Star big leaguer was a marvel vs. Jasper Reds

Courtesy photo
Simmons in 1957, his third season as an All-Star

BY COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com 

Dick Sisler stepped up to the plate in the top of the 10th inning at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on Oct. 1, 1950, cranked a three-run home run over the left field wall and broke a 1-1 tie to give the Philadelphia Phillies a 4-1 lead against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game of the regular season. The Phils had enough run support to shut down the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the 10th to clinch their first pennant since 1915. Teams that won the pennant prior to 1969 were the ones that finished with the best record in the league, and the only postseason back then was the World Series.

One of the key cogs of the “Whiz Kids,” as the 1950 Phillies are known in baseball lore, was Curt Simmons, who went 17-8 with a 3.40 ERA, but Simmons wasn’t in Brooklyn in a big league uniform that day in 1950. He had last pitched on Sept. 9, but it wasn’t an injury that prevented him from taking the mound, it was military service.

Simmons registered for the National Guard in the late 1940s. The National Guard in Philadelphia was part of the 28th Infantry Division, and duty called that year as a result of the outbreak of the Korean War. Simmons became the first leaguer called to active duty during the war. He was stationed at Indiana’s Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh.

The lefty said in 2009 that the-then owner and club president of the team, Bob Carpenter, was going to get him out of it, but it didn’t happen.

“He just tried to get me out, but he couldn’t get me out,” Simmons recalled to The Herald by phone Tuesday morning.

Simmons will be 91 in May, and though his memory is no longer the greatest, he was still kind enough to field questions from The Herald to the best of his ability.

The Phillies found themselves in the World Series against the defending champion New York Yankees. Simmons had been granted a 10-day furlough to go to the World Series, much to the chagrin of others.

“They didn’t like it I was leaving and they couldn’t leave,” Simmons said.

The problem, however, was that he couldn’t pitch in it. The Phils already set their roster, and he was ineligible. He was decked out in his military uniform and watched from the pressbox. The Yankees ended up sweeping the Phillies in four games for their second of five consecutive World Series titles.

Simmons would get experience on the mound in 1951, but the experience came with Camp Atterbury, not the Phillies. One team he saw while he was in the service was the Jasper Reds. Simmons pitched against them on April 29, 1951, at Recreation Field, now known as Ruxer Field.

One of the spectators at that game was future Herald sports editor Jerry Birge, who was 12 years old at the time, and was a neighbor and friend of Bob Seng, a fellow diehard baseball fan. Birge claimed he could name the starting lineup of the Phillies and almost every other team that year.

“We heard Curt Simmons is coming to town, and we thought, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve got to go up to the ballgame, Recreation Field, and see him,’” Birge said.

Curt Simmons, 1952

Simmons’ team was nicknamed the Keystoners, and when he stepped on the hill that Sunday afternoon, it was no question how or why he made it to the major leagues. He saw 15 batters that day, and struck out nine of them in five innings of work. The Reds couldn’t get anything against him, and Simmons was credited with the win in the 6-1 triumph.

“We marveled at him,” Birge said. “He was so great the way he threw the ball. He stood out from any other of the pitchers we had ever seen, and we went to every game back then.

“We had never seen anything like that, the way he pitched,” he later added. “He was so much faster, had so much more control, had so much more poise. It was obvious he was a big league ballplayer and was the first big league ballplayer we ever saw.”

Simmons did more than dazzle on the mound and impress Birge and Seng — he turned those two into fans of his.

The Reds had beer for the postgame behind the first base line, which was a tradition. The invitation had been extended to the Atterbury team after the game, but Simmons didn’t join in on the festivities because he wasn’t a drinker.

The southpaw sat in the bleachers down the right field line. Birge and Seng approached him, asking him for an autograph, and he supplied his John Hancock to the two young boys. Birge recalled that Simmons talked to the two of them for about half an hour in the bleachers.

“From that day on, we were big, big Curt Simmons fans,” he said.

Simmons made it to Army Sergeant and was later stationed in Germany before he flew back and returned to the Phillies. Scrubbing floors in the Army was no longer a reality for him. He pitched in his first Major League game in more than a year on April 29, 1952 — one year to the day since he had pitched in Jasper — an 8-2 complete game win against the Chicago Cubs.

He didn’t have spring training in 1952, but he made his first of three All-Star appearances (the others in 1953 and 1957). He had the distinction of starting that year’s All-Star Game, another honor he’d have in 1957. Simmons put it, though, that the service was his training.

“I did throw a little bit in Atterbury, and the guy, the catcher, that was semipro, caught pretty good,” he said. “So, I pitched to him every other day and kept my arm loose.”

Birge, a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, found it hard to cheer against Simmons whenever he pitched against his Redbirds, but starting on May 20, 1960, he’d no longer have that conundrum. The Phillies released Simmons three days earlier, and the Cardinals added him to the team.

Simmons went on to become a mainstay in the St. Louis rotation for much of the 1960s. The 1963 Cardinals finished in second place for the pennant behind the eventual World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers, and Simmons, at 34, still had never pitched in a World Series.

“I always thought that he was cheated out of pitching in the World Series in 1950,” Birge said.

The 1964 Cardinals got hot down the stretch. Simmons’ former team, the Phillies, looked like they were going to be in the World Series that year. They led the National League pennant race by 6.5 games with 12 games to go, but then lost 10 games in a row. They tied with the Cincinnati Reds for second place in the standings that year, while the Cardinals won their first pennant since winning it all in 1946.

Simmons finally got his chance, and Birge was there for every game in St. Louis. He was working for WTVW in Evansville, and covered the series for the station. The two parties were reunited during batting practice before a game. Birge said Simmons remembered him, but the former thought otherwise.

The lefty went 0-1 in the series, posting a 2.51 ERA in 14.1 innings across two starts, but the Cardinals defeated the Yankees in seven games that year. The man whom Hank Aaron and former teammate, the late Stan Musial, once called the toughest pitcher they ever saw, would forever be known as a World Series Champion.

“I was very lucky and happy that I got to pitch there,” Simmons said.




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