Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cool Papa Bell

James Thomas Bell, popularly known as "Cool Papa" Bell (1903-1991), was born in Starkville. Actually, he was born just outside Starkville in the Sessums Township, the fourth of seven children, all raised by his mother, Mary Nichols, a widow. When and why he changed his name to "Bell" is unknown. Renowned as the fastest man to ever play baseball, one legend claims he could switch off the light and "be in bed before the room was dark." Lots of other stories about his speed survive (he was once clocked turning the bases in just 12 seconds), but perhaps the best (and most outlandish) tale is that he was hit by his own batted ball as he slid into second base!

Before his baseball career got started, Bell worked at the creamery at Mississippi A&M College (now Mississippi State University) and at the college's agricultural experiment station, where he learned about growing cotton. He had no intention of becoming a farmer, however, and left Starkville when he was seventeen and moved to St. Louis, where he planned to attend school while living with his brothers. Bell started playing baseball, though, and school was soon a forgotten goal. At the time, of course, major league baseball was segregated, so Bell spent his entire career in the negro leagues. In 1922, the St. Louis Stars, a team in the National Negro League, signed him as a pitcher for $90 a month. After witnessing Bell's speed, the Stars switched him to the outfield. He remained with the Stars until 1931, when the National Negro League disbanded because of the Depression.

In 1932, Bell joined the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League. After the team folded in mid-season, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs for the rest of the season. The next year, he played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, along with Satchel Page. By 1937, Bell joined other stars in the Dominican Republic. At the age of 39, he returned to the United States to play for the Chicago American Giants, and the next year joined the Homestead (PA) Grays, where he finished his career as a player. He also played for a time in the Mexican League, where his .437 batting average in 1940 was the highest in Mexican League history. In 1948, he managed the Kansas City Monarch's B-team, and tutored future stars Ernie Banks and Elston Howard before retiring. After baseball, he worked as a custodian and night security offi­cer at the St. Louis City Hall, retiring from that job in 1970."Cool Papa" Bell died in his home in St. Louis, Missouri, at age 87. He is buried in the St. Peter’s Cemetery in Normandy, Missouri. In his honor, the city renamed Dickson Street as "James 'Cool Papa' Bell Avenue".

During his baseball career (1922-1946), Bell's batting average was .341. Against Major League players in exhibition games, he batted .391. In one season alone (1933), he stole 175 bases, hit 63 doubles, 17 triples, 11 home runs, and batted .379. In 1974, at age 69, "Cool Papa" Bell was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1995, he was recognized posthumously with induction on the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and in 1999 a historical marker was erected in Starkville to mark his contribution to Mississippi sports history.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Anson Hemingway at Vicksburg

Anson Tyler Hemingway, the son of Allen Hemingway and Harriet Louisa Tyler, was born in East Plymouth, Connecticut on August 26, 1844. The family came to Chicago in 1854 and within ten years all three Hemingway brothers had enlisted for service in the Civil War. Anson served in the Army as a private with the 72nd Illinois Regiment. Organized in Chicago in 1862, the "Chicago Board of Trade" regiment was involved in Grant's Vicksburg Campaign, participating in the move down the Mississippi Central Railroad, the Yazoo Pass Expedition, the Battle of Champion Hill, and, finally, the Siege of Vicksburg. The regiment's monument at Vicksburg (below) is located on Union Avenue near the Wisconsin monument. 

After the fall of Vicksburg, the regiment remained in Mississippi, serving as a occupation unit until the fall of 1864, when they were sent to Tennessee. By that time, Anson Hemingway had re-enlisted in the 70th United States Colored Infantry, Regiment, where he served as a 1st Lieutenant and provost marshal of the Freedman’s Bureau in Natchez. A letter written by Hemingway in May, 1864, from Vidalia, Louisiana, illustrates the vicious nature of the war in the area. After scouting for a party of Confederate guerrillas, Lt. Hemingway noted that a company of black Union cavalry caught and executed all seventeen of thier prisoners. "When the guerrillas were first seen," he wrote, "the colonel told them in a loud tone of voice to 'Remember Fort Pillow.' And they did: all honor to them for it. If the Confederacy wish to fight us on these terms, we are glad to know it, and will try and do our part in the contest. I do not admire the mode of warfare, but know of no other way for us to end the war than to retaliate." Lt. Hemingway survived the war, but his other brothers both died.
After his time in the military, Anson attended Wheaton College, founded in 1860 by the Illinois Wesleyan Methodists from an earlier institution established as an anti-slavery school in 1853. After two years of study at Wheaton College, Hemingway left to become general secretary of the Chicago YMCA, where he remained for ten years. During this period, the Chicago YMCA constructed not one but three headquarters buildings. After building the first one in 1867, it was lost to a fire a year later. After rebuilding, the new Y was lost in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Again, it was rebuilt. None of these 'Y' buildings included, oddly enough, a gymnasium. After his time with the YMCA, Hemingway established a real estate business in Oak Park, Illinois.

Anson married fellow Wheaton student Adelaide Edmonds, who graduated in 1867. Together they had four sons and two daughters. While living in Oak Park, they were members of the First Congregational Church. An avid outdoorsman, Anson gave one of his grandsons a 20-guage shotgun for his tenth birthday. Anson Hemingway passed away in 1926 at the age of eighty-two. The grandson, as you might have guessed, was Ernest Hemingway (right), who, as one chronicler noted, later "had some success as a writer."

Portions of this article are courtesy of the Vicksburg National Military Park

(1) (2) Monument and Anson Hemingway, courtesy of Vicksburg National Military Park.
(3) Ernest Hemingway:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

John Crowe Ransom's Year in Mississippi

John Crowe Ransom, a noted poet, critic, educator and editor, was born in 1888 in Pulaski, Tennessee. He received an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University in 1909, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1910-1913. In 1914, he joined the faculty at Vanderbilt, where he taught English until 1937. During the First World War, he served with the Fifth Field Artillery and as an instructor of artillery in France. While at Vanderbilt University, Ransom became a central figure in a group of agrarian poets, including Robert Penn Warren, known as “The Fugitives.” Wary of social and cultural changes in the South, this group published, among other works, The Fugitive (1922-1925), a periodical in which many of Ransom’s best poems appeared. After 1927, Ransom concentrated on critical writing. Ten years later, he accepted a position as professor of poetry at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and in 1939 became editor of the Kenyon Review. He died in 1974, and is buried on campus at Kenyon College.

Ransom’s connection to Mississippi predates his graduation from Vanderbilt University. Following the fall semester of his second year at Vanderbilt, Ransom decided to seek employment as a teacher in order to earn the $800 needed to complete his college education. With the approval of his father, who was a Methodist minister, Ransom applied at a number of prominent preparatory schools, including McTyeire Institute in Tennessee, which was a prep school associated with Vanderbilt. Despite having superb academic qualifications and the endorsement of several well-known educators and clergy, Ransom, who was then only seventeen years old, had difficulty getting a job teaching. In May, 1905, however, he unexpectedly received an offer from the Taylorsville High School to teach the sixth and seventh grades for a salary of $40 per month. After requesting and receiving an increase in pay to $65 per month, Ransom accepted the position. The photo above, of a very young Ransom, was taken in 1903.

Arriving in August, 1905, he found life in Taylorsville crude “even for a young man who had grown up in the small towns of middle Tennessee.” However, the town did have a new two-story school (left), built in 1902, and Ransom found great hospitality among his students and among the townspeople. As a teacher, Ransom’s subject areas included English, mathematics, health, geography, science, spelling and history. Despite his youth, he was known as a “strict disciplinarian and a demanding teacher.” He was also involved in the life of the community. Along with fellow teacher A.A. Mooney, Ransom became active in the local Methodist Church, and both participated in local social events.

In March, 1906, Ransom was asked to continue for another year at Taylorsville, with a pay raise of $5 per month. However, in consultation with his father, Ransom declined the offer, hoping to secure another teaching position closer to his home in Tennessee. By May, 1906, Ransom accepted a position as a Latin and Greek teacher at the Haynes-McLean School in Lewisburg, Tennessee. He reentered Vanderbilt University in 1907, and the rest, as they say, is history.