Curt Simmons, Phillie Teen Phenom, Debuts in Second Game of Double Dip

On the last game of the 1947 season, in the second game of a double header against the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Phillies gave the ball to a young left hander who would go on to be one of its best pitchers.
Curt Simmons, then barely 18, went all the way, striking out 9 and giving up only 5 hits in the Phillies 3-1 win. The Giants took the opener, 4-1.

Simmons had been a highly recruited high school prospect since he was 16. In the summer of 1945 Simmons pitched the Coplay American Legion team to the first of two consecutive Pennsylvania state junior crowns.

His mound mastery landed Simmons in an American Legion all-star game in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park where he struck out seven of the nine hitters he faced. Two years later, in Simmons’ senior year, he struck out 102 batters and gave up only 12 hits in 43-1⁄3 innings. Simmons threw two no-hitters, three one-hitters, and two four-hitters and led his Whitehall High School nine to a third straight Lehigh Valley title.

Scouts flocked to Simmons’ Egypt, PA. home with the hope of signing him the instant he graduated. Among them were the Phillies who sent their major league squad to Egypt to field a team against Simmons—the ultimate try out. In the Phillies’ line up were Del Ennis and Johnny Wyrostek—not superstars but big league regulars.

Simmons scattered five hits through seven innings. More impressive were his nine strikeouts, better than one an inning. On the strength of Simmons’ performance and with an infusion of DuPont money from the new Philadelphia owners, the Phillies outbid all competitors for the lefty’s services. Simmons received an unheard of $65,000.

Simmons, along with Robin Roberts, helped lead the 1950 Whiz Kids Phillies to the pennant with his 17-8 record. But Simmons missed the World Series when his National Guard unit was activated. The Yankees’ sweep in four tightly pitched, low scoring duels was attributable in part to Simmon’s absence.

With the Cardinals in 1964, age 35, Simmons finally saw his first World Series action. In two fine starts against the Yankees, he was 0-1 with a 2.51 ERA.

During his 20-year career, Simmons never quite lived up to his teen phenom status. But he was an above average lefty who finished up 193-183 with a 3.54 ERA and 1,697 strike outs. Simmons started more than 25 games eleven times.

Now 81 Simmons, along with Smokey Burgess, was the last player to retire who was active in the 1940s. Named number 27 on the All Time Phillies list, Simmons lives in Montgomery County, PA.

The Great Friday Link Out: 5+6=11

Editor’s note: I’ve been running this Friday feature for a few months now, and it’s lagging. Thus, I’m issuing an open question: What would make this feature better? Would it be better to do away with this post and go back to having standard features on Fridays? Please feel free leave suggestions in the comment section here or send me an email. Thanks.

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  • The day after US forces killed Osama Bin Laden, Josh Wilker wrote of a firefighter named Stephen Siller who was killed on September 11. Wilker framed the post around a 1977 George Brett card, since Siller once, as someone else put it, “drove straight to Kansas City for George Brett’s last game, drove straight back, went to work.” The piece is only loosely about baseball, but as is generally the case, Wilker’s a good enough writer to make it work.
  • David Nathan published the first installment of a 10-part series on the 10 most quotable players in baseball history. His #10: Dizzy Dean. My quick-take suggestion for the remaining nine: Satchel Paige, Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, Nick Swisher, Rickey Henderson, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Bob Uecker, and Jim Bouton.
  • Cool vintage SI piece linked to on Baseball Think Factory this week: a 1986 conversation on hitting between Williams, Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, and Peter Gammons.
  • Why Roger Maris belongs in the Hall of Fame
  • In the Shameless Self-Promotion Department. Monday’s post here inspired something on NBC Sports. Hugely flattered. My ego’s doing a victory lap around my apartment complex as we speak.

Any player/Any era: George Weiss

What he did: In Summer of ’49, David Halberstam posited the major reason for the Yankees’ success in the years following World War II: their general manager, George Weiss. In his time on the job from 1947 to 1960, New York won 10 American League pennants and seven World Series titles, and not long after he was shown the door, the Yankees began an epic decline. Weiss might be the most underrated key to Yankee success in their history, even if I doubt many modern fans know his name.

Halberstam wrote of the stockpiling of talent and the carefully-built Yankee farm system that began to manifest in 1949. “Already the trademark of the Weiss era was emerging,” Halberstam wrote. “The team was never to be allowed to grow old; sentiment was never to interfere with judgment. Each year there were to be three or four new players spliced into the team’s fabric.” Halberstam also wrote of Weiss as a tough negotiator who “treated his athletes as potential adversaries who would take advantage of any kindness bestowed upon them, and who performed best only when they were hungry.

Reading all this, I was struck how times have changed, with the Yankees now sporting a $200 million payroll and a long-held reputation as one of sports’ most bloated franchises. The days of George Weiss and Yankee austerity are but a distant memory, though I wonder what it’d be like in New York if Weiss were running the team today.

Era he might have thrived in: As good as Weiss was in his time, he might do greater now. The former Yankee farm system director would still have his keen eye for talent and his famously ruthless ability to profit, but in the current era, he’d have more going for him. There’s the obvious greater budget he’d have, even as I’m sure he’d still drive a hard bargain. He’d also have a larger talent pool. Weiss was something of a bigot and one of the reasons the Yankees didn’t field a black player until 1955. Today’s Yankees are black, white, and Latin, and I’m guessing Weiss could come around.

Why: Prejudice in any form, at any time is, of course, never okay. That being said, people sometimes go along with terrible things if these things are institutional, seemingly the norm. In the 1920s, millions of Americans were Ku Klux Klan members (including Hall of Famers Gabby Street, Tris Speaker, and Rogers Hornsby.) A decade later, millions more listened to radio demagogues like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. And for years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the Yankees shunned black players.

Halberstam described how the Yankees considered themselves baseball’s elite team, not needing blacks like their poorer neighboring team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Halberstam wrote:

The whites-only policy reflected the attitudes of men, born around or before the turn of the century, who felt the use of black players tainted their operation… They would, management believed, draw black fans, who would in turn scare away the good middle-class white fans. When the question of blacks, or Negroes, as they were then called, arose, the Yankee answer was that they would sign one when they found one worthy of being a Yankee.

It wouldn’t take Elston Howard these days for Weiss to craft a racially-diverse roster. Working in more tolerant times, Weiss would have to put aside any personal biases he harbored (assuming they’d be as pronounced) and be the bigger man. I’m guessing he could do it. Heck, plenty of people with less-than-stellar views continue to make a living in baseball. One need only look at Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell’s recent suspension for using anti-gay slurs toward San Francisco fans to know there’s an undercurrent of bigotry still in baseball. It’s more closeted, but it’s there. Weiss could follow suit.

Weiss definitely welcomed new challenges. After the Yankees fired him and Stengel in 1960, he spent 1961 at home in Connecticut before joining the front office for the expansion New York Mets in 1962. He was 67 and would spend five mostly-hapless seasons as the Mets general manager. In a classic August 1962 Sports Illustrated story on those Mets, Jimmy Breslin quoted Weiss’s wife, Hazel saying, “I married George for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”As Breslin noted, Hazel Weiss was pleased her husband’s 12-hour workdays had resumed.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

"The Old Perfessor," A Master at Line Up Juggling

Few major league managers were more skilled at platooning than the New York Yankees’ great Casey Stengel.

The Hall of Fame manager was famous for striving to play left-handed hitters only against right-handed pitchers and vice versa. His players loathed it. There’s a passage in David Halberstam’s book on the 1949 Yankees and Red Sox, Summer of ’49. Halberstam wrote of the shared duties between Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling, noting:

In the outfield Stengel platooned Bauer and Woodling, close friends. Both were constantly at war with the manager because each wanted to play every day. Bauer smashed water coolers when Stengel pulled him for a pinch hitter. Woodling on occasion muttered darkly that you had to wear a cross on a chain to play regularly, an allusion to the idea that Stengel favored Catholics. Woodling, a marvelous natural hitter, was sure that if he played more often he would hit even better. He called Stengel “that crooked-legged old bastard.”

Stengel made his mark as a funny, if quirky manager, always good for rambling nonsensical quotes in a language sportswriters called Stengelese. There may be some who say Stengel’s chief achievement was happening to manage a well-assembled Yankee team that would have won with anyone at the helm. But just how talented Stengel was at juggling his players to get the maximum offensive production is, to this day, under appreciated.

Halberstam wrote of how in the ’49 season, Woodling and Bauer collectively batted .271 with 15 home runs and 99 RBI, in effect providing New York, “in an injury-filled season, a composite all-star outfielder.” It goes deeper than that. Just look at how Stengel interchanged his first basemen from 1949-1955 to achieve staggering results. During those years, the Yankees won five consecutive World Series titles and one American League pennant.

1949—Billy Johnson, Jack Phillips, Tommy Henrich, and Dick Kryhoski
34 HRs, 178 RBIs

1950—Johnny Hopp, Johnny Mize, Joe Collins and Henrich
40 HRS, 142 RBIs

1951—Hopp, Mize, Collins
21 HRs, 101 RBIs

1952—Hopp, Mize, Collins and Irv Noren

22 HRs, 90 RBIs

1953—Mize, Collins, Gus Triandos and Don Bollweg

28 HRs, 101 RBIs

1954—Collins, Eddie Robinson and Bill Skowron

22 HRs, 114 RBIs

1955—Collins, Robinson and Skowron

41 HRs, 148 RBIs

Average for the seven year period: 30 HRs and 125 RBIs. That kind of run production is the envy of every manager in baseball.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Bobby Grich

Claim to fame: Grich was a six-time All Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, and he just might be the best ever one-and-done Hall of Fame candidate, someone who appeared on the ballot for Cooperstown once and got less than 5 percent of the vote. The reason? Grich retired with a .266 lifetime batting average, no high profile or single defining moment, and a lack of understanding on what might have made him worthy. That said, he’s been getting some support as of late.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Having retired in 1986 and long since bounced off the writers ballot, Grich could have been on the 2011 Veterans Committee ballot a few months ago as someone who made a significant career mark between 1973 and 1989. He was not included.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Grich has come up before on this site, though I thought of him again recently when Joe Posnanski included him in an April 20 post on players who may have missed Cooperstown for being Not Famous Enough. Posnanski wrote of Grich:

He IS a cause celebre among a very small circle of sabermetrically inclined people, largely because his skills (great defense, power, walked a ton) were wildly under-appreciated. He got just 11 votes his one year on the ballot, which was 30 less than Pete Rose got write-in votes. He also got almost 100 fewer votes than Maury Wills though he was a clearly superior player. Wills, of course, is a pretty famous cause celebre.

The Orange County Register ran a column a week later by Sam Miller entitled, Ex-Angel Grich is a no-brainer Hall of Famer. I’m generally quick to dismiss columns written by hometown reporters (Grich played his best years in Anaheim), though I thought Miller did a good job capturing the arguments for Grich’s enshrinement. Among other things, Miller quoted Jay Jaffe of BaseballProspectus.com ranking Grich as the sixth-best second baseman of all-time, and Miller noted how Grich’s 1973 season might have been the greatest ever for a second baseman for the defensive stat Total Zone.

Miller wrote:

This (overall) position on Grich is nothing new. Back in 1986, the seminal baseball writer Bill James wrote in his annual Baseball Abstract: “I’ll say this: if Bobby Grich goes into the Hall of Fame, you’re going to have real strong evidence that sabermetrics has made an impact on how talent is evaluated by the broader public.”

It has, certainly. But it’s two decades too late for Grich and the Angels.

My take? The Veterans Committee could do far worse than Grich, and in December, it once again almost did, with Dave Concepcion coming closest to enshrinement. Concepcion was an adequate member of a high-profile team, essentially the opposite of Grich. And the committee did worse a couple years ago when it selected Joe Gordon, again another role player on a dynasty. Grich seems more deserving than either of those men on statistical merit, but I don’t know if I like his odds for getting inducted anytime soon, at least so long as business keeps running as usual in Cooperstown. For better or worse, it’s still the Hall of Fame.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Allie Reynolds, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Will Clark

One game in the bigs: 10 short baseball careers

1. Moonlight Graham: This was probably the first name I knew on this list, seeing as Graham comes up in Field of Dreams. The author of the book that inspired the film noticed Graham in The Baseball Encyclopedia and wrote of how he played one game for the New York Giants in 1905 and later became a doctor in Chisholm, Minnesota. The filmmakers changed the game date to 1922, with Graham quitting baseball immediately thereafter because he “couldn’t bear the thought of another year in the minors.” In real life, Graham hit .329 back in the bushes in 1906 and played two more years before going to Chisholm in 1909.

2. Aloysius Travers: Ty Cobb attacked a fan in the stands one day in 1912 and was suspended indefinitely by American League president Ban Johnson. The rest of the Detroit Tigers struck in solidarity, and to avoid forfeiting the next game, Tiger management used replacement players. Travers, a seminary student, suffered the worst complete game loss in baseball history, allowing 24 runs, still a record. Interestingly, for having a one-game career, he accounted for -2.1 Wins Above Replacement, which might also be a record, if an illogical one. Travers remains the only Catholic priest to play in the majors.

3. Jim O’Rourke*: O’Rourke played 23 years in the majors and forged a Hall of Fame career. He’s included here because he played exactly one game in the modern era, September 22, 1904 when the 54-year-old attorney got his wish to appear in one more game. He caught all nine innings for the New York Giants, went 1-for-4 with a run scored, and helped New York clinch the pennant. It was his first game since 1893.

4. Eddie Gaedel: St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck signed the midget Gaedel in 1951 as a publicity stunt and had him bat once. Because of Gaedel’s tiny strike zone and the high likelihood he would walk, Veeck told him a sniper would be watching from afar, ready to shoot if he swung. Gaedel walked on four pitches. The American League subsequently voided Gaedel’s contract, and he later began to drink heavily, dying after being mugged in 1961 at 36.

5. Rugger Ardizoia: I wrote a paper in college about Italian-American ballplayers from the San Francisco Bay Area, and I interviewed Ardizoia, who pitched two innings for the New York Yankees in 1947. I don’t remember much about Ardizoia, except he seemed nice. His biography on Baseball-Reference.com quotes him saying of his baseball career, “Oh yeah, yessir. I loved it.”

6. John Paciorek: Most of the men on this list had one lousy or nondescript game. Paciorek made the most of his only contest. Starting in right field for the Houston Colt .45’s on September 29, 1963, the 18-year-old Paciorek went 3-for-3 with three RBI and four runs. Subsequent injury problems ended his career, though his younger brother, Tom was an All Star with the Seattle Mariners.

7. Nick Testa: 1958 was the best and worst of years for Testa. He finally made the majors at 29 for the San Francisco Giants, though his stint lasted one half of one inning, with him committing an error his only defensive chance. He became a bullpen coach for the team later that year and played a few more seasons in the minors and elsewhere, being among the first Americans to play in Japan in 1962.

8. Larry Yount: What’s tougher than being the obscure older brother of Robin Yount? Perhaps it’s making the majors in 1971, getting injured while throwing warm-up pitches for a debut relief appearance, and never returning to the show. Yount tried, remaining in the minors until 1976.

9. Harry Heitmann: A disastrous outing could have doomed Heitmann. The 21-year-old didn’t record an out his only big league start, allowing four runs for the loss, and because it was 1918, he immediately joined the navy and served in World War I. Ballplayers were conscripted indiscriminately in those days, from Cobb to George Sisler to Grover Cleveland Alexander, so Heitmann may have served no matter if he succeeded in baseball. He survived and died in 1958.

10. John Oldham: The Reds signed Oldham as a southpaw out of San Jose State, though in his sole appearance in the majors in 1956, he pinch ran for Ted Kluszewski. Oldham later coached college baseball for almost three decades, instructing future All Star pitcher Dave Righetti among others.

Dave Van Home

Funny  how one thing will make you think of another seemingly completely unrelated thing. The recent financial troubles of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets and the involvement of Bud Selig in both situations brought back my many fond memories of a team I still think of each and every baseball season,  the Montreal Expos.

But rather than write a column about what was done to Montreal by Major League Baseball and Bud Selig and those shady financial and moral circumstances involving Jeffrey Loria,  a nice warm sunny first day of May got me thinking about someone who was as integral a part of the Montreal Expos as any of their great players over their thirty plus year history.

Dave Van Horne was the voice of the Expos from their first season in 1969 until 2001. Montreal incredibly did not have an English broadcasting contract for the 2000 season. Apparently, then owner Jeffrey Loria  did not receive the compensation he was seeking from the English broadcasting media and left English Expo l fans without a voice either on television or radio. But Van Horne continued to broadcast Expo games, his play by play could be heard over the Internet. With still no contract for the 2001 season in place, Van Horne decided it was time to leave the organization and has been the lead radio voice of the Florida Marlins ever since.

This summer’s Hall of Fame ceremonies will be a very special one for me and for the many remaining Expo fans as Dave Van Horne will be honored. He is the 2011 winner of the Ford C. Frick award for excellence in broadcasting and I cannot think of a play by play announcer more deserving.

I spent countless games listening to Dave describe the Expos on field action from Jarry Parc to Olympic Stadium and all those places on the road. It always felt as if he was talking to me personally as he described each pitch and each play with a one on one casualness which only the great ones possess. Dave was never one to be afraid to criticize the Expos if he thought the situation warranted such comments but he did so intelligently and made his point and moved on. He also knew when to stay quiet and never pointed out the obvious. He always treated the game as if it, not he, was the important thing. Dave’s homerun call of “up, up and away “is still fondly remembered here in Canada.

In an interview in the Montreal Gazette August 12, 2010 concerning his honor by the Hall of Fame, Van Horne said, “This is the highest award a baseball broadcaster can receive. I am obviously thrilled, humbled and very excited. It is the professional highlight of my career,” “I am humbled to be among those people that are previous winners of this award. This was a very overwhelming and emotional day.”

“Dave Van Horne introduced Major League Baseball to English-speaking fans in Montreal and his voice became the standard for two generations of Expos fans,” Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said in a release.

Dave Van Horne is an essential part of any Canadian baseball fans memory and he was elected into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.

Congratulations Dave and thanks for all those years.