The "Game" We Play
This article appeared locally today. If I'm fortunate enough to live as long as this gentleman, I only wish to stay as alert and witty.
By MARTIN FENNELLY The Tampa Tribune
Published: Oct 14, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - He played ball a while back, as while back as you can go, so this is his time of year. He has lost so many loves of his life, having buried two wives and all five of his children. But it's October and there is baseball. Even tired eyes twinkle.
"I follow all the games," he said. "Keeps you going."
Silas "Si" Simmons sat in his wheelchair Thursday afternoon and said he likes the Detroit Tigers to win it all. He has been staying up late to watch the playoff games, probably later than you. He can't wait for the World Series. The first one he followed was the first one. In 1903.
Si Simmons turns 111 years young today. He has lived in three centuries. He's the oldest old-timer - America's longest living professional baseball player.
"It feels good," Si said.
He was a left-handed pitcher and outfielder on several teams in the historic Negro Leagues. His career began in 1912 with the Germantown Blue Ribbons near his Philadelphia home. William Howard Taft was president. Satchel Paige was a child. Jackie Robinson hadn't been born.
Si Simmons saw the great and the near great and played with some of them.
"The memories keep you young," he said.
We lose treasures like Si all the time. Last week, Negro Leagues star ambassador Buck O'Neil, a man of grace and charm, passed away at 94. But Buck never wanted anybody to be sad over him. Celebrate his life. Celebrate.
Speaking of which, we'd like to explain why those of you who tried to buy birthday candles yesterday couldn't find them. It's because there's a birthday party for Si today at Westminster Suncoast Health Center in St. Petersburg. Si's grandkids and great-grandkids will be there. So will veterans of Florida's West Coast Negro League. It's going to take three men and two boys, or the backwash of a jet engine, to blow out 111 candles.
"It'll be fun," Si Simmons said.
Dominated With 2 Pitches
He was born on Oct. 14, 1895, eight months after Babe Ruth. He says Walter Johnson is the greatest pitcher he ever saw and Negro Leagues legend Judy Johnson is the best player. Si Simmons played 17 years, retiring in 1929. He made about $10 a game and dominated with two pitches.
"Fast and curve," he said.
Not that he mentioned this stuff much to his friends at Westminster, where he has lived since his second wife died in 1999.
"Si is always asking about everyone else," said Janice Lambe, a Westminster activities director. "Si never let on. But he does love watching the games."
Though confined to his wheelchair, Si still gets around. "Other than a little arthritis, I'm all right," he said. He plays bingo twice a week and still attends church every Sunday. He's president of the resident council at Westminster.
"He's still with it, man," Lambe said.
Physician Layton Revel walked into Si's room one day. There was cash spread over Si's bed.
"Si, what are you doing?" Revel asked.
"Doc, it's the first of the month. Got to pay them bills."
Revel is not Si's doctor. He works in Texas. He's also founder and director of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research. His friendship with Si began a few months ago.
It happened this way: A genealogist mentioned to Revel that he'd come across a newspaper reference to a Silas Simmons, age 100-something, who once played baseball.
Revel was intrigued. He knew from the center's research that there had been a Silas Simmons in the old Negro Leagues. Was this him? He dug up some old box scores and tracked Si down in St. Pete, not knowing if this was the same man.
"Yeah, that was me," Si said.
"And then he talked for two straight hours," Revel said.
Si is a great find for baseball historians. He's a celebrity. He was recently featured on the front page of The New York Times. Guinness World Records has contacted Revel, who revels in ancient articles and box scores he finds that mention Si.
"The last one I found was from 1926 for the Cuban Stars," Revel said. "The thing is, you look in the box scores, and Si was routinely striking out eight, 10 batters. I'll tell you another thing. He always got a couple of hits himself."
Si knows the final score.
The one that matters.
"We loved the game," he said.
Has Seen Some Amazing Things
Si Simmons can't pinpoint his secret. His father died in 1900. His mother lived until she was 80.
"She always told me to stay out of trouble," Si said. "It's the way you treat people, the way you carry yourself. And I didn't bother with the drinking or smoking."
After Si left baseball, he became an assistant manager in a department store in New Jersey, which is where he was when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and when John F. Kennedy was shot. Si has seen some amazing things.
"Like airplanes," he said.
He remembers baseball greats. He also loves today's game, too. Si has attended several Tampa Bay Devil Rays games. The Rays will present Si with his own jersey at today's party. Si's favorite Ray is Carl Crawford.
"He's a good player, an all-around player, and he's quiet," Si said. "If you're going to play, you keep quiet, play hard and try to win."
Si said the Rays will win one day. Oh, and one more thing:
"I'll be around."
Happy birthday, Si.
Si sounds like an amazing gentleman.
I we wish you well...and many more years!
I'd love to spend some time just chatting with him.
What a wealth of living history!