Giant memories from the Negro leagues

History

June 03, 2007|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN REPORTER

Hubert Simmons spends a lot of time these days thinking about when he was one of the "Boys of Summer."

At 83, he reflects on his days as a pitcher for the Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro baseball leagues, which was created because the sport, like the rest of the country, was divided by race.

He remembers pitching a one-hitter against the Richmond (Va.) Giants in the early 1950s.

"That was my best game," he says. "On radio! We were on radio that Sunday."

Simmons played against the Baseball Hall of Fame's Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Leon Day of Baltimore.

In Baltimore, the Negro league hosted two teams at different times -- the Elite Giants and the Black Sox.

The Negro baseball leagues survived from 1920 to about 1960, says Ray Doswell, chief curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

About 4,000 African-American men played in segregated leagues until Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play major league baseball, for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, the anniversary that was celebrated around the major leagues this year.

After Robinson signed with the Dodgers, lots of young African-American baseball players were recruited into the major leagues and its minor league farm clubs.

But Simmons never went to the majors. He played from 1950-51 for the Elite Giants, which by that time was struggling to keep players because of the flood of black men going to the big league.

Simmons had all the pitches -- fastball, curve, change-up -- but he won many games with his knuckleball.

"That was my good pitch," he says.

"You threw it like this," he says, with a ball in his hand as if even now he were ready to pitch. "Not with your knuckles. Your fingertips. Depending on the wind, it moves up."

Simmons was born, grew up and first played ball in Tarboro, N.C. -- a town of about 11,000 then and now, near Rocky Mount.

"I was about 16," Simmons says, adding that he played for the Tarboro Tigers.

After graduating from an all-black high school in 1941, Simmons enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era program that put young men to work on rural conservation projects for a dollar a day.

He went to a camp in Raleigh, N.C., and played baseball on the corps team.

A couple years later he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Simmons became a tech sergeant and a personnel sergeant major. He spent three years overseas in England, France, Belgium and Germany.

He was at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and survived Nazi buzz bomb attacks.

But he didn't play any baseball in the Army.

"No ball. I wanted to. I couldn't find any teams. Didn't have time," he says. "I got to Belgium, I saw guys throwing the ball around. Played softball."

He returned to the United States in December 1945, and he was discharged at Fort Bragg, N.C., the same place he had been inducted.

He returned to a country that he hoped had changed. But it hadn't.

"I got on the bus and I had to sit in the back of the bus," he says, with a long, sad sigh. "Now I had been overseas three years. The war had ended and I had to sit in the back of the bus!"

This was a man awarded four bronze stars, a European Theater Ribbon and even a good conduct medal.

In the late '40s, he enrolled in Greensboro's North Carolina A&T College -- a black school -- on the GI Bill.

While he was there, he played on the college baseball team.

"We won three championships," he says.

Most of the guys on the team, including him, are in the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (N.C.A.& T.) Hall of Fame.

He graduated from college in 1950 and became a pitcher in Atlantic City, N.J. His time there was short-lived.

His coach introduced him to Lenny Pearson, the coach for the Elite Giants.

"And then I came to Baltimore," Simmons says.

The team played at Westport Stadium near Old Annapolis Road. He signed for $200 a month in 1950. And that's the most he ever made in baseball.

"I could pay the rent and I could eat for about two days," he says, joking. "I made out all right."

He stayed in the league for a short time before retiring. He went on to work for the Social Security Administration and later as a teacher in the Baltimore public school system.

"I was getting old, 27," he says of his playing days, which was pretty old to start as a rookie.

Simmons still likes the game. He's a hometown fan. He watches the Orioles -- as well as the Ravens -- on television.

A couple of years ago, youngsters at Govans Elementary School wrote letters asking the Orioles to honor him by allowing him to throw out the first ball at a game.

The Orioles asked him if he would do it.

"I told them of course I would," he says. "If you invite the kids."

That was June 20, 2004.

"They escorted me to the field. Camden Yard," he says. "The kids yelling and screaming. They gave me a ball."

He pitched it to the Orioles third-base coach, Tom Trebelhorn, behind the plate.

About 38,000 people were there, Simmons says.

"That was the greatest feeling I had in baseball," he says. "When I threw that ball and saw it was going to be a strike, I felt so good. I'll never forget it."

carl.schoettler@baltsun.com

HUBERT V. SIMMONS

Nickname -- Known as "Bert"

Born -- May 19, 1924, Tarboro, N.C.

Education -- North Carolina A&T College

Family -- Married for 52 years to Audrey; has a son, granddaughter and great-granddaughter

Team -- Baltimore Elite Giants, 1950-51

Positions -- pitcher, outfielder

After baseball -- Worked for the Social Security Administration and later as a teacher in Baltimore public schools for 30 years. Coached baseball at the little league, high school and college levels. Retired in 1984. Owned a sports store and advertising specialty company, but sold both.

Information -- To learn more about the Negro leagues, go to nlbpa.com.

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