Ever read No Place in the Shade, Mark Kram’s 1973 SI profile of Cool Papa Bell?
It’s a keeper.
In the language of jazz, the word “gig” is an evening of work; sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, take the gig as it comes, for who knows when the next will be. It means bread and butter first, but a whole lot of things have always seemed to ride with the word: drifting blue light, the bouquet from leftover drinks, spells of odd dialogue, and most of all a sense of pain and limbo. For more than anything the word means black, down-and-out black, leavin’-home black, what-ya-gonna-do-when-ya-git-there black, tired-of-choppin’-cotton-gonna-find-me-a-place-in-de-shade black.
Big shade fell coolly only on a few. It never got to James Thomas Bell, or Cool Papa Bell as he was known in Negro baseball, that lost caravan that followed the sun. Other blacks, some of them musicians who worked jazz up from the South, would feel the touch of fame, or once in a while have the thought that their names meant something to people outside their own. But if you were black and played baseball, well, look for your name only in the lineup before each game, or else you might not even see it there if you kept on leanin’ and dreamin’.
Black baseball was a stone-hard gig. Unlike jazz, it had no white intellectuals to hymn it, no slumming aristocracy to taste it. It was three games a day, sometimes in three different towns miles apart. It was the heat and fumes and bounces from buses that moved your stomach up to your throat and it was greasy meals at fly-papered diners at three a.m. and uniforms that were seldom off your back. “We slept with ‘em on sometimes,” says Papa, “but there never was ‘nough sleep. We got so we could sleep standin’ up or catch a nod in the dugout.”