J. D. Thorne

Clutch Hitting ‘Bucketfoot’ Al Simmons, The Duke of Milwaukee

A recent media chart showed that a St. Louis “Dirty Bird” Cardinal was leading the major leagues in a baseball statistic measuring batting average with runners in scoring position.  Another of their players was third best.   Brewer catcher Jonathan Lucroy also made the top ten list for this season.  When a player delivers in an important moment in a game, usually toward the end, he can be called a “gamer.” 

National Baseball Hall of Fame Owner and Manager Connie Mack, managed a major league team from 1894 – 1950 winning the most baseball games of any manager ever, 3,731.  He was an original owner of the American Association baseball league team from Milwaukee when the league first came into existence.  Later in 1903 it became the “American League.”  Mr. Mack was once asked if he were rebuilding a baseball team, which player of all those he saw play would he pick first?  Mr. Mack said without hesitation, “I’d start with nine Al Simmons.”  Mr. Mack kept in his office only one photo of a player after all those years of managing and owning baseball clubs:  Al Simmons.

Al Simmons.  Let that name resonate with you.  Go see his bronze plaque at the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame walk in Milwaukee across from Major Goolsbys Tavern on Kilbourn and 4th Avenue near the U.S. Cellular Basketball Sports Arena.  The Plaques are all outside.   Go too to see the Al Simmons bronze plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.   How many have played baseball at “Al Simmons Field” near Pulaski High School on 27th and Oklahoma in Milwaukee?  It was always my favorite place to play.

Al Simmons, shortened from “Aloysius Szymanski” was of polish decent from Milwaukee’s south side.  As a youth he changed his name to “Simmons” after seeing a billboard advertising “Simmons Hardware.”  Proud of his ancestry, it was said as a grizzled coach he gave the following advice to another up and coming player from a polish family:  “Never relax on any time at bat; never miss a game you can play.”  That player was Stan Musial.

One commenter wrote of his play spread over 19 years in the big leagues from 1924 to 1944, “On the field Simmons was a warrior, intent on damaging the enemy and demolishing pitchers with his bat, stifling rallies with his glove, and upsetting infielders with take-out slides.” (The Ballplayers; © 1990; William Morrow and Company, Inc.; New York, NY)  He came up with the Athletics in 1924 at age 21, hitting .308 with 102 RBI’s.  In 1929 he led the team to the World Championship hitting .365 and driving in a league leading 157 runs.  He led the American League batting in both 1930 and 1931 with averages of .381 and .390.  He batted in 100 or more runs in eleven consecutive big league seasons.  His nickname was derived from his unorthodox hitting style of striding with a natural step toward third base, sometimes called “putting your foot in the bucket.”  But Connie Mack refused to let anyone change his style.  He had long arms and used a longer bat than most players of his era, so he could still hit with power to all fields. 

He was most feared by opponents for his ability to hit in the clutch.  Following the season in the 1930, Clark Griffith (then owner of the Washington Senators) told Connie Mack, “I went back and checked up on Al Simmons this year.  He hit 14 home runs in the eighth and ninth innings, and every one figured in the ball game.  We were never the same after he licked us in that double-header.”  That particular day was Memorial Day, 1930.  Al Simmons described it this way to famed sportswriter John P. Carmicael as recorded in, My Greatest Day in Baseball; © 1945; A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc.; New York, NY.

“The Senators were in town [Philadelphia] for morning and afternoon games.  They were leading the league by four games and we [the Athletics] were second.  Well, we were brand-new world champions [having defeated the Chicago Cubs coached by Joe McCarthy in 1929], and of course we had a good crowd on hand.  But we weren’t doing so well near the end of the affair.  The Senators were ahead 6-3 into the ninth with two out, nobody on base and Lefty Grove, our pitcher, up at bat.  Naturally, Grove didn’t hit.  Connie [Mack] sent Spencer Harris up to swing for him and he got a single.  Then Dibs Williams hit safely and old man Simmons was on the spot.  I’d already gone four for the collar and those Philly fans could be tough every so often.  Some of them were yelling, ‘Three out’ and: ‘How about another pinch hitter?”  I was thinking, ‘Boy, we better win that second game,” when the pitcher cut loose.  The ball was right in there and didn’t break and I really swung.  It landed in the left field seats.  The score was tied and the customers were all for me now.”

“We couldn’t do a thing more however and the game went to extra innings.    I got a double in the 11th, but didn’t score.  I singled in the 13th and didn’t get home.  In the 15th I hit another two-bagger . . . four straight hits mind you, after going out easily four times in a row.  Jimmie Foxx came up and hit a twisting roller down the third-base line topping the ball.  He beat it out by a half step and on the play I went to third and rounded the bag like I might try to score.  I got caught in a run down.  Well, there I was scrambling around and cursing myself for blowing a chance to get the game over, but I finally dove for third and was safe.  Just as lit I felt something go haywire in my right knee.  Standing on the bag I could feel it swelling up under my uniform and by the time ‘Boob’ McNair singled and I scored the winning run it was becoming stiff.”

“We went inside and got the clothes off and the damn thing was twice its normal size.  Connie Mack couldn’t believe his eyes.  ‘How did you do it?’ he kept asking.  I didn’t know myself . . . didn’t hit anything but the ground.      He put in a call for Dr. Carnett, our club physician.  He came in and ordered cold compresses on it.  ‘You’ve broken a blood vessel,’ he said, ‘but it’ll be all right.’

“We didn’t have so much time between games because that opener had taken so long, so there was nothing to do but sit around and order a little lunch.  The outgoing crowd was all mixed up with the incoming customers, and many of them bought their way back in.  Meanwhile the swelling in my knee went down, but it hurt and finally Mr. Mack said to Dr. Carnett:  ‘He can’t play any more today, I suppose,’ and Doc said no.  ‘you’ll probably want to take him to the hospital,” said Connie and Carnett agreed.” ‘But not today,’ said Dr. Carnett. ‘I came out here to see a double-header and I’m going to see it.  You . . .” and he addressed Mr. Mack . . . “can put him back in uniform and let him sit on the bench.  He can’t run, but he might come in handy as a pitch hitter.  What’s more, if a spot comes up, I want him in there too!  I’ll take care of the knee later.’”

Out we went for the second game.  The fans were in an unhappy state when they Harris going to left instead of me.  Only a few knew anything had happened and they couldn’t understand why I was benched after driving in three runs and scoring the last one.  Came the 7th inning and we were behind 7-3.  We sent up a pinch hitter and he got on, and then there was a base on balls, and a hit and the bags were loaded.  Suddenly I saw Connie look down the line and crook that finger at me. ‘Looks like this is the time and the place,’ he said.  ‘This is what Dr. Carnett meant and you know what he said.  Walk around the bases if you can.’

“I picked up a bat and there I was for the second time in the same day in the clutch.  The opposing pitcher told me afterwards, ‘I never wanted a place to put someone so much in all my life, but we were full up.’  He seemed to take a long time and finally pitched and it was outside for a ball.  He tried another in the same spot and I let it go.  Then he changed up on me and tried for a strike.  My bat caught it just right . . . where you know that even if the ball is caught, you’ve hit it solid.  This one came down in the left-field stands, too, and the score was tied 7-7.  I hobbled around the bases and back to the bench and Connie was sitting up straight, his eyes bright like a bird’s, and he said: ‘My that was fine, Al.’  We won in the ninth and down came Carnett and lugged me off to the hospital.”

Go see the Al Simmons bronze plaque at the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame!