Posted on Wed, Sep. 27, 2006
OLDEST PLAYER | ?Si? Simmons pitched when Buck was a babe
Silas ?Si? Simmons was handed a photograph and asked whether he recognized anyone in it. He fixed his eyes on the sepia stares, even wafted his curled fingers over the glass and frame, soaking in the faces for more than 20 silent seconds.
It was a picture of the 1913 Homestead Grays, a primordial, Pittsburgh-area baseball team that played before the Negro Leagues were even born. His mind, Simmons said, needed time to connect the faces to positions to names. He was entitled to the delay; next month, he will turn 111 years old. Simmons was born on Oct. 14, 1895, the same year as Babe Ruth.
Simmons? continued existence was unknown to baseball researchers until this summer, when a genealogist near his nursing home in St. Petersburg alerted a Negro Leagues expert. A member of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research confirmed a baseball historian?s dream: that Simmons was indeed a man who had pitched and played outfield in the equivalent of the black major leagues on and off from about 1912 ? when Buck O?Neil was less than a year old ? through at least 1929, and can talk about playing against legends such as John Henry ?Pop? Lloyd, Judy Johnson and Biz Mackey.
Lloyd was like ?the second Honus Wagner,? Simmons said. ?Judy Johnson, they called him Pie Traynor. It was a thrill to watch players like that. After a while they were in the big leagues, playing ball, which you thought would never come. But eventually it did come. And that was the greatest thing of my life when I saw these fellows come up and play big-league baseball.?
The oldest living person who played major-league baseball is Rollie Stiles, 99, who pitched for the St. Louis Browns in the 1930s.
Using a wheelchair but reasonably communicative, Simmons has no major health issues beyond his extraordinarily old age. He?s an avid sports fan who watches many games of the Devil Rays on the television in his room. He even attended a Devil Rays game this summer with his church group.
Wayne Stivers, who led the committee that helped 17 Negro Leaguers get into the Hall of Fame this summer, said: ?We were aware there was a Si Simmons and that he played. But we didn?t know he was still alive. We figured, 110, no, this man is not alive.
?My reaction was, ?We need to talk with him immediately.? ?
Outliving the legends
When ?Si? Simmons played his last game for the Negro National League?s Cuban Stars in 1929, there were 52 players active in the major leagues that are now in the Hall of Fame. Simmons has outlived them all. In fact, the last of them, Rick Ferrell, died in 1995. Here are those Hall of Famers, with the year of their death listed.
Pete Alexander (1950); Earl Averill (1983); Dave Bancroft (1972); Jim Bottomley (1959); Max Carey (1976); Mickey Cochrane (1962); Eddie Collins (1951); Earle Combs (1976); Joe Cronin (1984); Kiki Cuyler (1950); Bill Dickey (1993); Red Faber (1976); Rick Ferrell (1995); Jimmie Foxx (1967); Frankie Frisch (1973); Lou Gehrig (1941); Charlie Gehringer (1993); Goose Goslin (1971); Burleigh Grimes (1985); Lefty Grove (1975); Chick Hafey (1973); Jesse Haines (1978); Gabby Hartnett (1972); Harry Heilmann (1951); Rogers Hornsby (1963); Waite Hoyt (1984); Carl Hubbell (1988); Travis Jackson (1987); George Kelly (1984); Chuck Klein (1958); Tony Lazzeri (1946); Freddie Lindstrom (1981); Ted Lyons (1986); Heinie Manush (1971); Rabbit Maranville (1954); Mel Ott (1958); Herb Pennock (1948); Sam Rice (1974); Eppa Rixey (1963); Edd Roush (1988); Red Ruffing (1986); Babe Ruth (1948); Ray Schalk (1970); Joe Sewell (1990); Al Simmons (1956); George Sisler (1973); Bill Terry (1989); Pie Traynor (1972); Dazzy Vance (1961); Lloyd Waner (1982); Paul Waner (1965); Hack Wilson (1948).