It had been many years since Al Simmons’ picture had graced the cover of a national magazine. But on August 19, 1996, there he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In perfect “bucketfoot” fashion, with his left foot extending towards the third base dugout, Al’s picture had been chosen for the lead story “The Team that Time Forgot” by William Nack.
It was an important date in Philadelphia Athletics history. The team had almost ceased to exist in baseball memory following their move to Kansas City after the 1954 season. The SI article seemed to change all that. Suddenly broadcasters and sportswriters dusted the cobwebs from their historical recollections and the Philadelphia Athletics were once again a part of baseball’s vocabulary. Selecting Al H. Simmons’ photo to represent the A’s made sense. While other A’s stars from the great 1925 to 1932 teams went on to have success with other clubs, Bucketfoot Al is remembered solely for his accomplishments while wearing Athletics Blue.
Today, Al Simmons is a baseball enigma. He was more like a Ty Cobb than a Babe Ruth. Everyone loves Jimmie Foxx for his humility, gentleness, generosity, famous smile and, of course, the tape measure home runs. Lefty Grove was a great pitcher and pitchers are forgiven for their orneriness. But an intense, combative, temperamental, tenacious and self-confident hitter is another matter. Al Simmons seemed to be all of those.
The story goes that when Aloysius Szymanski came home from the 4th grade one day, he proudly announced to his Polish immigrant father that he was going to be a professional baseball player. His no nonsense father insisted that Al’s future was in the butcher business and he got the strap. After the beating, Al defiantly insisted he was going to play baseball. His father insisted that, under those circumstances, he better be a good one.
Al Harry Simmons (Szymanski) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin one hundred years ago on May 22, 1902. He played sandlot baseball there and the Philadelphia Athletics became his favorite team. He wrote several letters to Connie Mack, asking for a tryout. While Connie never remembered receiving any letters from Al, an A’s scout showed interest in him after he signed with the minor league Milwaukee Brewers. It was at Milwaukee that Al Szymanski grew tired of scorekeepers butchering his last name. After seeing a large sign advertising Simmons Hardware, Al adopted a new last name. In 1923 the Athletics signed Al Simmons for $50,000. This was despite his most unusual follow through.
When Simmons reported for spring training in 1924, no one seemed to expect much from him. This was due largely to his unorthodox and awkward style of stepping towards third base rather than towards the pitcher while at the plate. It was said that he looked like he swung with one foot in a bucket. When Connie Mack saw how the kid could hit, however, he decided never to mess with his batting style.
It was a style that baffled most pitchers. As the right hander stepped away from the strike zone, pitchers tried to catch the outside corner of the plate. Perhaps they didn’t notice that, at 38”, Al utilized one of the longest bats in baseball. Al attributed many base hits to his long bat and an unbelieving pitcher.
It did not take long for the “Bucketfoot Al” moniker to catch on. Neither did it take long for Al to catch on to American League hitting. The 22 year old, who was alternatively known as “The Duke of Milwaukee,” had 183 base hits and 102 runs batted in while hitting .308 in 1924. While still finishing in second division, “the team that time forgot” was in formation. Jimmy Dykes, Eddie Rommel and Bing Miller had previously joined the club. In 1924 Al and Max Bishop came on board. With Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove added in 1925, the “A’s Train” took off. It was 23 year old Al Simmons who led the way.
The way led to a second place finish. Al’s phenomenal 258 hits led major league baseball and remains an Athletics franchise record for most hits in one season. He led the A’s in every hitting category including batting average (.384), home runs (24), and RBI (139). In just his second year of major league baseball, Bucketfoot Al was a star.
From 1926 to 1928 Al hit .343, .392 and .352, respectively, while driving in over 100 runs per year. He also became one of the best left fielders in baseball, possessing an arm that few would run on.
It was in 1929, however, that the A’s put it all together. The coming of age of 21 year old Jimmie Foxx certainly put the Athletics over the top. The A’s ran away with the pennant with an 18 game lead over the Yankees. Their World Series victory over the Chicago Cubs, and especially their 10 run, come from behind rally in Game 4 made this one of the most beloved of all Philadelphia Athletic teams. Yet despite great numbers by Foxx (and perhaps stirred by new competition) it was again Al Simmons who led the way. In 1929 Al led the team in most categories including batting average, hits, home runs and slugging average. He led the league in RBI with 157. Al Simmons, in fact, would lead the Athletics in batting average from 1924 through 1931, base hits from 1929 to 1932, as well as RBI, total bases and slugging average, all from 1925 through 1931. During the pennant winning years from 1929 through 1931, Al would lead the league in batting twice, hitting .381 in 1930 and .390 in 1931.
Six years older than Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons had become the toast of the town. With his good looks and his winning smile off the field, Al was a flashy dresser and loved the nightlife and a good cigar. It was said that his fan mail almost equaled Babe Ruth’s. Most of Al’s letters, however, were from female admirers rather than star struck young boys.
Bucketfoot Al, however, had a dark side. He was well known for his temper and especially his hatred towards men on the mound. He was absolutely fierce at the plate. “I hate all pitchers,” he would say. “They’re trying to take the bread and butter out of my mouth.” Neither was he particularly popular among opposing hitters. He enjoyed playing the role of the agitator.
In 1932 Al led the league in hits with 216 and upped his power to 35 home runs and 144 RBI. The A’s, however, fell short in the 1932 pennant race. Connie Mack’s finances were also falling short. Having signed a three-year, $100,000 contract in 1930, 30-year-old Al Simmons was a commodity Connie could no longer afford, especially considering that Jimmie Foxx had now become the team’s power leader. When offered the opportunity to receive $100,000 from the Chicago White Sox for Simmons, Jimmy Dykes and Mule Haas, Connie knew the time had come to rebuild.
Between 1933 and 1935 Al hit well for the Sox but did not provide the power they had expected to propel them into the 1st division. His home run totals fell drastically from his 1932 numbers, and even moving the entire diamond towards the outfield walls in 1934 to improve Al’s home run production did not provide significant results. From 1935 to 1939, Al moved first to Detroit for a brief reunion with Mickey Cochrane, then to Washington, the Boston Braves and Cincinnati where he played in the 1939 World Series.
Al returned to Connie Mack and the Athletics in 1940 and, except for one year with the Red Sox, remained through 1949 as a coach. Al left the game in 1950 due to declining health. In 1953 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. During his acceptance speech, a humble Al Simmons said only a few words about his career and devoted the rest of his allotted time to pay tribute to his mentor and friend Connie Mack.
By 1956, Al was in poor health and living in Milwaukee at the Athletic Club. Despite his health, he was active in a sand lot baseball program like the one that gave him his start. He had often said that he wished he had taken better care of himself during his playing days. Certainly he would have reached 3,000 base hits rather than the 2,927 he accumulated over his 20-year career. Still, he could be proud of his .334 lifetime batting average as well as his 1,827 runs batted in. At only 54 years of age, Bucketfoot Al died of a heart attack on May 26, 1956, just three months following the death of Connie Mack.
Today, Aloysius Szymanski is still remembered by baseball historians and A’s fans. He holds the Athletics franchise records for most career RBI (1,178), total bases (2,998) as well as highest career batting average (.356). In 2000 he was voted to the Athletics’ All Century Team outfield along with Rickey Henderson and Reggie Jackson. He is often considered to be the best athlete ever to come from the state of Wisconsin. If looking for the essence of Al Simmons, however, look no further than his plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s the one with Connie Mack’s “A” donning his cap. There is nothing bucketfoot about that.
Hall of Famer Al Simmons was a member of these Connie Mack Philadelphia Athletics Championship teams.[Show as slideshow]