By Eve Simmons |
My father-in-law, Curt Simmons, is a lefty. Not the card-carrying liberal type, but the 20-year-veteran-of major-league-baseball type. If you follow baseball history, you’ll recognize him as one of the Whiz Kids phenoms from the Philadelphia Phillies days of old. And boy, could Dad pitch back in the day. MLB Hall of Fame hitters Hank Aaron and Stan Musial each separately named Simmons as the toughest pitcher they’d had to face in their careers. Roy Campanella, Brooklyn’s great catcher, said of Curt, “He was the fastest pitcher I’ve ever caught.” The stories Curt has regaled our family with are priceless windows into the history of the game, offering a peek into the evolving soul of our society. Here is a taste of baseball’s learning curve on racism in the late 1940’s.
It was September of 1947 when 18-year-old rookie southpaw pitcher Curt Simmons first sat in the dugout for the Philadelphia Phillies. Simmons recalls his manager, Ben Chapman, blinded by racism, ordering his players to harass one of the opposing team’s rookies, none other than Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson. Chapman threatened that any Phillies player not loudly taunting Robinson from the bench, would face a $100 fine, and so it began. “If the name calling bothered Jackie, you’d never have known it,” mused Curt. It seemed Robinson’s composure and success at the plate, despite that verbal barrage, infuriated Chapman even more. Curt recalled, “The next time we played against Robinson, Chapman reversed himself and ordered us not to say a word.” Referring to Jackie Robinson, Chapman told his players, “Let him sleep. Anybody gets on him, I’m gonna fine you.”
Remaining outwardly unfazed, Robinson and his family would face racial torment, even death threats in those early days. Yet Jackie Robinson not only broke baseball’s color barrier that season, he was named Rookie of the Year. Fans and teammates grew to admire not only Jackie’s talent as a ballplayer, but his remarkable ability to repeatedly rise above the relentless mistreatment that was heaped upon him. As a result, public sentiment finally began to shift towards more inclusive team rosters.
Phillies manager Ben Chapman’s abusive and racist behavior caught up with him. He was fired by the team in mid-season of 1948, becoming known as the most bigoted man in baseball.
Jackie Robinson’s legacy prevailed. By 1957 the Philadelphia Phillies integrated their team, being one of the last ballclubs in major league baseball to do so. Nearly seventy years after Robinson’s rookie year, the “City of Brotherly Love” finally lived up to its motto. On March 31, 2016, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a resolution officially apologizing for the “unconscionable abuse” that Jackie Robinson suffered when he played baseball in their city during that infamous 1947 season.
These days you’ll find a symbol of this monumental shift in thinking inside the posh, private dining room of the Phillies’ stadium at Citizens’ Bank Park in Philadelphia. Proudly displayed, is a larger-than-life photo mural of Jackie Robinson with Curt Simmons, Bob Rush, and Hank Sauer, from the 1952 All-Star Game held at the old Shibe Park in Philadelphia.
Thanks to Jackie, for opening our eyes, for elevating our national perspective, and for bringing us together. Robinson’s courage and absolute grace under tremendous pressure, his ability to persevere, to become a role model, indeed an icon, inspiring millions, proved beyond a doubt, that he was and still is, in a league all his own.
Eve Simmons lives in Cardiff by the Sea, CA with her husband Tom, who gratefully grew up in his father’s shadow and remains a diehard Phillies fan. Follow Eve on Instagram here.