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The Great Al Simmons:
Remembering the Philadelphia Athletics Star

The surly Al Simmons, a favorite of the great Connie Mack, had a stellar career as a player and coach in Major League Baseball, but today he is often overlooked.

By Lawrence Richards, March 7, 2017
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Original artwork Mark Fredrickson.

When fans today think about Aloisius Szymanski, which is probably never, an oxymoron comes to mind: underrated greatness. Tired of his name being brutalized by announcers, players, and  just about everyone while playing for a minor league team, he saw a billboard advertising Simmons Hardware. Szymanski became Simmons. Far easier to pronounce by any criteria, but name-change notwithstanding, Al Simmons is still relatively forgotten. His manager, Connie Mack, said, “I wish I had nine players named Al Simmons.” I bet Mack was happy with the new name.

How good was he? In his first nine years with the Philadelphia Athletics (1924–1932), Simmons led the Majors with 1,796 hits and 343 doubles, and he was second with 1,246 RBIs. He finished fourth in homers with 208, after three guys named Ruth, Gehrig, and Hack Wilson. During that span, he batted .358, second only to Ty Cobb and ahead of Rogers Hornsby. Teammate Lefty Grove claimed, “Could he ever hit that ball!” Fielding? Hall of Famer Joe Cronin described, “He was great all-around, running, fielding, throwing. There never was a greater left fielder in going to the line and holding a double to a single. He’d even dare you to make the wide turn at first on a ball hit to his right.”

Simmons was a complex man, a sensitive hard-ass—oxymoron take two—let’s say, a Ty Cobb–type warrior, occasionally benign. Cobb joined the Athletics in 1927, and they became close friends. Both shared a well-earned reputation for explosive tempers. Simmons was quoted thusly, “I hate all pitchers. They are trying to take the bread and butter out of my mouth.” Whereas Cobb hated most everybody.

As one would expect, pitchers returned that sentiment. Opposition ballplayers in general had no love lost for Simmons. He created havoc on the base paths but also managed to agitate all the way from left field, not an easy feat. Many of his own teammates were not exactly fond of him either. He was a flashy guy with a swaggering demeanor, a sharp dresser who loved nightlife. With his craggy good looks, he got almost as much fan mail as Ruth, mostly from women. Simmons would have undoubtedly agreed with this, “Baseball, and it’s my game. Y’know you take your worries to the game and you leave ’em there. Pretty girls, lots of them.” Humphrey Bogart.

Connie Mack’s daughter introduced Al Simmons to Miss Dorothy Kuhn. They became engaged in October 1931, but by February 1932 the engagement was off. He went on to marry Doris Reader in 1934. They later divorced. Simmons never remarried.

Writer Donald Honig (Baseball, When the Grass Was Real) stated: “Simmons was a testy character who was called ‘A swashbuckling pirate of a man’ by one contemporary. He was an elitist who bullied rookies, manifested a chilly disdain for lesser mortals, and even on occasion questioned the wisdom of Mr. Mack.” Honig concluded with the great line, “Simmons has become a statue in a dark and unvisited basement.” Let’s visit that basement and turn on the light.

Simmons was born in Milwaukee on May 22, 1902, the son of Polish immigrants. He apparently had an epiphany in the fourth grade. Seems when he came home, he told his father he was going to be a professional baseball player. His father was not exactly pleased. That “discussion” was punctuated when Mr. Szymanski, a hard-working butcher, reached for his strap. Even after the beating, Al was still defiant. His father, in frustration and with a totally unveiled threat, said, “You’d better be a good one.” Good news and bad news. The world got a Hall of Famer; Milwaukee lost a potentially great butcher.

In 1922, 19-year-old Simmons signed with his hometown minor league team, the Milwaukee Brewers. By the end of his 24-game trial, he was batting .398. It didn’t take a genius to know this kid was special—a valuable commodity. In 1923, the Philadelphia Athletics purchased his contract for $50,000, very serious money in those days.

When he reported for spring training with the A’s in ’24, he was quickly nicknamed, “Bucketfoot Al,” which he didn’t appreciate. A right-handed batter, he stepped away from the plate, with his left foot pointed toward third base, in baseball terms, “in the bucket.” This should have made him vulnerable for an outside pitch; it didn’t. Despite his extremely odd stance, due to his long arms and the longest bat in the Majors, he could still drive pitches on the corner with power. Simmons further explained, “Although my left foot stabbed out toward third base, the rest of me, from the belt up, especially my wrists, arms and shoulders, were in a proper line over the plate. Another factor was unbelieving pitchers.” Legendary columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote, “He’s like an artist who paints swell pictures with his elbows.” Manager Connie Mack said, “It’s hits we want, not beauty, so we left him alone.”

Simmons studied movies of himself and was one of the first players to utilize sabermetrics, albeit crude, for self-evaluation as well as for the opposition. His pure talent and desire to win made the enigmatic Simmons a Connie Mack favorite. Mack cut Simmons some slack but knew instinctively when to invoke discipline. Mack in many ways became the father Simmons lost when he was very young. The patrician Connie Mack and “Wild Child” Simmons bonded in profound ways.

When his boyhood idol, Ty Cobb, joined the A’s in ’27, he had a seminal effect on Simmons. They became roommates. Cobb pointed out to temperamental Al that he let up if he didn’t get a hit in his first two at-bats; he became discouraged, lost focus. Cobb told him, “Bear down extra hard on those remaining chances.” He emphasized emotional self-discipline, when to let go under certain circumstances, not for pure venting, but for a reason. Fiery Ty Cobb providing tutelage on maintaining self-control? Who knew? There’s little doubt that self-taught baseball psychologist Cobb helped make Simmons greater by teaching and emphasizing the all-important mental attitude before, during, and after a game.

Al Simmons had a goal of 3,000 base hits but ended up falling short. His .334 career batting average places him in the top 10 among right-handed hitters.

While the Yankee juggernaut was dominating baseball, Mack was building his own dynasty. They finished second to the Yanks in ’27 and ’28. Simmons was hitting cleanup, a cornerstone. Three legends were also on this beautifully balanced squad. What might a young player feel looking down the bench and seeing Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, and Ty Cobb? By the way, Tyrus Raymond Cobb, age  41, hit .321 for the year.

Yankees catcher Bill Dickey said, “We had a crucial series. There was a clubhouse meeting to discuss how to pitch to their top batters. We thought we should rough-up Simmons; knock him down, and we did. In the four games, he had 11 hits, 10 for extra bases. He roughed US up! He hated the Yankees, but I liked him. I liked the way he would bear down on us.”

In 1929, it all came together. The A’s were worthy candidates for baseball supremacy. Lefty Grove (20–6) and George Earnshaw (24–8) anchored the pitching staff, with the highly capable support of Rube Walberg, Eddie Rommel, and Jack Quinn. Along with Simmons, their lineup included Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Bing Miller, Mule Haas, and Jimmy Dykes. That year they crushed the fearsome Yankees, winning the AL pennant by 18 games. It began a memorable run of  three consecutive pennants and two World Series championships, in ’29 and ’30. In those glory years, the “Mack Men” firmly established their credentials as one of the greatest teams ever assembled.

The 1929 American League Champion Philadelphia Athletics.

One can find a multitude of stats covering just about everything, maybe even everything. One may wonder, how many hits did right-handed brown-eyed batters get on left-handed blue-eyed pitchers in the sixth inning of  Tuesday night games in 1957. You can probably find out; information in minutiae is so accessible. Still, I felt compelled to share this: in 1930, Simmons won his first batting title, hitting .381 with 36 homers, 211 hits, 41 doubles, and 16 triples. And he had a slugging percentage of .708 with 165 RBIs and scored 152 runs in 138 games.

In 1932 the United States was reeling from the Depression. Unemployment reached unprecedented levels. The drought in the American middle and southwest was in its second year. Banks were closing, loans suspended; citizens felt a greater sense of security stuffing money (if they had any) in a mattress (if they had one). In July 1932, the Dow Jones hit $41.22; that’s not a misprint. There was also financial and social chaos in Europe. There seemed no way up; only a further escalating downward spiral. All were affected; the A’s were no exception. Dwindled attendance exacerbated the near impossibility of maintaining the high payroll. Mack was forced to make some moves. Late in 1932, the White Sox offered $100,000 for Simmons, Haas, and Dykes. He took the deal, initiating an overhaul of his powerhouse club.

Simmons played two years for the Sox. He attained solid numbers, though not nearly at the level of his remarkable tenure with the A’s. He was traded to Detroit, then to Washington, then to Boston. At each stop his health, performance, and motivation sank. In 1939, he landed in the NL, finally with a contender, the Cincinnati Reds, World Series winners. By then, he was badly losing a battle against time. Simmons’s circumstances took a positive turn when in 1940 he reunited with Connie Mack, serving as a coach.

Legendary Athletics manager Connie Mack and Al Simmons had a close bond through the years. Mack, who coached many amazing players, would have loved to have a team full of Simmonses.

Due to Mack’s advanced age, and trust, Simmons assumed managerial duties. He remained with the A’s until 1949, then he coached for the Indians in 1950–51. With health failing, he retired. To help gauge the depth of the relationship between Mack and Simmons, consider the following: Mack spent the vast majority of his 94 years in baseball as player, manager, and owner. He’d seen all the greats, from the Dead Ball Era to the 1950s. He’d managed many of them. On his office wall he kept only one picture of a former player, that being Al Simmons. Simmons was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1953. In his speech, he barely referenced himself. He spent the vast majority of his time extolling the virtues of Connie Mack. “He was the greatest man I ever met in my life.”

In 1956, at age 54, Simmons died of a heart attack in his hometown of Milwaukee; three months after Mack passed away. Superb baseball writer Shirley Povich, referring to Simmons’s death, stated: “With a bat in his hands, Simmons would have given it a battle and you would have liked his chances.” He was survived by his ex-wife, Doris Reader, and his son, John. The few that knew him well felt he never really overcame the sadness and guilt resulting from their divorce. He felt he was responsible for the breakup, and much of his carousing was a cover-up for loneliness and melancholy. Well, some of it.

Let’s now leave the basement and return upstairs. What’s to be learned? Simmons’s life was much like ours. Sometimes light shines brightly, akin to his magnificent seasons with the A’s. Sometimes life is dark like the years spent without Mack or the mentoring of Cobb. Life is not always totally bright or exclusively dark. Life mostly flickers, combining periods of light and dark, with transitional shadows. Simmons’s journey reminds us we make stars mythical figures, ignoring their frailties, their humanity; our commonality. That, and Aloisius Szymanski shouldn’t be forgotten.

 

Vintage glove artwork by Sean Kane.

 

 

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