Muhammad Ali? Satchel Paige? Cool Papa Bell? Hablarias? Moran and Mack? Abbott and Costello? Anonymous?
Dear Quote investigator: Renowned heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was famous for his witty remarks which included humorous boasts such as this:
I’m so fast I hit the light switch in my room and jump into bed before my room goes dark.
Yet, I believe that I heard a similar comical description employed by the famous baseball pitcher Satchel Paige who used it when characterizing another lightning-fast pitcher named James (Cool Papa) Bell. Could you explore this expression?
Quote Investigator: By the 1970s Muhammad Ali was using this jocular hyperbolic self-description. Some years earlier, in the 1960s Satchel Paige was using this gag when discussing James (Cool Papa) Bell. Interestingly, the remark has a very long history.
The earliest instance located by QI was printed in 1917 in “The Marines Magazine”, a monthly for United States Marine Corps personnel. A correspondent from Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania using the pseudonym Hablarias employed the jape: 1
Corporal Smith is still in training and, believe me, he is some speed merchant. Here is one record he holds: It is 20 feet from the switchboard to his pile of alfalfa and he can switch off the lights and be back in bed before the room gets dark!
In 1919 an article covering the vaudeville circuit in the Chicago Tribune stated that the comedy team of Moran and Mack were using a version of the joke: 2
“Are you quick?”
“Am I quick? Why, man, when I go to bed at night and turn out the light I’m in bed before the room is dark.”
In 1920 a newspaper in Kansas printed the remarkable tale of swiftness. Many individuals still relied on gas lighting rather than electric lighting in that year: 3
An Atchison woman: “I’ll say my husband is fast. He is so fast that when he turns off the gas light he is in bed before the room gets dark.”— Atchison Globe.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1937 the tall-tale of speed was used in the description of the North American lumberjack character Paul Bunyan as a child. In this instance the illumination was provided by a candle: 4
He could tear around all day and then, unlike most boys, he was fast at getting to bed. In fact, he could blow out a candle at the far end of the cabin and be in bed before the room got dark.
In 1943 the Washington Post printed a column filled with brainteasers that included the following underhanded question and answer: 5
Question: Your bed and light switch are situated 12 feet apart. How could you switch off the light and get into bed before the room is dark?
Answer: Simply go to bed in the daytime.
The famous comedy duo Abbott and Costello used a version of the joke in a radio script that was published with a 1945 copyright: 6
ABBOTT: All right, Costello—that’s enough! Now who’s going to turn off the lights?
COSTELLO: I will, Abbott! I’m the fastest man here. I can turn off the lights and dive into bed before the room gets dark!
RAFT: Costello, I’d like to see you do that!
COSTELLO: Okay—get into the bed, you guys! All ready? I’ll snap out the light and dive right into bed!
In 1969 the prominent baseball pitcher Satchel Paige employed the expression when he complimented fellow pitcher James (Cool Papa) Bell. Apparently, the reporter or the editor truncated the full description: 7
Paige claims to be the best pitcher of all time, although not necessarily the fastest. That distinction, he says, belongs to Cool Papa Bell. “Cool Papa was so fast he could get in bed before the room got dark.”
Paige made the remark about Bell on multiple occasions. Here is an example in 1971 in Jet magazine: 8
Satchel Paige described Bell as being so fast that “he could turn the light out and be in bed before the room got dark.”
In 1973 a Washington Post columnist re-applied the saying to another baseball player: 9
Like Cool Papa Bell, the fastest man in the old black baseball leagues, Enzo Hernandez can turn off the light and jump into bed before the room darkens. He can outrace a bullet. If he challenged the sun it would never set upon him.
In 1974 a reporter for the Village Voice newspaper of New York City recorded and presented the words of the celebrated pugilist Muhammad Ali: 10
I’m so fast last night I cut the light and hit the switch and was in bed before the room was dark.
In 1975 the New York Times printed Ali’s humorous grandiloquence: 11
“Why, I’m so fast I could hit you before God gets the news. I’m so fast I hit the light switch in my room and jump into bed before my room goes dark.”
In conclusion, this comically exaggerated description of speed was in circulation by 1917. It has been adopted by a variety of comedians and athletes over the decades and continues to circulate.
(Special thanks to “rone” whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration.)
- 1917 April, The Marines Magazine, (Report from Fort Mifflin, PA by “HABLARIAS”), Quote Page 32, Edited at Marine Corps Headquarters, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust full view) link ↩
- 1919 March 9, Chicago Tribune, Vaudeville Wit: Majestic, Quote Page D5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1920 February 25, Hutchinson News, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 9, Column 3, Hutchinson, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1937, Paul Bunyan and His Big Blue Ox: Stories and Pictures of the Lumberjack Hero of American Folk Lore by R. D. Handy, Quote Page 12 and 14, Rand McNally & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust) list ↩
- 1943 November 14, Washington Post, Try The Post’s Mind Teasers by John Henry Cutler, Ph.D., Quote Page L4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1945 (Copyright date), There’s Laughter in the Air! Radio’s Top Comedians and Their Best Shows by Jack Gaver and Dave Stanley, Section: Abbott and Costello (A Complete Script), Star Page 131, Quote Page 135 and 136, Greenberg, New York. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1969 April 29, Washington Post, On Today’s Scene: Paige Admits He’s Feeling His Age by William Gildea, Quote page D2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1971 July 22, Jet, Volume 40, Number 17, Sports, Start Page 47, Quote Page 48, Published by Johnson Publishing Company. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1973 June 10, Washington Post, Padre Hernandez Steals Toward Stardom by George Minot, Quote Page D3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1974 July 25, Village Voice, The Rumble in the Jungle: Ali’s Camp: You Can’t Get Zaire From Here by Nick Browne, Quote Page 9, New York. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1975 June 29, New York Times, King of All Kings: Lonely Man of Wisdom, Champion of the World (Profile of Muhammad Ali) by Robert Lipsyte, Start Page 8, Quote Page 44 (ProQuest Page 187), New York. (ProQuest) ↩