I’ll Never Forget: The Baseball Life of William “Lefty” Bell in the Negro Leagues and across Jim Crow America

The following interview was conducted December 12, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The interview is with William “Lefty” Bell, who played portions of several seasons with first the Kansas City Monarchs and then the Birmingham Black Barons, from 1949–1954. Bell’s baseball career was interrupted service in the Korean War from 1952–1953. Mr. Bell continues to reside in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa.

We played a game right outside of Atlanta, Georgia, at a place called Stone Mountain. While at the ballpark I hear a sound. It went clippity-cloppity, clippity-cloppity, clippity-cloppity, and I wondered what in the world it was. Clippity-cloppity.

In those days the white folks would sit along the first base line, and blacks would sit along the third base side. But this particular day there were horses. That was the sound I heard. So help me God, there were twelve white horses with twelve hooded men on them. Hoods—I swear to God. When they got off their horses I couldn’t believe it. They had come to the ballpark and they sat up in the stands the whole game. I don’t know if I pitched that day or not—I played some center field too. But we were warming up when they came in the stadium. I was a little fearful, you know?

*     *     *      *       *

I was born in 1930 in Des Moines, Iowa. Things were pretty rough, you know, being the Depression. In the summertime, growing up, a lot of us kids went barefoot. When I was coming up we didn’t have electricity. We had an icebox, and ice would be brought around the neighborhood and put in wooden boxes.

We played baseball and had football, but being Des Moines, it was still very prejudiced. If we wanted to go swimming in the summertime, living on the East Side, I’d have to walk clean over to 19th and University to swim at Good’s Park. There was Woodland Park on the East Side, but blacks weren’t allowed to swim with the white folks. It was very prejudiced.

In school I don’t think the teachers cared whether we learned or not. If you didn’t get it from home it was just too bad. The teachers just didn’t have a concern for us. We played sports in high school—my younger brother Morris was quite an athlete too. One day the history teacher came up to me and said, “Bill, I wish you’d talk to your brother.” About what I didn’t know. The teacher replied, “Morris is letting a white girl wear his letter sweater. I don’t think your parents would appreciate that, and I know her parents wouldn’t.” Whatever hanky-panky there was, that was a no-no back then, believe me.

It would be the same when eating. One year when playing baseball we traveled to Davenport, and I went into a restaurant downtown. I waited and I waited. It finally looked like I wasn’t going to get waited on. The signs back then read “We refuse the right to service to anyone.” That tells you the story right there. I wasn’t getting refused, they just weren’t going to wait on me.

It was the same way in the service. That was very devastating. One day I was playing ball, and the next I was drafted and sent down South. It was alright on the base, because it was after Truman had passed a non-discrimination law for the service. But when you went to town in didn’t matter what kind of uniform you had on; once you left the base it was a different world. A great big line right down the middle. At the bus stop colored folks got their tickets at a different counter, water at a different fountain. You had certain areas you could go.

I played service baseball, but that was mixed teams. We had a Cy Young winner on the team by the name of Vernon Law. Another pitcher, Sid Thrift, had been with the Pirates. We also had Willie Mays on the team. Once we found ourselves in Washington, D.C. with the night off, and we were going to where the happenings were at. We went downtown and while waiting at the stop with Willie there was a black woman with some shopping bags. Willie asked her if where the black folks hung out, and she said, “Mister, you don’t come down here after dark.” So when I look back at all that, it wasn’t just D.C.. You could feel it in North Carolina or Wisconsin. It didn’t matter where you were. To me, when they held the black folks down so much, that’s why you have so much violence now. It’s a terrible thing.

What did your parents do?

My mom stayed home and my dad worked in a shoe repair shop on the East Side. My dad was from Wathena, Kansas, and my mom was from Warrington, West Virginia. They migrated from West Virginia because of the Iowa coal mines. That’s why a lot of blacks migrated, to find work in the coal mines.

How did they raise you, what did they instill in you?

Since I was the oldest of six kids I was always made an example. If I was told to be at home at eight, that meant they better be home before me. I had enough sense to do right because I got tired of going out and getting tree branches that would be used as switches. That’s what was done in black community and how you were taken care of. I don’t say all families, but if you didn’t do right in school ol’ dad would talk to the teacher. Then you could be whooped in school and when you get home you’d get another whooping. They don’t allow that anymore either.

My mom belonged to the Church of God and Christ. I’ll never forget it, we used to go to Sunday school at nine o’clock, and it would last until one or two o’clock. Sunday school lasted a long time, but they tried to teach you what was right. And some learned and some didn’t.

You said the teachers really weren’t there to teach you?

That’s a good question. When I played baseball in high school that was it. I was the only black on the team. At one time I wanted to go college, and took all the Math and English courses I should. My coach, A. W. Wilson, was also my Math teacher. I realize now he didn’t give me any encouragement. In eleventh grade we had a test at the beginning of the year, and I got a hundred percent. After class A. W. Wilson said, “Bill, are those your dad’s pants you’re wearing?” He asked this because I had gotten my clothes from a used army place, and I had a pair of officer pants on. So he thought my dad was probably an officer in the service. Looking back, I never really had a conversation with the other players on the baseball team. Once we played with the American Legion. I couldn’t get in their building, yet I played ball with them.

After high school what did you do?

I wanted to go to college but I didn’t have any money. Right after graduation, in the summer of 1948, I received a letter from the head scout of the Brooklyn Dodgers. There would be a camp for about four weeks, and was told I would go wherever my ability takes me with the Dodgers. A-ball or B-ball, or whatever level. He had a room waiting for me in Freemont, Nebraska. It was the boiler room of a hotel. All the meals would be furnished.

I had to find my own way from Des Moines to Freemont, and once I got there they would reimburse me. But I didn’t have any money. And my folks didn’t have any for that. So I had to let it pass because I didn’t have six dollars for bus fare. Later on in life some of my family said they would have found a way to lend me that money. Can you imagine that? Six dollars.

The Cubs wanted me to go to a camp too and said they wanted to sign me, but they also weren’t ready to sign a black ballplayer. The first would be Ernie Banks, in 1953. If a major league team wasn’t ready for integration they’d ship you off to the Indianapolis Clowns, the New York Black Yankees, the Chicago American Giants, the Homestead Grays of the Negro League.

                            Jackie Robinson playing for the Monarchs, 1945

Three or four weeks after the Dodgers offer I got a letter from Jackie Robinson. He sent me a great big picture and everything, and they were now telling me they were going to send me to the Kansas City Monarchs. The Monarchs got in touch with me because Jackie Robinson had learned about me. Perhaps I should have kept the letter, but it was very nice, and he wished me luck with the Monarchs.

I played pretty good ball. One game we were playing the Dodgers minor league farm team in Albuquerque. I went in in relief and shut them out for about seven innings. I think I struck out about ten. The owner of the Monarchs, T.Y. Bard, was pretty happy about it, but when we got back to Kansas City in June of 1951 I found the notice that I had been drafted into the Korean War. Later, when I was in the service, T.Y. Bard wrote me a letter saying it was too bad I had gotten drafted because the Cubs were still interested in me and probably would have signed me.

How did you learn to pitch and who taught you?

It’s a funny thing. We didn’t have baseball in Des Moines until I was in the eleventh grade. Before that I threw the shot and football. I could throw a football seventy-five yards as a fifteen year old. Mike Augustine, the track coach, told me I ought to go out for baseball if I could throw a football that far. At that time all I knew how to do was throw a fastball. My coach, Wilson, didn’t know nothing about no baseball. We tried to show me how to throw a curve ball from how a Dodgers pitcher named Houton would do it.

When I got to the Monarchs we had a pitching coach that helped us quite a bit. Dizzy Mukes was quite a pitcher himself but by then he was an older fellow. He was really hard on us young guys. While riding all day on the bus he’d make us throw a ball into our glove as we traveled down the road. We had better be doing something— that old boy put the fear in you.

What was your best pitch?

My best pitch was the fastball. Back then you had fastball, curveball and changeup, but they’ve got all kinds of different pitches now.

What were the playing conditions like—the field, the uniforms?

I can say we played in cow pastures and in Major League ball parks. We played in Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park and the old Athletics diamond in Philadelphia when Connie Mack was there. We played in D.C., Cleveland, and New York. New York they had carpet in the dressing rooms. To see the different monuments to the old Yankee ballplayers as quite a sight.

                                                  William “Lefty” Bell, Jr., following his playing days

What kind of crowds did you draw in Kansas City and when you traveled?

Oh, we could draw anywhere fro 10,000 to 15,000, perhaps 20,000. It would be white and black. When you went down South the crowds would be mixed.

We were in Mississippi one time, and looking for something to eat. Old Buck O’Neil said we’d go by the icehouse before the game and pick up some watermelon. So we went down the icehouse, and we found a few white guys there. One of them came out to us and said “What do you boys want?” And you probably wouldn’t have done more than I did; you would have kept your mouth shut. Because they didn’t play around.

Another time I was in Ashville, North Carolina. I’ll never forget what happened after a game I pitched. I was hungry again, and I heard some music being playing a ways off, so I thought that might be a place to get some food. As I’m walking that way a truck came flying around the corner, and there were three guys in the back of this truck and two upfront. “Hey boy, where you goin’?” one yelled at me. I said I was going to get something to eat. They told me I had better turn back around, go back where you were. So I turned real nice and began walking. And stayed with me, driving real slow the whole way. I told myself if they stopped they’d never catch me. When I got to the corner they went back the other way. But I could have been in a whole lot of trouble.

It was just hard between black and white, but we played some up in Canada, and people there felt sorry for the black people in this country, because of Jim Crow. Playing a game in Regina, or somewhere near there, I met a young lady who was white. We went to the park and sat and talked, but even then we were watched. The owner T.Y. told me later, “The only thing the Dodgers don’t like about me is my hanging around those white girls.”

We were in San Antonio once, and Larry Doby came by. This was 1950. He was checking on Jackie Robinson all the time, because they didn’t want him messing around with those white gals. Because you knew the girls were after him, you know what I mean? He was telling me, how at hotels, they’d always have someone checking out Jackie, but Larry said Jackie was sharp. He said Jackie was smooth, and he sure was. They never did catch him.

                           Buck O’Neil, Monarchs manager

What was Buck O’Neil like as a manager?

He was a nice fellow, you just had to like him. You can’t complain about him at all. He wasn’t a holler type of guy. Sometimes he’d pull you aside and tell you what you were doing wrong.

What do you remember him saying something after you had had a bad game?

If I had a bad game it was probably because I had been clowning around too much. But one time I hadn’t pitched well. My roommate, Ernie Banks, said Buck had told me, “I’m just going to sit him down.” Ernie said Buck told him to let me know. So I just sat there, and that’s a hell of a feeling for twelve days.

If you had a had a good game how would Buck let you know?

He’d come around and tell you good game, things like that. Even the opposing coaches like [Buster] Hayward of the Clowns would tell me good game.

But it was rough. It was rough. Not a whole lot of money, and you traveled all the time. We were all the way up in the Catskills of New York, and come all the way to Columbus, Ohio to play a ballgame. That’s six hundred-some miles and you’d get there just before the game started. Throwing some batting practice, Buck came by and told me, “Bill, you’re in the bullpen tonight.” The next thing I know it’s the second inning and I’m in the game. You get used to it after a while.

If you want to talk racial, I’ll never forget Tampa, Florida. In the Fifties, you can’t imagine the housing people lived in, some looking like they hadn’t been painted in twenty or thirty years. There wasn’t a hotel or place to eat for us, and we had two games in Tampa to play. We stayed in the bus for two days. We ate at the grocery store. If you had to wash up or use the bathroom you went to the bus station. Tampa at the time was a minor league team, and they had a beautiful park. When we arrived some of the guys started taking showers because we hadn’t had one in a few days. I decided to wait for mine until after the game. When the game was over they turned the hot water off on us! All we had was cold water—now that’s ornery, isn’t it?

                                                1916 Rogers Hornsby “Big Heads” strip card

Tell me about being managed by Rogers Hornsby in his All-Star team.

That is in 1949, after the Monarchs season was over. It was for about two and a half months or so. Roger Hornsby’s team did barnstorm. We played the New York Black Yankees, a lot of team in Kansas, and all over. Our catcher ended up in the major leagues, but it was a team of young guys, of college students. At the time lots of good players played for different towns, and Roger Hornsby rounded them up and barnstormed as the Roger Hornsby All-Stars.

We had a pretty good club. I remember one time though, in Oklahoma, I was hit this white guy, and all hell broke loose. Hoo, I was scared. My team said they would back me, but they called me “nigger” and just land-blasted me. But they said I better not hit another one!

Did you have set schedules, with the Monarchs, or would you barnstorm at times too?

No, no, was had a regular schedule, but most of the time you played a team in different cities. Like when we played the Birmingham Black Barons, we might play them four or five times, but each would be in another Alabama town. It would be a different town every night. We might be in Kansas City for three of four days but other than that you might be in Des Moines one night, Davenport the next time and Chicago the next at Wrigley Field.

Half the time you probably didn’t know where you were.

No, right, we did a lot of traveling. When I met my wife I told her I didn’t want to do nothing but relax, no more moving. That traveling was really tough.

How many games might be in a season?

We probably starting playing in April and play up to about the middle of September. And we didn’t hardly have no days off. On Sundays you played two games.

                            James “Cool Papa” Bell, played from 1922 to 1950

I read that Ernie Banks was signed to the Monarchs by Cool Papa Bell, or was in some way affiliated with the club.

Could have been, yeah. Cool Papa was one of our managers in 1950. That year he was at least 49 years old. He was a left-hander like me . He didn’t play much, about six games the whole year. Man he could bunt, and run like a deer. So I would have liked to have seen him in his hey-day, you know. He was still fast when I saw him. And bunt. He could lay down a bunt to third, or drag-bunt. Oh yeah. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone faster since. Playing ball with Willie Mays in the service, Willie was fast, but I don’t think he was quick. Cool Papa was quick.

How would you compare the skill level of the Negro Leagues to contemporary major leaguers?

There’s a lot of good players but that never played organized ball. Fort Wayne, Indiana had one heck of ball club, and I’ll never forget what happened. The Washington Senators played them the same year we came through, and the Senators just got clobbered. The St. Louis Browns came to Fort Wayne and they got clobbered too. The stadium in Fort Wayne held about 10,000 people, and we were told we were told they didn’t expect 5,000 people just for us, now that they had beaten two major league clubs. We shut them out 5–0.

What made them so good?

They had money behind them. Like with Satchel Paige, who would sometimes leave the Negro Leagues and go play for a semi-pro team playing in a national tournament. Because the winning team would get $10,000, see.

                             Gene Conley

We found ourselves in Cedar, Washington, playing against a seven-foot tall pitcher [Gene Conley] who went on to play in the major leagues and Boston Celtics. He threw peas at you—that’s what the ball looked like coming at you. About the sixth inning it was nothing-to-nothing, and Buck said, “Tell you what, when you go up to hit I want you to hit his best pitch. Lay on his best pitch. Lay on his fastball.” That was his pitch, and we got to him. And that happens in the majors today. If you can’t hit him after a while you do go after their best pitch.

Who was the best hitter you ever saw?

I saw Willie hit some tremendous home runs in the service. Ernie Banks was a terrific wrist hitter. The guy I thought was the best was Willard Brown. They called him “Home Run” Brown. What Josh Gibson had been to the Eastern Negro Leagues, Willard Brown had been in the Western Negro Leagues. Willard eventually got into the Hall of Fame, but the thing about Brown was he came up the same year as Jackie Robinson. Jackie played one minor league season with Montreal, in 1946. Willard never played in the minors, and joined the majors in 1947 shortly after Jackie and Larry Doby. But Willard was an old man, see. He was born the same year as Buck O’Neil, in I think 1911. When Willard came back to the Monarchs they said he didn’t hustle, but the guy couldn’t run like he used to.

                                    Leon Day

Another was Leon Day. The same with him. I get letters from his wife still today. She’s got to be in her nineties, I imagine. A group of old players, about fourteen of us, send money every month. It isn’t a lot on our part, but they get a little extra during Thanksgiving and Christmas. The sad thing about her is that Leon Day is in the Hall of Fame, but he died six months before he got in. If he had lived until then she probably would have gotten at least a million dollars in memorabilia. The sad part is that the Major Leagues didn’t give her a dime.

I got a major league pension. There’s about a hundred and fifty of us left that get a pension. And I’m not kidding, it’s more than I would have gotten as a major league player at the time. I think a lot of people got on them about it, too, that we had been treated more or less unfairly and never given a chance to show our wares.

After my time in the service I didn’t think it was fair that I had to go back to the Monarchs. I felt I was every bit as good as Vernon Law, and threw harder. There was another guy, from the Boston Red Sox. And I was considered probably the number one pitcher in their service staff. When I got out of the army Sid Thrift and Vernon Law said, “The Pirates would be interested in you.” So in 1953 I wrote T.Y. Bard and told him I wasn’t coming back to Kansas City. He said, “Oh yes you are, because when you sign a contract you sign it for life.”

                                 Curt Flood, left, with Union Chief Marvin Miller

Curt Flood was one the who broke these kind of business practices up. Because of that poor guy we now have free agents with all that money. He was a poor man after they blackballed him from baseball [after the 1972 Supreme Court case, Flood v. Kuhn]. When you think of all the bonuses players get now, like C.C. Sabathia just getting $161 million for seven years [from the Yankees]. Curt Flood was the one who got the ball rolling.

Back then you got a job after the season was over. You just didn’t make a lot, and many with a family had to give it up. Even famous players like Mickey Mantle, who had to work as a matre de at a casino in Atlantic City.

Did you ever go over to Korea, or did you stay in the States?

My Korean career was from 1951 to 1953. I played part of the 1951 Monarchs season, and then I got out in June of 1953. We had a special service officer by the name of Major Daugherty. What he did, and a lot of them did, was he wrote to all of the major league ball clubs to get their best ball players. He drafted them! I don’t imagine how they did it.

                                     Willie Mays taking his oath of service, 1952

Now, I was’t drafted like that, but when I was, I went down to Ft. Sheridan [Sheridan Reserve Center], in Illinois. They thought I might play for the service as entertainment for the troops, and not be sent over. Then I was sent to Ft. Houston in Virginia, where Major Daugherty was.

Our captain was Joe Lanette, who played for the Pirates as a catcher. Joe came up to me in basic training and said, “Bill we’ve got a spot for you.” The army team, it was like an All-Star team. The pitcher from the Boston Red Sox had been recruited by Major Daugherty to join with a $10,000 signing bonus. But it was found out about, and man, they got him out of there. There was a big stink about Ft. Houston; it was just loaded with athletes—football players too. All-American college players. one who played for the Baltimore Colts, and a challenger for the heavyweight title. That Major Daugherty was something else. There was a lot of corruption in the service, a lot of corruption.

And it was a good thing I was getting out of the service then, because they were shipping everyone to Korea. A lot of them ballplayers got sent to Korea. The war was almost over, regardless, but I didn’t have enough service time left.

Since you were already in the service did you ever have the urge to do something, to be sent to Korea, or were you content where you were?

I never really gave it much thought, because I hadn’t asked to be there. A matter of fact, Joe Lanette came to my barracks, during basic training, and said he had gotten my orders for Korea, but since I was a ballplayer Major Daugherty had rescinded them. So I played baseball instead for the army, and we traveled everywhere.

How was the racial mix in the service?

Oh, better. I knew a guy from West Virginia, who was a bold character anyway, but one night—I don’t know how we got by—we got into the officers’ mess and got a case of beer. Nearby was a place for returning soldiers where we knew some food was, got a bunch, and then we went to the swimming pools. Man we had a ball. We wanted me to come out to West Virginia with him.

But you returned to Kansas City during the summer of 1953.

Right. It wasn’t like in the army—you just can’t imagine what it was like. In Houston, Texas, black folks didn’t leave the seventh ward because if you did you might not make it back. The same in Birmingham. I couldn’t hardly go nowhere in Birmingham, Alabama. That was bad and very scary. Very scary.

Earlier, in 1951, we were supposed to play a game in Mississippi, but Buck said the game was cancelled. There had been a black man that had allegedly raped a while woman. He had had numerous stays of execution, but that night he was finally going to be killed. Buck said there would be no game, because nobody was coming out of their house anyway.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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