This song is a tropical ode to James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell (1903-1991) who was a center fielder in the Negro Leagues of American baseball from the 1920s through 1940s. One of the best players in the game, his career was winding down by 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, becoming the first black man to play Major League Baseball. Since his exploits were not closely followed by the mainstream press, word of Bell spread mostly through legend. In this song, Simon builds on that legend, taking on the character of Bell, dropping a few f-bombs and ordering the listener to "check out my tattoo."
"Legend has it the Bell could turn off a light switch," Simon wrote in the liner notes, "and be in bed before the light went out. He once bunted a triple. A friend gave me a painting of Cool Papa Bell, and somehow he found his way into a song."
This is Paul Simon's first biographically inspired song since the 1983 Heart and Bones track "Rene and Georgette Magritte."
This isn't the first time Simon namechecked a baseball player in a song. He famously sang, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?" in the Simon & Garfunkel hit "Mrs. Robinson."
When "Nothin' On You" reached #1 on the Hot 100, B.o.B became the first American act whose name is a palindrome to top the chart. The other two who did so prior to the Atlanta rapper were both Scandinavian groups - ABBA and A-Ha.