It's their time at long last

30 will be named in honorary major league draft

Negro leagues

June 05, 2008|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN REPORTER

At today's Major League Baseball draft, the Orioles' first selection will be an all-conference college pitcher named Bert Simmons.

Simmons, a knuckleballer who lives in Woodlawn, won't be haggling with the club over a multimillion-dollar contract. He is a throwback to the days when men played the game for love, not money. There's a maturity about him that's unparalleled in baseball.

The reason? Bert Simmons turned 84 last month.

Simmons is one of 30 former Negro leagues players to be honored today by being selected in a ceremonial draft before the real thing. Each club will honor a surviving Negro leagues alumnus, none of whom got to play for a major or minor league team.

"It's nice of [baseball] to consider me," Simmons said. "At my age, everything is an honor."

The Orioles are flying Simmons to Orlando, Fla., for the ceremony. All of the old-timers will receive caps and jerseys of their representative teams as well as a four-figure check in recognition of their segregated efforts long ago.

"Call it `an economic bump,' " said Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice-president of operations for MLB. "We can't forget the group that history forgot."

Simmons' invitation to the draft included this question: Will you need a wheelchair?

Not likely. The man who once batted against Hall of Famer Satchel Paige still drives and plays 18 holes of golf each week.

Nor has Simmons really been forgotten. A Baltimore resident for 57 years, he has taken part in the Orioles' FanFest. In 2004, he threw out the first pitch at a home game. Simmons routinely attends autograph shows at area malls and speaks to school-age children and college students on his experiences.

He tells of bumpy rides to backwater Southern towns, where players bought bologna and bread and ate on the bus when restaurants denied them. Too often they dressed in dugouts because stadium clubhouses were for whites only.

"In one town, we had to put on our uniforms down the left-field line, before the ballpark opened," he said.

Simmons played one year in the Negro leagues, for the 1950 Baltimore Elite Giants. It was the club's 13th and final season, integration having drawn the leagues' top stars away. A native of Tarboro, N.C., he had come north after an Army stint with credentials, having starred at North Carolina A&T.

At 26, he signed with the Elite Giants for $200 a month and took a small room in a boarding house on Hoffman Street in West Baltimore. No car. No phone.

"That was good money for me because I was doing what I wanted, and I could afford to eat," he said.

A relief pitcher and outfielder, Simmons said he won five of eight decisions, but who knows? Records are sketchy; teams had no official scorekeepers.

Clear enough is his recollection of facing Paige, once the Negro leagues' biggest star, in a barnstorming game that season.

"Three fastballs and I was gone," Simmons said. "I never touched the ball."

After 1950, the Baltimore franchise moved to Nashville and disbanded. Simmons remained here, hoping for a shot at the big leagues that never came.

"The majors were drafting 19-year-old [black] pitchers, big guys who were 6 feet and weighed 200 pounds," he said.

Simmons was 5-10 and 155 pounds. But there are no regrets of having missed his shot.

"It was something that I could live with," he said. "I did the best with what I had."

With the Elite Giants gone, Simmons played some semipro ball, then worked 11 years as a government file clerk. He then taught business in Baltimore City public schools, retiring in 1984 from Northwestern High, where he coached baseball. For 40 years, he also coached in the James Mosher Little League in West Baltimore.

He lives in a quiet, leafy neighborhood in Woodlawn with his wife, Audrey, and his memories. Simmons had a heart valve replaced several years ago and underwent heart bypass surgery in December.

But he remains an active link with the past, one of about 30 surviving players from the Negro leagues that folded, for all intents, at the end of 1950.

"It's an honor for the Orioles to `draft' Bert," said Monica Pence, a team spokeswoman. "He might not have played that long for the Elite Giants, but his ties to Baltimore baseball are strong."

A year ago, Simmons took part in a White House gala honoring the late Jackie Robinson, who integrated the majors in 1947. A framed photo of Simmons shaking hands with President George W. Bush hangs in his den.

"I gave [the president] my autographed baseball card," Simmons said. "His `helpers' quickly took it away to examine it."

For Simmons, however, that experience pales in comparison to the time that he threw out the first pitch before an Orioles-Tampa Bay game at Camden Yards.

A group of fourth-graders from Govans Elementary helped put Simmons on the mound.

"Their teacher had them write a report on me," he said. "Then they all wrote to the Orioles, who asked me to appear."

For one week beforehand, Simmons - then 80 - walked to a nearby playground and practiced pitching to a neighbor.

"I was determined not to bounce it in front of the plate, like presidents do," he said.

"When I walked onto that field, saw my picture on the scoreboard and heard those children cheering ... well, that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in baseball."

Simmons threw a strike.

The Orioles haven't told him yet, but there are plans to have Simmons do the same this summer. Top draft picks are expected to reach the majors.

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