Obituary: Curt Simmons (1929-2022)

RIP to Curt Simmons, a three-time All-Star pitcher and member of the Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame. He was also the last surviving member of the 1950 “Whiz Kids” Phillies team. The team announced that he died on Tuesday, December 13, at his home in Ambler, Pa. He was 93 years old. Simmons played for the Philadelphia Phillies (1947-50, 1952-60), St. Louis Cardinals (1960-66), Chicago Cubs (1966-67) and California Angels (1967).

Curtis Thomas Simmons was born in Egypt, Pa., on May 19, 1929. (As of this writing, there are still 33 living ballplayers who were born in the 1920s, per Baseball Almanac.) It didn’t take long — 1944 to be exact — for Simmons to establish himself as one of the area’s top pitchers. That year, the 15-year-old Simmons, who also played ball at Whitehall High School, was rated the best pitcher in the Eastern Pennsylvania American Legion League. The pitcher, who played for the Coplay team, won 3 games without a defeat and struck out 45 batters in 36 innings. One of his wins was a no-hitter against Fountain Hill, in which he struck out 21 batters. The following year, 1945, he pitched for a group of All-Star ballplayers from the East who took on a team of Western stars in a game held at the Polo Grounds. Simmons was given the start by the Eastern team’s manager, none other than Babe Ruth. Not only did Simmons pitch 5 strong innings, but he also smacked the game winning hit in the contest. His heroics earned him the title of the “All-American Boy.” The News Herald of Perkasie, Pa., raved about the local kid who stood out among players from all across the country. “Those who saw him here can well remember the skill, the grace and the modest sportsmanship that were shown by this youngster whom fortune has also endowed with a very fair amount of good looks,” stated an editorial.

Curt Simmons, center, signs his first pro contract while surrounded by family and Cardinals execs. From left to right: George Bellis, director of athletics; Cy Morgan, scout; Hattie Simmons, his mother; Doris Simmons, his sister; Herb Pennock, Cardinals general manager; and Lawrence Simmons, his father.

That game at the Polo Grounds caught the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies. General manager Herb Pennock and manager Ben Chapman each paid the boy a visit in the fall of 1945, but they couldn’t recruit him until he graduated in 1947. During that time, Simmons continued to dominate at Legion ball, and Coplay won the Legion state championship in 1945 and ’46. Other pro teams came calling, but when Simmons graduated from Whitehall, the Phillies were there with a substantial bonus (rumored to be in the neighborhood of $40,000 to $60,000) to sign him to their Wilmington Blue Rocks affiliate.

Simmons made 18 appearances for the Blue Rocks in 1947 and threw 17 complete games. He won 13 and lost 5 with a 2.69 ERA, and he struck out 197 batters in 147 innings. The Phillies were so anxious to see their local phenom in the majors that they called the 18-year-old Simmons to the majors to face the New York Giants on the last day of the season. Simmons’ debut took place in the second game of a doubleheader on September 28, 1947 — at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, naturally — and Simmons was dazzling. He held the Giants to 5 hits and 1 run, going the distance in a 3-1 win. He walked 6 batters, but he also fanned 9. He came within one out of a shutout, but pinch-hitter Buddy Blattner knocked in a ninth-inning run. Simmons then retired the next batter, Johnny Mize, on a grounder to second base to end the game.

Cy Morgan, the scout who signed Simmons, was impressed not only by the way the youngster retired the dangerous Mize to end the scoring threat, but also by how kids in the stands flocked to the accommodating Simmons. “It’s just as important to be a good ball player off the field, because by being an idol to the country’s youth, Curt can help produce baseball stars of the next generation,” Morgan noted.

The Phillies at that time were on the slow road to improvement, so starting pitchers weren’t able to get many wins. Simmons, who was one of the youngest players in the majors, struggled right along with the rest of the Phillies pitchers. He had a 7-13 record in 1948 and a 4-10 record in ’49 while working as a swingman, and his ERAs were over 4.50. He walked 108 batters in 170 innings in 1948 and fanned 86. Still, everyone who worked with Simmons praised him and remarked on his potential. The pitcher worked with Philadelphia instructor George Earnshaw to work on his footing, which was one of his few weaknesses. “I never finish my follow-through with my feet in the same position twice in succession. I end up different every time,” Simmons said.

The 1950 season is one of the most memorable in Phillies history — it’s the year of the Whiz Kids. New owner Bob Carpenter and new manager Eddie Sawyer stocked the team with plenty of talent 25 years old or younger — Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, Granny Hamner and Willie Jones on offense and Robin Roberts, Bubba Church and Bob Miller in the starting rotation. Last but not least was Curt Simmons, who had his breakout season. He was trusted with a starting job for the first time in his major-league career and turned in a 17-8 record and 3.40 ERA in 27 starts. He completed 11 games and threw the first 2 shutouts of his career. He struck out a career-best 146 batters, too. The Whiz Kids won 91 games and fought off a late charge by the Brooklyn Dodgers to capture the NL pennant for the first time in 35 years.

The Phillies lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in four games, because one of their aces was lost for the postseason. Simmons was a member of the National Guard and was called to active duty in early September. He became the first major-leaguer to be called to active duty after the Korean War began. Simmons did make it back to the World Series… as a batting practice pitcher. He was granted a 10-day furlough by the Army and suited up with his teammates for the World Series. Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler even indicated that he would consider Simmons for a place on the active roster had the Phillies asked, but they didn’t ask. During his time on active duty, Simmons hadn’t so much as picked up a baseball. “Why, he’d have to go through spring training all over again,” Sawyer said. Instead, Simmons sat on the bench and watched the Whiz Kids manage just 5 total runs in the 4-game sweep.

The military kept Simmons out of baseball until 1952. By the time he returned, the Phillies’ moment as a pennant contender had passed, but the pitcher rejoined the team in top form. He was named to the All-Star team in 1952 and ’53 and won 14 and 16 games during the regular season, respectively. He also led the majors with 6 shutouts in 1952. He had 4 shutouts in 1953, including a near perfect game. On May 16, Simmons faced the Milwaukee Braves and gave up a leadoff single to Bill Bruton. He then retired the next 27 batters, with 10 strikeouts for a 3-0 win. Simmons was given the starting assignment in the 1952 All-Star Game and threw 3 shutout innings, striking out 3. He pitched 2 shutout innings in the 1953 Game as a reliever.

Simmons’ tour of duty may have cost the Phillies a world championship, but it may have saved his toes. Simmons was wearing his military shoes while cutting the grass in June of 1953, when his left foot accidentally got into the way of the power mower. Part of the big toe was severed, and Simmons missed a month of the season, but his Army shoes took the brunt of the damage. Had he been in civilian footwear, the injury could have been much, much worse.

Simmons threw a career-high 253 innings in 1954 and finished with a respectable 14-15 record and 2.81 ERA. However, he came into training camp in 1955 with a sore left arm and was limited to 22 starts and 130 innings. His record dropped to 8-8, and his 4.92 ERA was the worst among all Phillies starters. Simmons talked in early 1956 about moving away from being a power pitcher to save some wear on his aching left shoulder, and some journalists were predicting that his career was over at age 26. Some thought that his herky-jerky delivery was the cause of his problems, while others blamed his extended stint in the Army or his mowing accident. Eddie Sawyer, who had been replaced as Phillies manager by Mayo Smith, opined that Simmons was too… nice. “He just isn’t mean enough. As long as I knew him, I never knew him to intentionally try to ‘dust off’ a hitter,” Sawyer said.

However, Simmons bounced back for two more productive seasons with the Phillies, winning 15 games in 1956 and 12 in 1957. He showed his arm could still go the distance by throwing 14 complete games in 1956, and he picked up his 100th career win on May 30 in a 10-inning complete game 2-1 win over the Mets. Simmons was given the starting nod for the NL in the 1957 All-Star Game, the second time in his career he had been given the honor. After a 1-2-3 first inning, he gave up an RBI single to Vic Wertz and left with the bases loaded. Lew Burdette relieved him and allowed a run to score, and Simmons took the loss in the 6-5 loss for the NL.

Curt Simmons, right, jokes with Cardinals batboys Dave Boyer (Ken Boyer’s son) and his son Tom Simmons during spring training. Source: The Town Talk, March 22, 1965.

The rest of Simmons’ time with Philadelphia was marked by ineffectiveness and injuries. His record fell to 7-14 in 1958, and it took a good final month of the season to get his ERA down to 4.38. He recorded only 78 Ks in 168-1/3 innings, though one of them, Chicago’s Dale Long on June 3, was the 1,000th of his career. Simmons missed the start of the 1959 season after an operation to remove a bone fragment from his left elbow. He rejoined the team at the end of May and made 7 relief appearances, giving up 5 runs in 10 innings before being send to the Phillies minor-league team in Williamsport to regain his form.

Simmons’ career with the Phillies ended abruptly. He made two starts for the team in 1960 and retired a total of 3 batters between them. He was moved to the bullpen and didn’t fare much better. Having allowed 8 earned runs on 16 hits in 4 innings, the Phillies kept him on the bench. Simmons asked for a trade, but the Phillies released him on May 11, in the middle of a West Coast road trip, to get to the 25-man roster limit. “It was no snap decision,” said general manager John Quinn.

Simmons, though he’d pitched badly, was shocked by the release. “They told me at midnight in San Francisco. It was like saying, ‘So long, see you later,'” the pitcher said. “They could have shown me a little more courtesy. But that’s baseball, I guess.”

While it seemed likely that Simmons was through, he reached out to several teams. The Pirates offered him a minor-league contract, and the Cubs were interested, but the Cardinals were willing to bring him on board immediately — no minor leagues, no workout required. Once he joined the Redbirds, he pitched more regularly and more successfully as the season went on. He won 7 games for St. Louis, and 4 of those victories came against the Philadelphia Phillies. His ERA with the Cardinals was 2.66, which was best among all the team’s starters. It would have led the National League, and even after you include his disastrous 4 innings with the Phillies, his overall 3.06 ERA was still sixth best in the NL. After the season, he was awarded the Bob Bauman Comeback of the Year Award by St. Louis sportswriters.

After being thought of as washed up, Simmons proceeded to become a key part of the Cardinals’ pitching staff for the next five years. His first couple of seasons, 1961 and ’62, resulted in pretty pedestrian 9-10 and 10-10 records, respectively, but his ERA+ in 1961 was an NL-best 141. His 3.13 ERA was third in the NL, so Simmons was pitching much better than his record would indicate. There was no hiding his success in 1963, however, as he won all four of his April starts and ran his record to 5-0 before suffering a loss. He ended with a 15-9 record, and the last 3 wins were consecutive shutouts of the Mets, Cubs and Braves. Along with 18-game winners Bob Gibson and Ernie Broglio, St. Louis won 93 games, good enough for second place behind the Dodgers. The 1964 trade that sent Broglio to the Chicago Cubs for Lou Brock was one of the catalysts that pushed the Cardinals to the top of the NL in 1964. At age 35, Simmons was one of the oldest pitchers on the team, but his 18-9 record and 3.43 ERA gave the Cardinals three outstanding starters, along with staff ace Gibson and 20-game winner Ray Sadecki.

The Cardinals finished a game ahead of Cincinnati and Philadelphia and advanced to the World Series, where they faced the New York Yankees. Simmons had been robbed of a chance to pitch in the postseason with the Whiz Kids in 1950, but he made the most of his second chance, 14 years later. He started two of the seven games, and while he didn’t win either one, he pitched very well against a tough Yankees team. He threw 8 innings in Game Three and allowed a run on 4 hits. Unfortunately for him, Jim Bouton of the Yankees was just as good, and Simmons was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth inning in a 1-1 tie. Cards reliever Barney Schultz allowed a home run to the first batter he faced, Mickey Mantle, to end the game in the Yankees favor. Simmons then started Game Six and fanned 6 Yankees in 6-1/3 innings. He also gave up back-to-back homers to Roger Maris and Mantle and departed with a 3-1 deficit. The final score was 8-3 Yankees. World Series MVP Gibson pitched the Cardinals to a 7-5 win in Game Seven to be crowned World Champs.

Simmons became a regular on the offseason banquet circuit and joked about the craziness of the three-team scramble for first place. He said he even looked for Phillies World Series tickets for most of September. “I finally secured some for my friends, and I think now that they are mad at me because the Cards took the pennant and the Phillies didn’t. But I’m awfully glad that it was that way,” he said.

The championship season of 1964 was the last great season of Simmons’ career. As it frequently happens, the Cardinals suffered a hangover in 1965, falling to 80-81-1. The fact that manager Johnny Keane left the team to lead the Yankees may have been a factor as well. New manager Red Schoendienst was hampered by the fact that only one of the top three pitchers from ’64 — Gibson — was able to continue his dominance. Both Simmons and Sadecki lost 15 games. Simmons managed only 9 wins, and his ERA jumped by more than half a run to 4.08. The Cardinals struggles led to a youth movement, and many of the pieces of the 1964 championship team were traded away. Simmons lost his spot in the starting rotation in 1966, as the team turned to younger pitchers like Larry Jaster and Nelson Briles. Through June 22, he had appeared in 10 games for the Cards, and only half of them were starts. St. Louis put him on waivers, and he was claimed by the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs pitching staff was a mix of talented young pitchers like Fergie Jenkins, Dick Ellsworth and Ken Holtzman, plus veterans at the end of their careers like Ernie Broglio and Robin Roberts — both former teammates of Simmons, ironically. In this environment, Simmons was able to pitch semi-regularly over the rest of the season, making 10 starts and 9 relief appearances. He won 4 games and lost 7 with a 4.07 ERA with the Cubs. His pitching arsenal had mostly become a mix of offspeed pitches, but he could still have a dominant start. He threw a 3-hitter against the Reds on July 21, beating them 9-1. “Age doesn’t mean anything,” Cubs manager Leo Durocher said of his veteran pitcher. “He never gives anybody a good pitch to hit at — he keeps making the batters nibble and keeps everybody off balance.”

The Cubs improved all the way from last place in 1966 to third in 1967, as the Cubs leaned into a young crop of pitchers. Simmons, who at 38 years of age was the senior player on the team, struggled to a 3-7 record and an ERA of 4.94. He was placed on waivers in early August, and the California Angels claimed him. In his first American League appearance, Simmons shut out the Yankees 7-0 on August 9, scattering 10 hits. He earned some kidding from his younger Angels teammates, with a few jokers asking him how he used to pitch to Cobb and Ruth. After a couple of short appearances in his next starts, the Angels moved him to the bullpen. Simmons did great in the role, allowing just 1 earned run over his last 12 innings of the season. He ended up closing out his career with a 9-2/3 scoreless inning streak over his final 8 games. After the season was over, Simmons announced his retirement.

Simmons pitched for 20 seasons, with a career record of 193-183. His 115 wins with Philadelphia is fifth all-time, and his 1,052 strikeouts is ninth on the team’s all-time list. He had a 3.54 ERA, with 163 complete games, 36 shutouts and 5 saves. He struck out 1,697 batters and held the opposition to a lifetime .258 batting average. A great fielding pitcher with a lifetime .965 fielding percentage, Simmons had four seasons (1950, 1952, 1957 and 1963) when he didn’t commit a single error. He also was a career .171 batter, with 76 runs driven in and 1 career home run, against Pittsburgh’s Red Munger on May 22, 1952. Baseball Reference credits him with 43.3 Wins above replacement.

Robin Roberts and Simmons owned and operated the Limekiln Country Club in Ambler, Pa., following their retirements. The course closed in 2018. Source: Golf Course Ranking.

Simmons returned to his Pennsylvania home after his retirement. He took a part-time job as an instructor in the Phillies organization in 1970, but most of his post-career work was done at the Limekiln Golf Club in Ambler, Pa. He and Phillies teammate Roberts were part of a group of 20 business owners who purchased the club in 1956. Eventually, the two pitchers became majority owners, and Simmons managed the course for decades, which meant doing everything from keeping the books to mowing the rough. He and his family lived in a house that overlooked the course, which closed in 2018.

Simmons was a regular participant in Old Timers Games, and well into his 80s and 90s, he was remembered fondly by Phillies fans for his part in the fabled Whiz Kids team. His hometown of Egypt honored him with a “Curt Simmons Day” parade in 2012. The town named a baseball field after its most famous native son. That was the same year that the 83-year-old Simmons had to give up golfing for good, after a third surgery on his left hip.

Simmons and Bob Miller were the two last surviving Whiz Kids, and prior to Miller’s death, the two talked on the phone regularly. Simmons’ memory was starting to fade by then, but the two loved to reminisce together. “If they don’t talk for a while, they miss each other,” Bob Miller Jr. told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2020. “Curt will call and say, `I want to make sure you’re still alive, Righthander, because you’ve got to pitch tomorrow.’ Their stories are great. You can tell it invigorates them.”

Simmons and his wife, Dorothy, were married for more than 60 years before her death in 2012. Simmons is survived by his children, Timothy, Thomas and Susan.

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3 thoughts on “Obituary: Curt Simmons (1929-2022)

  1. Nice write up on Curt Simmons. For the sake of accuracy, I would note that his 100th win in 1956, if my quick research is correct, was at the expense of the NY Giants


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