By Tom Hawthorn
July 9, 2010
The brilliant fielding of Sammy Bell delighted Depression-era baseball fans in Montreal.
Bell, who has died, aged 99, joined the Montreal Royals in 1937. For five seasons, he covered second base at Delorimier Stadium in east-end Montreal with flair and panache.
Quick on his feet, sure of hand, Bell snagged ground balls that might have eluded a slower fielder. He led his league in participating in double plays.
So strong was his reputation that after the worst game of his career, during which he committed three errors, the Montreal Gazette noted that the infielder was “playing such good ball he could make a hundred (errors) and still be a pretty handy man to have around.”
The athlete stood 5-foot-7 and weighed 145 pounds, small for a middle infielder even by the standards of the day. The diminutive player was invariably described by sportswriters as wee, tiny, minute, or pint-sized.
John Samuel Bell was born in 1910, a few weeks before the Philadelphia Athletics defeated the Chicago Cubs in only the seventh World Series to be held. The youth excelled in sports at high school in Charlotte, N.C., leading the school to its first state championships in baseball in 1930 and in basketball the following year. He enrolled at Duke University in 1931, earning letters in both sports.
Basketball coach Eddie Cameron named him captain of the 1934-35 team, a campaign during which the Blue Devils went 18-8.
After graduation, Bell played semiprofessional baseball briefly before joining the Birmingham (Ala.) Barons of the Southern Association. He was promoted to the Albany (N.Y.) Senators after one season, before being sold to Montreal for $5,000.
Team president Hector Racine hired as manager Walter (Rabbit) Maranville, who had retired as a player after 23 seasons as a major-league infielder. Maranville understood the difficulties of playing second and shortstop, appreciated the contributions a solid fielder made in the field. Better yet, from Bell’s perspective, Maranville stood two inches shorter. The manager would not discriminate against a small player.
Bell quickly impressed his skipper.
“Old Rabbit Maranville, who ought to know, says little Sammy Bell of Montreal is the best young second sacker he ever saw,” wrote the columnist Eddie Brietz. “Rabbit was around when such guys as Frankie Frisch and Rogers Hornsby were coming along, so young Mr. Bell can step right out and take a nice large bow for himself.”
Bell ended the 1937 season with a solid .290 batting average. He also hit nine home runs.
He again hit nine homers the next season, but even such limited power waned in later campaigns.
A mainstay in the Montreal infield, Bell did not get an invitation to move up to the Brooklyn Dodgers, as their infield included such stars as Cookie Lavagetto, Leo Durocher, and Pee Wee Reese.
The family had a scare during spring training in 1940 at Lake Wales, Fla. Bell’s namesake son, aged 2, was paddling in a pond behind the Royals’ clubhouse when his mother rescued him from a venomous Cottonmouth water moccasin.
Bell played winter ball in Cuba before the 1941 season, but on his arrival at camp in Florida the Dodgers braintrust let it be known that Bell was on the trading block, as the Royals expected more power-hitting from their infielders.
“Bell isn’t a fence-clouter,” the Sporting News noted, “but he can do everything else as well as, or better than, anyone else who specializes in second basing.”
At the midseason trading deadline, Bell was one of a quartet swapped to Baltimore for Dixie Howell, a 21-year-old catcher.
The Gazette praised a longtime Royal. “Bell has been the best second baseman in the league for so long,” wrote Harold McNamara, “it became a habit.”
The newspaper columnist confessed he “will always be a Bell man and will always think fate played him a churlish trick by not giving him a few more avoirdupois so that he could go up to the big leagues.”
Bell never would get that chance. After playing in more than 1,000 International League games, he was hired by the New York Giants organization to be playing manger of the Hickory Rebels in his home state. The Rebels played in a Class-D circuit at the bottom rung of baseball’s ladder. The skipper showed his young charges how to hit in 1945, managing a sterling .382 average in the 67 games in which the manager pencilled in his own name in the lineup.
Bell also managed the Morgantown Aggies and the Newton-Conover Twins in North Carolina. He spent a season in Oklahoma piloting the Muskogee Reds.
He ended his baseball career in 1952, joining a major health insurance firm. He retired in 1975, moving to Florida, site of many spring-training camps.
He would have marked his 100th birthday on Sept. 4.
John Samuel Bell was born on Sept. 4, 1910, at Charlotte, N.C. He died on June 6 at Slyvia’s House Hospice at Ocala, Fla. He was 99. He leaves a son, two daughters, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 71 years, the former Margaret Elizabeth Short, who died in 2006, aged 92.