A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from May 28, 2016
“So fast, I turned off the light in my hotel room and was in bed before it was dark”

The vaudeville team of Moran and Mack—George Moran (1881-1949) and Charles E. Mack (1888-1934)—told this joke in 1919:

“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 1928, this length of time was explained to be “about five millionths of a second.” That’s fast!

The joke was frequently told by baseball player Satchel Paige (1906-1982) about the quick baserunning abilities of James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell (1903-1991). Bell explained at an old timers’ reception in 1983 that players in the old Negro Leagues stayed at poor hotels and the electric wiring was faulty, so he tricked Paige into the joke. However, the joke had been cited in print since at least 1919—before Bell and Paige played Negro Leagues baseball.

American boxer Muhammad Ali (1942-2016), probably influenced by the well-known Cool Papa Bell story, often said of himself, “I’m so fast, I can turn out the light in my room and get into bed before the room is dark!”


Wikipedia: Cool Papa Bell
James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell (May 17, 1903 – March 7, 1991) was an American center fielder in Negro league baseball from 1922 to 1950. He is considered by many baseball observers to have been one of the fastest men ever to play the game. Stories demonstrating Bell’s speed are still widely circulated. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. He ranked 66th on a list of the greatest baseball players published by The Sporting News in 1999.
(...
Anecdotes about Bell’s speed are still widely circulated; some are not easily believable, while others are thought to be true. Paige liked to reference a story from one hotel at which he and Bell stayed. There was a short delay between flipping the light switch off and the lights actually going off due to faulty wiring, sufficient for Bell to jump into bed in the interim. Leaving out the explanatory details, Paige liked to say that Bell was so fast he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room got dark. Legend also holds that Bell hit a ball up the middle of the field and that he was struck by the ball as he slid into second base.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
9 March 1919, Chicago (IL) Sunday Tribune, “Vaudeville Wit,” pt. 8, pg. 5, col. 5:
Moran and Mack:
(...)
“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.”

14 January 1920, Shortridge Daily Echo (Indianapolis, IN), pg. 3, col. 3:
Maurice Powell is so fast he can turn out the light and be in bed before the room is dark. Next.

The American Legion
3 September 1920, The American Legion Weekly, “The Speed Boys,” pg. 13, col. 1:
Still Buck—“Man, I tell you I’m the fastest guy on record. Many a time I’ve outrun a bullet for four miles and got away from it clean.”

Civvy Again—“Call that speed? Shucks. I can turn out th’ electric lights and be in bed before the room is dark.

Google Books
September-October 1920, The Paper Makers’ Journal (Albany, NY), “M & M Local No. 58,” pg. 41, col. 2:
Ed seems to be pretty fast, but he has nothing on Eastman who says he can turn out the electric light and be in bed before the room is dark.

Chronicling America
20 October 1920, Arizona Republican (Phoenix, AZ), “The Speed Boys,” sec. 2, pg. 4, col. 3:
Still Buck—“Man, I tell you I’m the fastest guy on record. Many a time I’ve outrun a bullet for four miles and got away from it clean.”

Civvy Again—“Call that speed? Shucks. I can turn out th’ electric lights and be in bed before the room is dark.”—American Legion Weekly.

8 August 1928, The Constitution (Atlanta, GA), “Scientists Measure Speed of Electricity,” pg. 14, col. 4:
Schenectady, N. Y., August 7.—(AP) The fellow who said he was so fast he could switch out the light and be abed asleep before the room was dark may now know just how fast he needs to work to beat electricity. He has about five millionths of a second.

29 April 1969, Washington (DC) Post, “On Today’s Scene: Paige Admits He’s Feeling His Age” with William Gildea, pg. D2, col. 1:
“Cool Papa was so fast he could get in bed before the room got dark.”
(Spoken by Satchel Paige.—ed.)

Google News Archive
19 August 1971, Kentucky New Era (Hopkinsville, KY), “Bennettstown Notes” by Myrtle Hayes, pg. 17, col. 5:
“Your bed and light switch are situated twelve feet apart. How can you switch off the light and get into bed before the room is dark? (The answer later in the column—if I don’t forget to give it!)
(...)
The answer to the above riddle: “Go to bed in the daytime.” (Now isn’t that cute?")

17 February 1974, Chicago (IL) Tribune, “People” by Clarence Petersen, sec. 1, pg. 16, col. 7:
The legend of James (Cool Papa) Bell, grew even larger last week when he became the fifth baseball star from the old Negro Leagues to be named to the Hall of Fame. Bell, who was known as “the black Ty Cobb,” is believed to have been the fastest runner in the history of the game. In 1933, he stole 175 bases in 200 games, and he was once clocked at 13.1 seconds circling the bases. But that, said old pro Satchel Paige, was nothing: “I roomed with him one year and one night I asked him to get out of bed and turn out the lights. He threw the switch and was back under the covers before the room was dark.”

Google Books
28 February 1974, Jet magazine, pg. 476, col. 1:
Speedy Bell Latest To Join Hall From Old Negro League
Speedster James (Cool Papa) Bell, who Satchel Paige said was so fast that he could turn off a light switch and jump in bed before the room was dark, is the latest former Negro League star to enter major league baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Google News Archive
10 July 1983, Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune, “Good Ol’ Days Recalled By The Golden All Stars” by Dick Young (New York Post), pg. 7-B, col. 1:
“He’s so fast,” Satch used to say of Cool Papa, “he hits the light switch in our room and hops into bed before the room is dark.”

Last week, at the old-timers’ reception, Cool Papa, a Hall of Famer, elaborated on that story:

“We used to stay at some rickety hotel in the old Negro League. One time, in Florida, I hit the light switch and nothing happened. I flicked it again and again. Then I waited. Suddenly, the light went out.

“When Satch came in, I told him I could turn out the light and get into bed before the room was dark. He told me, ‘That’s impossible.’ So I did it. That’s how come he went around telling everybody I was so fast, but he never told the part about the shortcircuit.”

PS: Years later, Muhammad Ali borrowed the line: “I’m so fast, I can turn out the light in my room and get into bed before the room is dark!”

Twitter
Ayushmann Khurrana
‏@ayushmannk
“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” - #RIPMuhammadAli
11:53 PM - 3 Jun 2016

The New Paper (Singapore)
MUHAMMAD ALI’S GREATEST QUOTES
MUHAMMAD ALI 1942 - 2016
Jun 5, 2016 6:00am
(...)
“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CitySports/Games • Saturday, May 28, 2016 • Permalink