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Baseball’s living history

Meet Silas Simmons, the oldest living player from the black major leagues near the turn of the century.

Simmons, known as Si, was born on Oct. 14, 1895 – the same year as Babe Ruth and Rudolph Valentino, and before F. Scott Fitzgerald and Amelia Earhart. He played at the highest level of black baseball while a boy named Satchel Paige was still in grade school.

That Simmons is still living was unknown to baseball researchers until this summer, when a genealogist near the nursing home where he lives 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 the outfield in the equivalent of the black major leagues on and off from about 1912 through at least 1929, and that he had played against such stars as Pop Lloyd, Judy Johnson and Biz Mackey.

Lloyd was like “the second Honus Wagner,” Simmons said. “Judy Johnson, they called him Pie Traynor.”

Simmons added: “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.” Simmons is not the oldest-known living American – that title belongs to Lizzie Bolden of Memphis, who turned 116 in August. The oldest living person who played Major League Baseball is Rollie Stiles, 99, who pitched for the St. Louis Browns in the early 1930’s.


Wayne Stivers, who spearheaded the fact-finding committee that led to 17 people associated with the Negro leagues being inducted into the National Baseball 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.’ ”

Simmons’ first games were not in the Negro leagues as they are now remembered. The first established circuit, the Negro National League, started in 1920. Before that, local all-black teams would play against one another, against all-white teams or occasionally against groups of big leaguers barnstorming in the off-season.

Having grown up in a central Philadelphia row house on 17th and Bainbridge Streets, Simmons was a left-handed pitcher who was signed by the nearby Germantown Blue Ribbons, a well-regarded team. He said he started pitching for the Blue Ribbons at age 16 or 17, meaning 1912 or 1913. Box scores and articles from The Philadelphia Inquirer describe the 5-foot-10 Simmons as routinely striking out 10 or more batters while getting a hit or two a game.

Simmons had difficulty remembering all the teams he played on. While unable to explain in detail, he indicated that players, particularly pitchers, were often picked up by other teams for brief stretches, so he might have played select games for other teams as well. (Experts confirmed that this practice was commonplace.) Researchers have uncovered box scores and game recaps with his name from many years throughout the 1910’s and beyond.

Amazing. And while you marvel at the life of Si Simmons, take a moment to wish a happy 90th birthday to former Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto, the oldest living member of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Feel free to ask him about his collaboration with Meat Loaf while you’re at it.

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One Comment

  1. Maria Gath says:

    Silas Simmons to Receive Replica 1913 Homestead Grays Jersey from Ebbets Field Flannels for his 111th Birthday.