November 1, 2006
Silas Simmons, 111, Veteran of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, Is Dead
By ALAN SCHWARZ
Silas Simmons, the former Negro leagues baseball player who was believed to be the longest-living professional ballplayer in history, died Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 111.
His death was announced by a spokeswoman for the retirement home where he died.
A Philadelphia native, Simmons was a left-handed pitcher for the local Germantown Blue Ribbons beginning in either 1912 or 1913, in the primordial and poorly recorded days of organized black baseball. He played for Germantown and other clubs for many years after that, including the New York Lincoln Giants of the Eastern Colored League in 1926 and the Negro National League’s Cuban Stars in 1929.
The fact that Simmons was still alive was unknown to baseball’s avid research community until the summer of 2006, when a geneologist discovered he was living in the St. Peterburg nursing home.
“I had a good curveball and a good fastball,” Simmons told The New York Times in an article in September. Simmons, who was paid about $10 a game, said that he might have been good enough to play in the major leagues, but he did not consider even asking for a tryout. “It was useless to try,” he said.
“A lot of good black players, but they couldn’t play in the league,” he said. “So that was it. After Jackie Robinson came up, they found out how good they were and started recruiting. You have to give them a chance to play.
“Negroes had a lot of pride. They felt like baseball, that was the greatest thing in the world for them. You had some great players in those days. Biz Mackey. Pop Lloyd. Judy Johnson. Scrappy Brown, the shortstop. We played against all those players.”
The discovery of Simmons made him a minor baseball celebrity. To celebrate his 111th birthday Oct. 14, the Center for Negro League Baseball Research organized a party at Simmons’s nursing home that attracted 300 people, including 39 former Negro leagues players.
Carl Boles, an outfielder who later played on the 1962 San Francisco Giants, presented Simmons with a plaque from the Society of American Baseball Research that recognized him as the oldest living professional ballplayer ever. And the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — whose games Simmons still occasionally attended with his church group, — gave him an official jersey with No. 111 on the back.
Simmons spent the afternoon regaling attendees with stories of the Negro leagues, of his having played against legends like Lloyd, Johnson and Mackey. He often described Lloyd as “the second Honus Wagner.”
“It was a thrill to watch players like that,” he told The Times. “After awhile 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 retired from baseball in the early 1930s. He had five children and became a porter and later the assistant manager of a Plainfield, N.J., department store. He retired to St. Petersburg in 1971 with his second wife, Rebecca, who died in 1999. Simmons also outlived all of his children.