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Interview With Clifton Parker, Biographer of Philadelphia A’s Hall of Famer Al Simmons

bucketfoot-al-baseball-life-simmons-clifton-blue-parker-paperback-cover-artAl Simmons was named MVP of the Philly Dream Series after a terrific hitting performance topped off with the Series-winning walk-off hit in Game 7. It was cool that Simmons had such a great Series. He is one of the greatest baseball players to ever play in Philadelphia, and because the A’s moved out of town, his achievements have kind of been lost to time. Part of the point of the whole project was to bring some of those A’s greats (5 of whom are in the Hall of Fame, including Connie Mack) back to life, at least in a baseball sense.

Incredibly, despite being one of the best players in the “Golden Era” of baseball, Al Simmons had never had a biography written about him until 2011. That’s when Clifton Blue Parker decided to do one on the A’s legend. Titled Bucketfoot Al: The Baseball Life of Al Simmons, you can purchase it here. I spoke with Clifton about the enigmatic, hard playing, hard living outfielder of whom Connie Mack once wished, “If I could only have nine players named Simmons.” 

What inspired you to write the book?

My grandfather and great grandfather were doctors in North Carolian who helped the A’s built their minor league field. I had a picture of my grandfather with Connie Mack at that stadium. I also had a ball autographed by Connie Mack that he had given my great-grandfather. I always had an interest in the team. A team that was arguably better than the ’27 Yankees. And I saw that they weren’t always given their due.

Why Al Simmons?

What I like to do is to cover ground that people haven’t covered before. Simmons was probably the greatest player out there statistically who had never had a full length book written about him. To me, it’s exciting to work on a book that is shining a light on one of the best players of all time.

What kind of upbringing did Simmons have?

His mom and dad were immigrants from Poland. He grew up very poor and his father died at a young age. He had to help his mother out. Had a very strong Catholic upbringing in a Polish neighborhood in Milawaukke. It was really a rags-to-riches story.

He was born with the name Aloys Szymanski. Why did he change his name? 

It was easier for sportswriters to spell it out in newspapers.

Was Simmons successful right off the bat in the major leagues?

By the second year he was off and running. His first ten years of MLB service were among the best ever for a player (You can check out Al Simmons’ career stats here). He began going downhill after age 31. That’s one of the reasons maybe why he’s overlooked today, because he didn’t finish strong. The first half of his career was so incredible that it hurt when his second half wasn’t as good.

Screen shot 2013-11-05 at 5.25.00 PMWhy wasn’t the second half of his career as good?

He got traded to cities that were out of his comfort zones. He wasn’t fundamentally happy. He also had injuries that nagged at him. He had a difficult divorce. That probably did not help. Playing for Connie Mack was the best time he ever had as a ballplayer. He had won a couple of championships and after he got traded nothing seemed quite the same.

What kind of hitter was he? How would you compare him to Jimmie Foxx

Simmons was a line drive, slashing hitter. He wasn’t a long ball home run hitter like Foxx or Ruth. He was more like a Gehrig, a line drive hitter with a very unusual stance. A bucket approach, but he could hit the outside pitch. He was aggressive, and didn’t get a lot of walks. Foxx was a more patient hitter. Simmons hit a lot of doubles and triples and RBIs, but he had a lot of guys ahead of him on base with those A’s teams. He did not strikeout a whole lot and did not walk a whole lot. A contact guy with extra base power.

What was most interesting about your research about those A’s teams and about Simmons?

As far as the A’s were concerned, I didn’t realize how well that team compared with the ’27 Yankees. The A’s had better pitching than the Yankees did on their run, and their hitting was probably as good. Frankly, Philadelphia was  better. Not by much. Both teams were obviously great. But I give the edge to the A’s. Their lineup had more legitimate Hall of Famers than the Yankees did.

As for Simmons, I found out that he wasn’t just a gruff, rough guy. There were times he took younger players under his wing. He did not take care of himself the way he should have, he drank too much, but he had a soft spot for giving back. In Philadelphia, he did things for hospitals and had a generosity about him That’s not as well known. We tend to reduce people’s personalities to a few simple things.

You say he had a reputation as a rough guy. Tell us more about that.  

Simmons was an aggressive man. He was candid and blunt, and tried to win no matter what. He didn’t like pitchers. He thought they threatened his livelihood. He thought they were his enemy. Even if they were on his team, he thought that were the enemy.

He had a number of fights in his career that were well chronicled. He had trouble with the [Washington] Senators, and almost got into a fight with the fans.

Screen shot 2013-11-05 at 5.34.02 PM

Al Simmons biographer Clifton Blue Parker.

Mack loved him. Mack knew how ornery Simmons could be, and would tell sportswriters later on, “I hope that’s ok with Al.” Al always had an opinion. And when Mack was getting old, Simmons was almost managing the club (Simmons was a coach for the A’s from 1945-1949). Connie and Al were very tight. Al lost his father at a young age, and it was almost like a father-son relationship. And that might be why his career dropped off when he left Philadelphia. Nothing could compete with that.

What should Simmons baseball legacy be?

An all around ballplayer, MVP caliber during baseball’s golden age. Should be known for doing practically everything well. Hit for a very high average, drove in a lot of people. He doesn’t have clutch hitting stats but his RBI stats are astounding. In the age of Sabermetrics, he might come up short, but when you talk about the number of hits he had, it’s incredible. A hitting machine, and he could play outfield as well as anyone. An average baserunner, that’s the only thing that prevents him from being a 5-tool player. He was a high batting average, extra base hitter, and sometimes those guys will be overlooked and the home run hitter will get the attention. The fact that he was a defensive player and an all around smart ballplayer is a reason he should not be overlooked.

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