Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why Al Simmons?

So why Al Simmons?

Why is it that Al Simmons – of the few hundred men who are in baseball’s Hall of Fame (not to mention the thousands who have played major league baseball) – somehow became my historical favorite?

I’m not at all sure. What is it that elevates in our hearts and heads one man’s story over another’s? It’s almost impossible to grasp those workings. All we can do is to acknowledge that some stories grab some of us and other stories take hold of others.

And all I know is that from the time I began to read about Al Simmons and his life, as a ballplayer and as a person, his tale resonated inside me. And I became a fan.

A fan? Of a ballplayer now dead for fifty years? Well, yes. I would guess I’m not all that different from the other people – men, mostly, I assume – who inhabit the world of simulation baseball games, in which we routinely have men long dead perform marvelous and perplexing deeds on our table tops or on our hard drives. We all have our favorites, depending, I suppose on personal views, strategic inclinations (pitching vs. hitting; smallball vs. power, and so on) and other aspects of our personalities and lives.

It was, in fact, a simulation baseball game that brought Al Simmons to my attention, a game called Sports Illustrated Superstar Baseball, which I bought in 1985. It was about that time – I was 31 – that I began to not only play the game but to dig into the history of baseball, something I’d not done to any great degree up to then.

Oh, I’d played other simulation baseball games before, most notably Strat-O-Matic, which a long-time friend of mine had. During a visit to his home in early 1985, he and I had played for several hours with historic teams, an evening that might have sparked my interest in buying my own simulation game. Soon after that, I spotted Superstar Baseball on the shelf of a local hobby shop. And the next thing I knew, I was gently separating perforated player cards and planning the creation of my six-team simulated league.

I knew at least something about many of the players whose cards were in the game, of course: I was familiar with the names and to some extent the performance value of the truly great players, Ruth, Gehrig, Wagner, Johnson, Cobb and so on. And I knew about the players who had been on the field when I was a kid: Killebrew, Koufax, Gibson, Mays and the others.

But there were a fair number of cards for players who were only vaguely familiar or were utter mysteries to me. I’d not done much reading of baseball history at that point. And I found myself reading the biographies on the backs of the cards in my effort to understand why this player and that had been included in the game: Who was Stan Coveleski? Who was Billy Cox? Harry Heilmann? Edd Roush? Kid Nichols? And who was Al Simmons?

Al didn’t play much during my first season. Shortly after I dealt the cards out to my six teams and started my season, I realized that my Portland team had too many outfielders and not enough pitchers; Nashville had extra pitchers. So in the first trade I engineered, I sent Al Simmons from Portland to Nashville for Stan Coveleski. Simmons batted about .250 in limited duty for Nashville, which finished sixth; Coveleski was 12-11 for Portland, which tied for fourth place. (For whatever it may be worth, in the twenty-three seasons I’ve played with Superstar Baseball, Al Simmons has been one of the ten best hitters, a performance perhaps a little better than one would expect.)

At the same time as I played that first season, I began to read about the history of the game and its players. I soon learned that I didn’t know much about baseball history at all – there were entire eras of the game that were blank to me until I began my reading, spurred on by one question: Who were the flesh and blood men who’d left behind careers that were reflected by the numbers and letters on the cards of my game?

And as I dug into the history of those men, the story that for some reason resonated inside me the most was the story of Aloys Szymanski, a Milwaukee native who played 20 seasons as Al Simmons. I’ve heard two versions of the story behind the change in names; one says that a Milwaukee reporter grew tired of trying to spell “Szymanski” in accounts of Al’s early games and changed the name on his own; another says that Al saw the name “Simmons” in an advertisement for a store and adopted the name himself. Either way, by the time he came to the attention of Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics, he was Al Simmons.

He had a hell of a career. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranks Al Simmons 71st among all the men who ever played major league baseball, putting him somewhere in the top 5 percent of players all-time. And yet, to the casual fan – a category in which I would put myself prior to 1985 – he’s almost unknown. The Athletics during his prime years were a good team, and for three seasons – 1929 through 1931 – were one of the greatest teams of all time. But as good as Al Simmons was during those seasons, he was likely only the fourth best player on his own team.

Great teams, of course, have great players. The Athletics had four: pitcher Lefty Grove, first baseman Jimmie Foxx, catcher Mickey Cochrane, and Simmons. One could argue without looking silly that Grove, Foxx and Cochrane might have been the best ever at their positions. I don’t think any of them were, but a reasonable case could be made for all three. Al Simmons, as great as he was, could not be reasonably argued to be among the three greatest outfielders of all time.

I’ve gotten a feeling over the years, as I’ve read, that Al Simmons was an intense, nearly angry, man and player. I sense that he burned, if you will, with a very bright flame and sense as well – this may be pure supposition, but it’s a feeling I get from reading about him and his life – that he never quite accomplished as much as he would have liked to. If that’s the case, I wonder how much of that feeling might have come from being a great baseball player and still being only the fourth-best player on his main team?

After nine seasons in Philadelphia, Simmons was sold to the Chicago White Sox, for whom he had two very good seasons and one mediocre one. After that, he became, in Bill James’ words, “a baseball nomad,” playing with less and less value in several cities until retiring after the 1944 season.

He wanted to manage, James notes, but reading between the lines, one senses that his temperament was not suited for that role. Still, Simmons was something close to a de facto manager during the late 1940s as a coach for the Athletics when owner/manager Mack was in his declining years. He coached in Cleveland in 1950 and retired, going home to Milwaukee, where, according to James, he began to drink heavily. He died of a heart attack at the age of 54 in 1956.

Those are the bare bones of a life. And there is something about that life – maybe something that I sense should be in that story, something seemingly hidden – that fascinates me.

What is it? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s the thought that someone can be very good, even great at what he does, and still be to a large extent left behind by time. And it seems to me that’s what happened to Al Simmons. Was he a household name during his prime in the 1920s and early 1930s? I don’t know. He likely was, at least among households that cared about major league baseball. He’s not now.

On the day in 1985 that I opened my game and began to separate the cards, I was not a baseball historian – I would guess I am one now, at least on an amateur level – but I was fairly aware of sports history. And I didn’t know who Al Simmons was.

For all of my reading and thinking, and all the bits of information I have in my head and in my library, I’m still not sure I know who Al Simmons was. And I don’t really have an answer as to why his story fascinates me more than the stories of other players whose lives I’ve studied.

As I stood at Al’s grave in Milwaukee in May, holding a baseball I bought the day before during a Brewers’ game at Miller Park, I was struck with a thought: Simmons retired to Milwaukee after the 1950 season. In 1953, the Braves came to town from Boston, and they were there for three-and-a-half seasons before Al died.

How often, I wondered as I stood at his grave, did Aloys Szymanski sit in old County Stadium and watch the Braves play ball? How often did anyone recognize him and know he’d been one of the best ballplayers ever? How often did he watch Eddie Mathews or Henry Aaron slash a double into the gap and think, “I used to do that,” as the outfielders pursued the ball?

Millions are born. Millions are forgotten. So why should it matter to me that one son of Polish immigrants, one young man from Milwaukee, played baseball and played it well and then faded from public memory? I don’t know. But for some reason, it does.

So I wrote on the baseball, telling a man who died before I was three years old that he was not forgotten. And I left it at the grave.

Friday, August 25, 2006

My Table-top Baseball League

Since at least a few members of my Yahoo! Group seem interested, here’s a little bit of league history:

I’m currently at 18 teams, three divisions of six teams. Here’s how I got there.

1985 Original Six RS/D PO PO2 Pct.
Indiana Bluebirds 4 2 4 .488
Nashville Minotaurs 4 2 3 .507
Omaha Sodbusters 0 2 2 .469
Portland (Maine) Pines 3 4 4 .490
Topeka Firebirds 18 11 7 .637
Wheeling Mountaineers 0 1 2 .492

(RS/D: regular season or division titles; PO: playoff titles; PO2: playoff runners-up; Pct. is all-time won-lost percentage. These figures cover all 23 seasons.)

(I was never happy with Wheeling’s nickname, as it derived from the university’s nickname. Later on, Wheeling changed to the Hilltoppers for a few years, then to the Conestogas, and for the season I have just started, they are now – in recognition of one of the city’s major 19th Century industries, the Wheeling Nails.)

Indiana’s early history illustrates to me how close a team can come to being a true dynasty and still end up with very little. In the first four seasons, Indiana made the finals every year. The first two times, the Bluebirds lost to Topeka in seven games. In 1987, they defeated Wheeling in the finals, four games to one. And in 1988, Indiana lost a seven-game final series to Nashville. Change three games in those four seasons, and Indiana is a four-time champ. As it happened, during the free agency dice rolls after the 1988 season, the black die came up “1” on four consecutive rolls (a 1 out of 1,296 possibility), meaning the Bluebirds lost on those four rolls Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, George Sisler and Roy Campanella. They went 49-71 the next season.

Topeka’s dominance is mostly a matter of pitching. As I indicated in my post earlier, the Firebirds have held together for many seasons a rotation of Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove and Kid Nichols, who rank as my leagues four top pitchers all-time. Offensively, Topeka has had some great lineups, but it’s the pitching that has made them the force they are.

I played 15 seasons with six teams, including two seasons each in 1995 and 1996, adding along the way the players that came in the Blue Box only (Stargell, Yaz and a few others). After a while, I had a number of player and pitcher cards not being used, so I cobbled together another team, starting play in the second season I played in 1997, called season 1997a.

RS/D PO PO2 Pct.
Albany Empires 0 0 0 .408

It was about that time that I began to dabble with making my own cards, with – I would guess – the forced retirement of Kirby Puckett being the catalyst. I based my first cards on cards already in play, making minor adjustments here and there and experimenting. Over time, I made enough cards to add three more teams to the league for my second season in 1998.

RS/D PO PO2 Pct.
Atlantic City Boardwalkers 2 0 0 .491
Birmingham Phantoms 0 0 0 .494
Memphis Pharaohs 0 0 0 .449

(One of the baffling things about the brown box game was its lack of injuries to players. Yes, there were HBP but there were no consequences for that. As a result, players were available for every game, and team stat sheets for a number of years showed most teams with only 10 or 11 players playing [I used the DH]. I wasn’t satisfied with that; I’d played enough Strat-O-Matic over the years to know that injuries added an intriguing component to the competition, but for a long time, didn’t know how to add them to my mix.)

The cards I was making – all done by hand, as I had only a primitive computer and printer at the time – seemed to be ok, so I began to add more yet, especially for Negro League players. I had several sources for my ideas, none of them with much more than sketchy statistics, but I scoured all the books I could find, looking for clues to answer questions like: Which historical player would be an offensive template for Oscar Charleston? How about for Josh Gibson? Who did Cool Papa Bell resemble defensively? While flawed, I am sure, my first two rounds of Negro League cards do not seem to be out of whack with the rest of the league. (I’ve since made some minor adjustments to a few of them in the process of creating printed versions of the cards on computer; still, my early versions served me well, both in competition and as learning tools.)

As a result of creating new cards, primarily those for Negro Leagues hitters and pitchers alike, I had enough cards by mid-1999 to add two more teams, bringing my league to 12.

RS/D PO PO2 Pct.
Brooklyn Atlantics 0 1 0 .544
Moline Mechanics 0 0 0 .517

During the 1999a season, Brooklyn finished second in its six-team division and won the playoffs in its first year in the league, led by Turkey Stearnes (.359-40-149, 149 RC, 1.128 OPS). At the same time, Oscar Charleston had the single best season in league history (.392—33-143, 156 RC, 1.153 OPS). I award the MVP and two pitching awards before I begin the playoffs. Because Brooklyn made the playoffs in its first season and because the Atlantics finished a game ahead of Indiana in the standings, I gave the MVP award to Stearnes.

(There was a nearly four-year gap in my playing of the 1999a season, as an over-exposure to toxic chemicals left my body unable to handle even the slightest exposure to a wide range of chemicals, including those in tobacco smoke. I’d been a smoker, and my game was contaminated. The only thing I could salvage was the dice. I put the cards in a box on the shelf. Eventually, I was able to buy a copy of the Blue Box on Ebay, and the only reason I could afford it was because it did not have the dice. But I still had mine. I photocopied my hand-made cards. And in 2003, I resumed play.)

About that time, as well, I found the Yahoo! Group for the game, and began expanding my card set. I also purchased a set of cards on Ebay and found myself able to have the last expansion my league will likely ever have. These teams have played two full seasons (after one season, I moved Savannah to Minnesota; the Scarlets were the losers in a weighted lottery system I devised in which any of the 18 teams might have been moved. I would have been devastated had it been Topeka that moved!)

RS/D PO PO2 Pct.
Buffalo Niagaras 0 0 0 .463
Cheyenne Wranglers 0 0 0 .350
Great Falls Bighorns 0 0 0 .463
New Orleans Crescents 0 0 0 .454
Savannah Scarlets/Minn. Mallards 0 0 0 .388
Providence Grays 0 0 0 .446

Of these six, the most successful is New Orleans, which made the playoffs in its second season and took Topeka to extra innings in a decisive fifth game in the first round of the playoffs.

I finally solved the injury quandary starting with the 2000 season, the first with 18 teams. A friend of mine has a game called “Pursue the Pennant,” which includes a “Wild Play” function that calls for rolling three 10-sided dice for a result. It’s triggered about as often as a “10” is rolled in ATAS. And since a roll of “10” is rarely put in play on a pitcher’s roll (with “10” being a rarity in the defensive ratings), I adopted the “Wild Play” chart for my game. There are collisions, temper tantrums, blisters, misplayed popups and injuries, with another chart from “Pursue the Pennant” providing length of injury based on another roll of the three 10-sided dice. (Junior Griffey missed more than half the season for New Orleans last year, and Mike Piazza has been surprisingly brittle since heading to Great Falls.)

Greatest players

My all-time statistics are done through the 2000 season. I have one season yet to enter. Here’s a quick look at the best players in league history, taking their career OPS and multiplying it times their average Runs Created per season. (I use the basic runs created formula; if I had kept track of “caught stealing” data and felt confident in using a formula that accounted for stolen bases, Cobb, Wagner and Sisler would no doubt rank higher.)

Player OPS Avg. RC OPS*RC
Babe Ruth 1.019 114 116.17
Rogers Hornsby .940 103 96.82
Lou Gehrig .954 101 96.35
Jimmie Foxx .925 96 88.80
Ted Williams .905 95 85.98
Al Simmons .900 92 82.80
Ty Cobb .844 90 75.96
Stan Musial .869 87 75.60
Harry Heilmann .852 82 69.86
Nap Lajoie .823 84 69.13
Mickey Mantle .848 80 67.84
Willie Mays .841 80 67.28
Honus Wagner .818 82 67.08
Henry Aaron .838 78 65.36
George Sisler .803 80 64.24
Joe Jackson .824 75 61.80
Tris Speaker .801 77 61.68
Ernie Banks .838 70 58.66
Bill Terry .814 72 58.61

A quick look through the record books for top pitchers finds these:

W L Pct. ERA Svs
Grover Alexander 259 175 .597 4.25 127
Bob Feller 285 275 .509 5.02 0
Bob Gibson 296 285 .509 4.75 0
Lefty Grove 380 219 .634 3.69 2
Carl Hubbell 176 113 .609 3.50 175
Walter Johnson 412 200 .673 3.45 0
Sandy Koufax 378 217 .635 3.79 0
Christy Mathewson 330 256 .563 4.11 0
Hal Newhouser 305 274 .527 4.67 0
Kid Nichols 359 217 .623 3.98 0
Satchel Paige 90 48 .652 4.09 0
Robin Roberts 322 263 .550 4.73 0
Warren Spahn 299 279 .517 4.93 0
Ed Walsh 161 158 .505 4.87 136 Cy Young 323 283 .533 4.66 0

Some condensed career hitting records for long-time players (.300 average or 500 HR):
Ernie Banks .270 535 1665 .505 5
Ty Cobb .331 141 1165 .456 2340
Jimmie Foxx .299 671 2113 .564 8
Lou Gehrig .303 713 2302 .590 0
Charlie Gehringer .305 240 1542 .450 104
Hank Greenberg .278 503 1534 .533 18
Harry Heilmann .306 238 1567 .480 10
Rogers Hornsby .321 514 2062 .557 23
Joe Jackson .309 91 1398 .452 220
Harmon Killebrew .261 653 1686 .498 4
Nap Lajoie .309 139 1277 .451 669
Mickey Mantle .273 656 2118 .509 140
Stan Musial .300 474 2052 .518 65
Tony Oliva .301 266 1157 .491 36
Babe Ruth .305 987 2565 .659 9
Al Simmons .312 411 1913 .524 7
George Sisler .307 166 1142 .440 1618
Bill Terry .304 235 1413 .451 46
Pie Traynor .301 39 1133 .401 124
Honus Wagner .308 142 1611 .454 1923
Ted Williams .304 578 2014 .541 2

A few more points of interest

One of the fascinating things, to me, is the working of fate, even in a universe ruled by three dice. These are the players who I’ve had in the league since the beginning who have never been on a championship team:

Luis Aparicio
Frank Baker
Ken Boyer
Eddie Collins
Mike Cuellar
Mickey Mantle
Ron Santo
Red Schoendienst
Honus Wagner
Jimmy Wilson

Most championships won:
Ernie Banks 11
Mickey Cochrane 11
Carl Hubbell 11
Walter Johnson 11
(All won with Topeka)

Most championships won by a player who never played for Topeka:
Grover Alexander 5

(Sorry about the odd spacing on the statistics. I must be doing something wrong importing things into Blogger.)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Why Al Simmons?

I promise I'll answer this question real soon.