Here lies Fern Bell, an outfielder who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1939 and 1940. After his baseball career, he became a “missing” ballplayer, all the while living out his life as a golf pro out West.
Fernando Jerome Lee Bell was born in Ada, Okla., on January 21, 1913. At least, that’s what baseball’s official records say. Bell, late in life, explained to The Desert Sun that he was actually born in Mexico and was given the name “Fernando” after the doctor who treated Bell’s mother during an influenza outbreak. It was shortened to “Fern” when the family moved to the United States.
According to the 1920 U.S. Census, Edward Jerome Bell and his wife, Kate, were originally from Arkansas. They lived in Enid, Okla., in 1920, and Edward sold life insurance while Kate was a dressmaker. By 1930 at least, the family had moved to California. According to Baseball Reference, Fern Bell graduated from Fremont High School in Los Angeles, but later reports indicate he went to Jacob A. Riis High School. While growing up in Los Angeles, Bell was cast as an extra in the 1930 movie Hell’s Angels. He played a German soldier in the Howard Hughes-directed World War I epic.
Bell got his start in professional baseball in 1931, when Frank Brazill discovered him and recommended him to the Memphis Chickasaws of the Southern Association. Brazill, a former Philadelphia Athletics first baseman, was playing for Memphis at the time. He likely saw Bell in a semipro league in California and brought the 18-year-old outfielder with him in the spring. However, manager Doc Prothro gave Bell just occasional starts in the outfield until an injury made him start the 18-year-old regularly. Bell hit .338 in 24 games, but he was extremely young to be playing in the Southern Association. He was released to lower-level leagues and finished the 1931 season with the Beckley Black Knights of the Middle Atlantic League and the Charlotte Hornets of the Piedmont League (who tried him out as a catcher for some odd reason). All total, Bell played in 161 games and hit .310 with 24 home runs, most of which were hit with the Black Knights.
With a little more experience under his belt, Bell returned to the Chicks in 1932 and ’33. He didn’t show much power, but he batted a solid .294 in 1932, with 18 doubles. He collapsed at Engel Stadium in Chattanooga on July 10, 1932, and he was hospitalized with a temperature of 103 degrees. It seems like illness or heat exhaustion or some combination of the two ended his season. He got revenge on the city of Chattanooga in 1934 by homering in both games of a doubleheader against the Lookouts, but most of his season was spent back at the lower levels of the minors again.
Bell was sent to the Tyler Governors of the West Dixie League in 1934 and put on a phenomenal performance: a .372 batting average, 39 doubles, 20 home runs, 159 hits, all in 108 games. He finished the season with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League and added 8 more homers and 11 more doubles to his season total. After that performance, The Yankees signed Bell and moved him throughout their minor-league system for the next several years. He didn’t hit with much power, but he hit over .300 a couple of times with the Oakland Oaks of the PCL and .291 in 1937 with Oakland, Kansas City and Newark.
Bell never played in the majors with the Yankees, but he did train with the team in the spring. Bell recalled the spring of 1935, when he worked up the courage to try out one of the many bats stored in Babe Ruth’s lockers – he had two. “Babe always had thin handles on his bats, and I have small hands,” Bell remembered. “I was fooling around with one of those bats and it just felt so good. It was just the right type. I heard a voice over my shoulder, ‘Hey kid, you like that bat?’ It was Babe. ‘Yes, sir,’ I said.” “It’s yours,” the Babe replied.
“Don’t you know that I used that bat on opening day in Newark and hit two home runs and had seven RBI,” Bell added. He actually drove in 9 runs in that game for an International League record.
Bell never cracked the Yankees outfield corps, which included multiple .300 hitters and a young Joe DiMaggio. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram, the Yankees sent him, illegally, to the Hollywood Stars of the PCL, and Commissioner Kenesaw Landis ordered the team to send him elsewhere. New York sold his contract to the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in May of 1938 for $4,000. Between the two teams, Bell played in a total of 173 games and batted .321 with 37 doubles, 17 triples, 14 home runs and 120 RBIs. He was leading the AA in hitting at one point, only to fall short to a 19-year-old on the Minneapolis Millers named Ted Williams, who hit .366.
After eight years in the minor leagues, playing for nine different teams, Bell finally signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1939 for a chance to make the major leagues. When Bell returned his contract, he included a letter to Pirates president William Benswanger that read, “It is one thing to get to the big league and it is another thing really worth while to get to a contending club, as yours. I believe my five years in AA ball have given me experience enough to hold down a job with your club where I feel there is a good opening for a right-handed hitter, and I have confidence enough in myself to believe that by hustling I can prove to you that I can fill that position.”
Two-thirds of the Pirates outfield in 1939 was occupied by Lloyd and Paul Waner, and other outfielders on the team included Chuck Klein, Heinie Manush and Bob Elliott. Bell still found his way into 83 games in all three outfield positions. And he hit very well in his limited opportunities, with a slash line of .286/.385/.389, good for an OPS+ of 110. Pirates manager Pie Traynor started him against only lefties for a while, but when Bell proved he was just as effective against righties, be began to play more often, frequently replacing Lloyd Waner in center field. He had 5 RBIs against the Cubs on May 27, thanks to a sacrifice fly, a 2-run single and a 2-run homer – the first of his career – off Ray Harrell.
Bell’s fielding in the outfield was pretty average. The one thing that he absolutely could not do well was play third base, but that’s where he ended up as part of a September 10 doubleheader against St. Louis. With regular third baseman Lee Handle apparently unavailable, Traynor used outfielder Maurice Van Roblays in the first game and Bell in the second. Unfortunately for Bell and the Bucs, he had a total of 6 chances at third base – and committed 3 errors for a lifetime .500 fielding percentage at the keystone corner.
The 1939 Pirates finished in sixth place with a 68-85 record. The Waners were near the end of their time in Pittsburgh and were reduced to backup outfielders in 1940, so the time was ripe for Bell to be given a chance at a larger role. For reasons unknown, it never happened. Elliott and Van Roblays were given starting jobs in the outfield, and Vince DiMaggio arrived via a trade shortly after the start of the season to fill out the last spot. Bell appeared in 6 games as either a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner and was hitless in 4 plate appearances, with 1 walk. His contract was sold to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League on May 6. He finished the season with a .250 average in Toronto and did not return to the major leagues again.
Bell played in the Midwest in 1941 before finishing his career back in the PCL, playing for Los Angeles, Hollywood and Oakland. His final season was in 1943, when he batted .263 for the Oaks, Though just 30 years old, Bell elected to retire from baseball to devote his energy to a different game – golf.
In parts of two seasons with Pittsburgh, Bell played in 89 games and had a .283/.383/.385 slash line. He had 75 hits that included 5 doubles, 8 triples and 2 home runs. His 8 triples in 1939 were good for ninth place in the NL. Bell struck out just 19 times and drew 43 walks. He scored 44 runs and drove in 35. He had a .975 fielding percentage in the outfield, with 6 assists in 67 games. And we’ll say no more about his time at third base. Bell played for a total of 12 seasons in the minors and had a .296 career batting average, with 116 home runs among his 1,515 hits.
Bell was a long-time golfer and played with the likes of Bing Crosby and actor Dick Arlen while he was a ballplayer. In November of 1940, he won a ballplayer’s golf tournament in Long Beach, Calif., beating Yankees infielder Bill Knickerbocker in the finals. He then shot a 77 (+6) in another tournament in February of 1941, tying Los Angeles manager Arnold “Jigger” Statz.
After serving in the Navy after his playing career ended, Bell turned to golf full-time, becoming a member of the PGA (Professional Golfers Association). He was a teaching professional or a director of golf for courses in Colorado, Washington, California and Mexico. Later on in life, he and his wife Elena moved to Palm Desert, Calif., and he taught golf at the Ironwood and Palm Desert Country Clubs. Along the way, Fern Bell became Jerry Bell.
“When my father was dying about 40 years ago, he said, ‘You know, I never liked that name,’” Bell explained to The Desert Sun in a 1994 interview. “I said, ‘Dad, from this day on, my name is Jerome.’”
The name change inadvertently confused autograph seekers who were trying in vain to find Fern Bell. In the era before comprehensive autograph websites listed the mailing addresses of every former ballplayer, Jerry Bell spent decades, hiding in plain sight on West Coast golf courses. He was completely unaware of the mystery surrounding Fern Bell. Then the autograph requests started arriving in the summer of 1994, addressed to a name he hadn’t used in years.
“I was amazed when I started getting these letters,” Bell told The Desert Sun. “When I got the first one, I looked at it and said, ‘Fern Bell? Who’s writing to me with that name?’ I figured it was probably family.”
What had happened is that the 1990s network of baseball autograph seekers finally had figured out that Jerry Bell and Fern Bell were the same person. Once the word got out that a missing ballplayer had been found alive and well, collectors deluged him with autograph requests. He didn’t seem to mind. If anything, he seemed confused by all the fuss.
“Most of the remarks are along the lines of, ‘We’ve been trying to find you for all these years — Where have you been?’ And they’ll include something they want me to sign, like a ball or a picture,” Bell said. “They’ve been coming almost every day. I was flabbergasted at first. You know, I hadn’t thought about baseball in years.”
Jerry Bell, aka Fern Bell, died on August 29, 2000, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 87. He is buried in Riverside National Cemetery.