Here lies Al Simmons, a Hall of Fame outfielder and one of the most dangerous hitters of the 1920s and ‘30s. He was nicknamed, “Bucketfoot Al,” given due to his unique batting stance. Simmons played outfield for the Philadelphia Athletics (1924-32; 1940-1; 1944), Chicago White Sox (1933-35), Detroit Tigers (1936), Washington Senators (1937-8), Boston Bees (1939), Cincinnati Reds (1939) and Boston Red Sox (1943).
The teenaged Simmons was discovered on a semi-pro team while playing under his given name, Aloysius Syzmanski. Baseball lifer Eddie Stumpf saw him hit a couple of home runs off a known spitball pitcher. He helped sign the youngster to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, though Simmons’ mother almost killed the deal.
“She was afraid her son would lose his religion if he played baseball,” Stumpf told the Sporting News. Fortunately, a Catholic priest who was also a baseball fan eased her fears, and Simmons was able to start his pro baseball odyssey.
Simmons tore through the minor leagues. In two seasons, he battered pitchers to the tune of a .359 batting average and .541 slugging percentage, with 66 doubles, 30 triples and 23 home runs. With those kinds of numbers, it’s not surprising that a major-league team came calling. Sure enough, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics made a trade with the Brewers, sending three players to the Brewers and $40,000 for Simmons. That was how minor-league deals worked in baseball before the farm system became established.
The 1923 Athletics were a 6th-place team. The addition of Simmons in center field didn’t help matters much, but he was an important building block for what was to come. As a 22-year-old rookie, Simmons had 102 RBIs and 183 hits for a .308 batting average. The power that he would demonstrate later in his career didn’t show up yet, as he hit just 8 home runs. He did hit 31 doubles and 9 triples while striking out 60 times. He’d only strike out that many times in a season just once more in his 20-year career.
By 1925, the A’s had moved up to 2nd in the standings, and Simmons showed just how dangerous a hitter he could be. His .387 batting average was third in the AL, and his 253 hits led the league. He had an OPS (slugging percentage plus on-base percentage) of 1.018, the first of 5 times he would top the 1.000 mark. He hit a career-high .392 in 1927, though even that didn’t league the league (Detroit’s Harry Heilmann hit .398). The year 1927 was the year of the “Murderers’ Row” New York Yankees, so of course the Athletics couldn’t win the pennant. That would come in a couple of seasons.
Philadelphia finally clinched the pennant in 1929, when Simmons hit .365 and led the AL in RBIs with 157. He wasn’t just a one-man attack, either. Over the years, Mack had accumulated a massive amount of talent. Jimmie Foxx, Mule Haas and Mickey Cochrane had all settled into the lineup as well, with Foxx and Simmons packing a 1-2 punch that rivaled the Yankees’ Ruth-Gehrig as the best combo in baseball.
The Athletics dynasty didn’t last — it never did in Philadelphia — but the team made it to the World Series three straight years (1929-31) and won two of them (’29 against the Cubs and ’30 against the Cardinals; they lost to the Cardinals in ’31). Simmons was a beast in the postseason, hitting two home runs in each series. Including one game he played for the Reds late in his career, Simmons slashed .329/.380/.658 in the World Series with 12 extra base hits and 12 singles in 19 games.
Simmons continued to dominate in the regular season. He won the AL batting title in 1930 and 1931 with averages of .381 and .390, respectively. He had a career-high 36 home runs in 1930 with 165 RBIs, also a career best. He did this all with his famous “foot-in-the-bucket” batting stance. When the righty stepped up to swing, hit left foot moved away from the plate and toward the third base dugout. It’s not really how you’re supposed to swing, but it’s hard to argue with Simmons’ results. He seemed pretty sensitive to the insinuation that he swung his bat incorrectly.
“A fellow’s got to hit the way that comes naturally to him,” he said in the Sporting News. “Nobody can change a guy all around and make a good hitter out of him. Hitters are born, not made.”
Simmons praised Connie Mack for his mentoring of the young slugger. Mack never tried to “correct” Simmons’ batting stance. He credited his former manager for guidance that eventually led Simmons to Cooperstown. “Records shows that I was a good baseball player while I was under Mr. Mack’s influence, but only a fair one when I left Philadelphia,” he said.
That’s not entirely true, but Simmons’ best years were with the A’s. After one more outstanding season with the team in 1932, Mack had to go on one of his frequent selling sprees to keep the team afloat. In September 1932, Simmons, Haas and infielder Jimmy Dykes were sold to the Chicago White Sox for $100,000. The Sox were still stuck in their post-Black Sox doldrums, but Simmons had two excellent and one fair season for them. He was selected to the only three All-Star Games of his career, including the inaugural 1933 game and the 1934 contest where Simmons was one of Carl Hubbell’s strikeout victims.
In 1935, it finally happened: Simmons hit like a mortal human. His batting average dropped all the way down to .267, and he failed to break the 100-RBI mark for the first time in his career. He was purchased by the Detroit Tigers for $75,000 at the end of the season, so the White Sox got a pretty fair return for their $100,000 investment. Simmons rebounded with the Tigers in ‘36, hitting .327 with 112 RBIs, in what was his final truly great season. It was a short stay in Detroit, as his contract was sold to the Senators after the season for a mere $15,000.
Simmons was a good outfielder for the Senators in his two years there, even hitting 21 homers in 1938. It helped push back all the stories that he was washed up, but he was nearing the end of the road as a regular player at that point. When the Boston Bees bought his contract at the end of 1938, they paid $3,000 for his services. He bounced around between teams, occasionally hitting well and occasionally struggling to hit .200. His last home run was in a Red Sox uniform, of all things, and his final plate appearances came in 1942 when he was 42 years old. He was pushing for 3,000 hits, but he fell short at 2,927. He retired with a .334 batting average, 307 home runs and 1,828 RBIs. He was a fine outfielder as well, leading the AL in fielding percentage in left field 5 times and once as a center fielder.
Like Ruth, Simmons had a desire to manage and came back to the Athletics on multiple occasions, hoping that he would replace the declining Connie Mack. He said he’d been promised the role, but it never happened. Simmons was fired by the A’s board of directors in 1949, not long before Mack himself was ousted. He coached for the Cleveland Indians and manager Al Lopez in 1950, but his ultimate rejection from Philadelphia was too much for him. He quit in the spring of 1951, telling Lopez, “I’m no good to you or to myself.”
Philadelphia had passed him over, but baseball remembered his many achievements. Eventually. Simmons was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, along with Dizzy Dean. Incredibly, it took Simmons 10 years on the ballot before getting 75.4% of the vote. His final seasons as a part-time player probably were held against him in the voting. Simmons was at a horse track in Hialeah when he got the news of his induction. He’d won three straight races and cracked that it was his lucky day. “I had begun to think they had forgotten me,” Simmons said of his election.
If today’s Hall of Fame voters get you angry, you should see the 1953 results. Joe DiMaggio, in his first year of eligibility, finished 8th in the tally, 81 votes shy of election. Rabbit Maranville got 57 more votes than DiMaggio.
On May 26, 1956, four days after his 54th birthday, Al Simmons suffered a fatal heart attack in his home town of Milwaukee. He’d been living at the Milwaukee Athletic Club and came back after shopping on a Friday night. The cabbie was helping to bring in Simmons’ purchases when he turned and found the former slugger collapsed on the sidewalk. He was pronounced dead on arrival at County Emergency Hospital. He is buried in St. Adalbert Cemetery in Milwaukee.
Simmons’ modest estate consisted of a few thousand dollars and a $17,000 life insurance policy, all of which went to his son John. Some bad investments and a generous nature were to blame, said attorney Jerome Roblewski, a friend of Simmons. “Al was a sucker for anybody who came along with a good story,” he told the Associated Press.
His Sporting News obit told this great anecdote, and it’s a fitting place to conclude. He played a double-header against the Senators in 1930 while with the Athletics. He hit a game-tying home run in Game 1 and doubled and scored in the 13th inning. He ruptured a blood vessel in his knee while rounding third base, and the team doctor all but ruled him out for action in Game 2. He told manager Mack that if Simmons was to bat at all in the second game, he’d have to hit a home run because he couldn’t run around the bases. The Senators were winning 7-4 in the 4th inning, and Simmons was sent in with the bases loaded to pinch hit. Sure enough, he listened to the doctor’s orders, hit a grand slam, and the A’s went on to win 14-7.
“I wish I had nine players like Al Simmons,” Mack said.
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