Bell was born while his father was playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was drafted in 1969 by the Indians and was regarded as a promising prospect from the beginning. He first appeared in the Major Leagues with the Indians in 1972, appearing mostly in the outfield as a rookie, but afterwards becoming a fixture at third base. Bell was a solid, but not overpowering, right-handed hitter on a mostly lackluster Indians team. He was named to the All-Star team in 1973.
After the 1978 season Bell was traded to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Toby Harrah – another solid, veteran third baseman. Bell enjoyed his best season with the Rangers in 1979, collecting 200 hits, 101 RBI, and his first Gold Glove Award. From 1979 through 1984, Bell won the gold glove for third base in The American League. He also won the silver slugger award in 1984. He finished in the top 10 in Batting Average in 1980 and 1984.
In fielding, Bell was spectacular and often played far off the third base line, taking many basehits from opposing batters. In Total zone runs (a defensive statistic) he is 9th all time(ahead of Willie Mays) and 2nd among all third baseman (behind Brooks Robinson). His Range factor (another defensive stat) is 5th all-time among 3rd baseman. He was in the top 10 in fielding pct. 10 times and finished first 3 times.
In the middle of the 1985 season, Bell was sent to the Cincinnati Reds, where his father had been a popular player in the 1950s. Buddy responded with two more solid years playing for second place teams under Pete Rose. In the 1988 season he began to fade, and was traded to the Houston Astros. Bell was released in December and returned with the Rangers before the 1989 season, in which he appeared sparingly. In an 18-year career, Bell posted a .279 batting average with 201 home runs and 1106 RBI in 2405 games. He won six Gold Gloves, and made five All-Star Game appearances.
Following retirement, Bell worked for several years as a coach for the Reds, and from 94-95 for the Indians. He managed the Detroit Tigers from 1996–98. He then managed the Colorado Rockies from 2000 through part of 2002 when he was fired in April after a 6-16 start. As a manager both for Detroit and Colorado, Bell compiled a 184-277 record.
In November 2002, Bell returned to coaching for the Cleveland Indians. On May 31, 2005, the Kansas City Royals hired Bell as their manager, three weeks after Tony Peña resigned. Bell won his first four games as a manager, becoming only the second Royals manager (after Whitey Herzog) to do so and guiding the Royals to their first four-game winning streak since 2003.
Bell took a medical leave of absence from the team on September 20, 2006 after a lump was discovered on his tonsils. Bell had experienced difficulty swallowing in the previous weeks , and went to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona following the advice of Royals medical staff. Bell's wife has battled tonsilcancer as well. On August 1, 2007, Bell announced that he would not be returning to the Royals bench at the conclusion of the 2007 season. Bell stated that his decision was his own, not based on pressure from the Royals front office, and that he wished to spend more time with his family.