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.
- 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) ↩