly tossed the pellet for the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League.”19

On July 29 it was reported that “Lefty Bell, formerly with the Homestead Grays, will pitch for Atlanta” in a game between the Black Crackers and the Asheville Blues at McCormick Field in Asheville, North Carolina.20 There still was no explanation as to why the Grays had parted ways with their so-called pitching sensation or how he had come to join the Atlanta team. From this point forward, Bell was again referred to simply as Lefty Bell — there is no further mention of the first name Charles, nor any mention of the name James — and he proceeded to win 15 games as the ace of the Atlanta staff in 1948.21

As late as September 2, the Atlanta Daily World referred to “Husky ‘Lefty’ Bell, southpaw sensation,” who was going to take the mound for Atlanta against the Raleigh (North Carolina) Tigers.22 Yet the Daily World never mentioned by which unusual manner a “second-line pitcher” for the Grays of the Negro National League, one of black baseball’s two major leagues, had become a star for the Black Crackers of the Negro Southern League, a somewhat lower-level professional circuit.

The Black Crackers franchise encountered financial troubles, briefly moved to Detroit for part of the 1949 season, and then returned to the Negro Southern League as the Atlanta Brown Crackers in 1950. In advance of the new Atlanta franchise’s May 14 game against the New Orleans Creoles, the Daily World ran a preview of the team and its key performers, which included a pitcher named James Bell (sans the nickname “Lefty” however).23 Interestingly, the Daily World mentioned that the Brown Crackers had spent spring training in Lakeland, Florida.

Presumably, the Brown Crackers’ James Bell was Lefty Bell; however, that would mean that the mystery man’s identity has finally been solved. James Bell was selected as a Negro Southern League All-Star in 1950, and the Daily World listed the roster of the NSL All-Star team prior to its game against the Memphis Red Sox in July. James Bell was listed there as a right-hander.24 Although this could well have been a misprint — Bell’s name is found immediately below a left-hander, John Diamond of the New Orleans Creoles — it leaves open the possibility that this could have been a different James Bell.

One thing is certain: If “Jas.” (Lefty) Bell of Meridian, Mississippi, who pitched for Wechsler High School in 1931, was indeed “Charles” (Lefty) Bell — which seems to be the most likely scenario — then he obviously was not the pitcher who played for Memphis and Chicago in 1929-30.25 Thus, there remains the question: Who was the player supposedly named Charles “Lefty” Bell who pitched for Memphis and Chicago? The answer to that query may never be found.

The answers to most questions about James “Lefty” Bell’s identity also remain elusive, showing how quickly a man’s life can be erased from the annals of history. The lone fact about Bell that has not been obscured is that he was a pitcher of some renown in certain circles of the Negro Leagues. As late as 1986, Samuel Malone, Bell’s manager with the Laurel Black Cats, asserted:

“Lefty Bell was the best left-hander I ever saw. He beat Satchel Paige one time   1-0. He had five pitches and mastered them all, including the knuckleball. I saw Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford pitch, but I’d take Bell. He was that good.”26

In spite of such accolades, Lefty Bell remains almost as great a mystery as the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster, rising suddenly out of the mists of time and quickly disappearing again before he can be fully grasped.

 

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.

 

Acknowledgements

The author thanks fellow researcher Margaret Gripshover, who unearthed the material about Lefty Bell’s semipro days in Mississippi as well as the first article found that reported Bell’s move from the Homestead Grays to the Atlanta Black Crackers in July 1948. The latter fact indicates that Bell was no longer a member of the Grays at the time of the World Series against the Birmingham Black Barons.

 

Notes

1 “Grays Launch League Season,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 29, 1948: 18.

2 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994), 71; Dick Clark and Larry Lester, The Negro Leagues Book (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1994), 145, 171.

3 Riley, 71.

4 Charles “Lefty” Bell, baseball-reference.com/register/player.cgi?id=bell--006cha, accessed January 13, 2017.

5 1948 Homestead Grays, baseball-reference.com/register/team.cgi?id=113d8785, accessed January 13, 2017.

6 Riley, 75.

7 William Bell Sr. was a right-hander, which is another reason he could not be confused with Charles “Lefty” Bell. William “Lefty” Bell Jr. did not join the Negro Leagues until 1949, his first season with the Kansas City Monarchs; he pitched for Kansas City through the 1954 season and also spent part of 1950 with the Birmingham Black Barons.

8 “High School Sports: Wechsler Loses to Cubans,” Chicago Defender (National Edition), May 2, 1931: 8.

9 “Laurel Black Cats Win Hot Baseball Set,” Chicago Defender (National Edition), September 22, 1934: 17.

10 “Mississippi Nines Battle: State Title is Prize as Meridian, Laurel Play,” Chicago Defender (National Edition), September 21, 1935: 15.

11 “Showboat Thomas Day on April 27th for Mobile Fans,” Chicago Defender (National Edition), April 26, 1941: 22.

12 “Black Luckies Lose to Danville; Win Two Other Games,” Norfolk (Virginia) Journal and Guide, June 21, 1941: 13.

13 “Homer in 9th Robs Lakeland of Shutout,” Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida), August 23, 1947: 5. The news article gives no indication as to the city of origin of the Yankees team that opposed the Tigers that night.

14 “Hits and Bits: Pitching Problems,” Atlanta Daily World, April 30, 1946: 4.

15 “Pittsburgh Opener Set for April 29; Outfield Has Power,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 10, 1948: 15.

16 Ibid.

17 Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), 272-73.

18 “Homestead Grays Tangle With Philadelphia Stars,” Wilmington (Delaware) Morning News, July 17, 1948: 10.

19 “Crax Climb in Upper Division by Topping Eagles, 8-0, 2-1,” Atlanta Daily World, July 21, 1948: 5.

20 “Blues Clash with Atlanta Here Tonight,” Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times, July 29, 1948: 17.

21 Leslie Heaphy, “The Atlanta Black Crackers,” sabr.org/research/atlanta-black-crackers, accessed January 13, 2017.

22 “Black Crackers Gird for Blazing Battle With Raleigh Tigers,” Atlanta Daily World, September 2, 1948: 5.

23 “Atlanta Brown Crackers Play New Orleans Creoles, Sunday,” Atlanta Daily World, May 9, 1950: 5.

24 “Memphis Red Sox to Play All-Stars Here,” Atlanta Daily World, July 9, 1950: 7.

25 There was another left-handed pitcher in the Negro Leagues named James Bell, who eventually was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. However, James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell of Starkville, Mississippi, began his career in 1922 and switched from being a “lefty” pitcher to a center fielder whose speed became legendary. Cool Papa Bell had a brother named Fred who pitched for several different Negro League teams over the course of his career. Fred Bell, who was a southpaw, was nicknamed Lefty.

26 Rick Cleveland, “ ‘Blinkum’ had his heyday before color lines broke,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), October 25, 1986: 43.