About five years before Buck Leonard died, Wilt Browning of the Greensboro News & Record paid a visit to Buck in his Rocky Mount, N.C. home, and heard an explanation of the legend about Cool Papa Bell being so fast he could turn out the light and get in bed before the room got dark:
“So many stories of the old Negro Leagues,” Buck Leonard had said a few days ago as we visited in the pine-paneled “trophy room” at his home in Rocky Mount.
I remembered one, I had told him.
“Your old teammate, Satchel Paige, spent a little more than a year with the Braves in the late 1960s,” I began my tale, “and he used to spend a lot of time picking at Ralph Garr.
“Ralph had a lot of speed, Buck. Called him the Roadrunner in Atlanta. But ole Satchel kept telling Garr he ought to run faster.
“And Garr would argue that he was probably the fastest man in the National League, maybe one of the fastest ever. And Satchel would laugh that brassy laugh of his.”
“Remember it well,” Leonard said, smiling.
“Anyhow, he told Garr he was a snail compared to Cool Papa Bell.”
“Cool,” Leonard said the name the way only a friend can say it. A gentle smile crossed his face. “Cool and I were teammates with the old Homestead Grays.”
“Anyhow,” I said, getting back to my story, “Satchel told Ralph that Cool Papa was so fast that he once turned out the light and got in bed before the room got dark.”
I laughed once again about Satchel Paige’s old yarn. But I suddenly realized that Buck Leonard wasn’t laughing.
“Happened,” he said.
There was just enough silence suddenly in the room that his one word confirmation of the old tale seemed to be underlined.
“Sir?” I asked, not sure I had understood Leonard’s response.
“It happened,” Leonard said. “I was in the room the night it happened.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“Well, Cool was fast. One of the fastest players I ever saw,” the old Negro League first baseman said. “Wasn’t that fast though. Not as fast as Satchel used to tell.”
“Satchel used to tell the one about Cool hitting a line drive through the middle and getting hit up side the head by the line drive as he slid into second,” I said. Leonard smiled and laughed softly.
“Don’t know about that, but they tell the story about Cool going from first to third on an infield single, too. And that happened, too. Somebody hit this line drive right back at the pitcher’s feet so hard that the infielders broke back on the ball like it was going all the way through. But the ball hit the pitching rubber and the pitcher couldn’t find it. Cool was going at first and by the time the ball came down back of the mound, Cool was standing on third.
“But fast enough to turn out the light and get in bed before the room got dark?” I pressed.
“Like I said, it happened.
“Cool and I roomed together for five years with the old Grays. The night it happened, I had already gotten into my bed and Cool had stayed up a while.
“Finally, Cool went to the light switch to turn out the light and go to bed himself. He flicked the switch and the light wouldn’t go out. He flicked it back and forth several times and couldn’t get the light to go out. Had a short or something in the switch.
“Cool got tired of trying and decided he’d just have to leave the light on all night. He went to bed and just about the time he was pulling the covers up over his head the light went out all by itself.
“Well, Cool happened to mention what happened to Satchel the next day and Satchel just grinned. ‘Shaaah, Cool, you must be the fastest man alive,’ Satchel told Cool. ‘You’re so fast you can turn out the light and get in bed before the room gets dark.’
“And that’s how it happened.”