Cool Papa Bell Was No Buffoon

Posted in Baseball, The Law at 1:47 am by

The family of Negro League great Cool Papa Bell (above) is up in arms, and I’m tempted to ring David Roth to see if he’s responsible.  From the New York Sun’s David Goldstein. (link courtesy Repoz and Baseball Think Factory)

Bell’s daughter, Connie Brooks, has filed suit against a baseball card company, Topps, over the description of Bell that the company provides on the back of a 2001 special edition card. The short biography concludes by saying that Cool Papa “earned his nickname after falling asleep right before a game.”

To many eyes the statement seems innocuous enough. But Ms. Brooks calls it, in court papers, a “bogus painful lie,” and said it belittles the difficult lives of the players of the Negro League.

Topps’s story, Ms. Brooks claims, insinuates that her father was an alcoholic or drug addict and unable to keep his eyes open.

“In his life he did not smoke or drink,” Ms. Brooks, of Manhattan, told The New York Sun. “But they take a Negro Leaguer and think it’s okay to make him a little buffoonish, a little clownish, and suggest that he’s nodding off. That’s an insult to a man’s legacy.”

5 responses to “Cool Papa Bell Was No Buffoon”

  1. The Critic says:

    But what if it’s true?

  2. David Roth says:

    Whoa. I was not working at Topps, then, but that definitely makes me nervous. I think she’s overreacting some — if it’s clownish to nod off before you’re supposed to do something important, then I should be wearing big red shoes and a Ronald McDonald wig — but that sure is a bad card back.

  3. ben schwartz says:

    Maybe Topps mixed it up with one of their Gargabe Pail Kid cards? I agree it doesn’t look good, but Bell also played in an era when ballplayers were routinely nicknamed “Dizzy,” “Babe,” and “Shoeless Joe.” Players of that era were often publicized as something out of vaudeville, despite how talented they were. I can’t imagine the Ruth family likes the image of the Babe as a VD-ravaged glutton, but how much of this is history v the Bell family’s personal feelings? How do Topps’ other Negro League cards hold up?


  4. David Roth says:

    We couldn’t do a lot of Negro League players until recently due to rights — the only ones I remember working on in my two years there were for the Pristine Legends set — but Ben is totally right about that era’s tendency to caricature its stars, and of the era’s stars tendency to self-caricature (Dizzy Dean is a perfect example of this, a guy who clearly either had a good sense of humor and self-promotion or had some Damon Runyon type offstage with cue cards). So, on the ones I worked on at least, we definitely printed the legend over the substantial facts, primarily because there aren’t good stats from the era.

    Like most card backs, the ones I worked on — mostly Josh Gibson cards, again due to rights issues, but some more obscure Negro Leaguers like Martin Dihigo and Junior Gilliam — were all about mythos and happy talk. I spoke to Bruce, the head writer, about this card this morning. He vaguely remembers editing it (he didn’t write it), but apparently the nap story was in circulation. Of course, so was the story about Bell being fast enough to flip a light switch off and be in bed under the covers before it was dark. Personally, I don’t find either one offensive. Or believable.

  5. Kevin says:

    Was there more to this story or did she automatically jump to the conclusion that just because it said that he used to “nod off”, that means he was an alcoholic? I don’t get it.

    “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast that once he hit a ball up the middle and it hit him in the head as he slid into second base”
    – Willie (Lou Myers) from the motion picture “Cobb” (1994)

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