The Voice of Bay Area Baseball:
Lon Simmons Speaks
(The included excerpt is from the October 17, 1995 Interview I did with Lon Simmons, where I asked about the notorious Roseboro/Marichal incident that resulted in Juan Marichal being suspended from baseball for nine days and fined $1,750. In addition to the comments below, I have also provided a related essay titled, “Thoughts on the Day: A Conversation with Lon Simmons”.)
For the legions of San Francisco Giants baseball fans lucky enough to have lived in the Bay Area during 1960s, following the team meant tuning in to the unmistakable voices of Russ Hodges and his longtime partner in the booth, Lon Simmons, both recipients of the Ford C. Frick Award, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s highest honor for broadcasting excellence. Hodges’ ecstatic-beyond-belief call of New York Giant Bobby Thompson’s two out 9th inning home run defeating the Dodgers in the 1951 National League playoff game is considered to be the greatest in baseball radio history. And luckily for us, the superior prowess he brought to the craft while calling the plays in New York came west with him when the team moved to San Francisco in 1958.
The Bay Area’s good fortune did not end there however, as a young radio broadcaster named Lon Simmons, hired just the year before as sports director for local radio station KSFO, was assigned to work alongside Hodges as his partner for the station’s new announcing team for Giants radio broadcasts. The two quickly hit it off and ultimately became what is widely regarded as the best broadcasting duo in Bay Area sports history. Over their 12 year run together, Hodges and Simmons covered all the team’s most memorable moments, and with an unwavering commitment to quality and dependability, were the eyes and ears for all who followed Giants baseball.
By the time Russ Hodges left the booth for the last time in 1970, Simmons had established himself in his own right as a first rate radio announcer and personality. His singular deep, rich baritone voice and legendary calls over the years in both football and baseball are well documented. But for me, what brought the greatest listening pleasure came from his incisive mind, sharp wit and wonderfully dry sense of humor. He was especially fun during the parts of the game when very little was going on, adeptly filling in that space with choice historical recollections, savvy observations about the game, or just plain whimsical humor relating to baseball in general. I can distinctly remember listening to a Giants/Reds game in the early 70s where the action had stopped because Reds manager Sparky Anderson wanted to make a pitching change. Simmons, commenting on the decision said in typical fashion, “Well, it looks like Anderson’s going to go with his pitcher whose last name used to be my favorite subject.” By bringing in reliever Pedro Borbon, Simmons seamlessly merged a significant personal decision of his own with Anderson’s strategic move on the field, and not only described what was happening below but did so in a way that provided a dose of humor, humility and poignancy to the flow of a moment that would otherwise have become just another statistic. In this case, the punchline came at his own expense, and the real beauty of it was that while he routinely injected humor into the course of calling a game, he would unfailingly choose to include himself in the mix.
A more personal example for me came on the day that I was scheduled to meet with him for an interview. Having long admired Simmons’ work as a baseball announcer, I was curious to know more about the man who I felt I had come to know so well from my years of listening to him on the radio, wanting to attach a face to the voice and personality with whom I had grown so familiar. So I took the opportunity while working on another project in the area to contact him to see if he might be interested in talking with me about his personal and professional life. To my surprise, he agreed. By this point, his career had taken him across the San Francisco Bay to the broadcast booth of the Oakland A’s and we scheduled an appointment to meet at the Oakland Coliseum for that coming Tuesday. When I called him on the Sunday prior to confirm, he had, unbeknownst to me, just received news from the A’s that he had been fired. Because he chose not to let on at the time, I didn’t find out until picking up the San Francisco Chronicle sports page the next morning, the day before our scheduled interview. I was flabbergasted as I read the attending article but figured that if he had wanted to cancel he would have done so. But he didn’t do that, and I drove down to meet with him for what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and satisfying days I have ever experienced. Not a trace of anger or resentment colored anything he had to say. Simmons was gracious, funny, insightful, and uncompromisingly honest about his life in and out of professional broadcasting. He spoke with a sincerity and openness that underscored everything that I had come to admire about his professionalism as an announcer and his enormous depth of knowledge of the game and the people associated with it, especially those who played for or were a part of the San Francisco Giants organization.
When the interview closed out and we parted ways that afternoon, I honestly thought we had heard the last from Lon Simmons as a professional baseball announcer. But luckily, this was not to be so. As it turned out, from 1996-2002, the Giants brought him back into the booth to announce part-time alongside their excellent broadcasting team led by former Simmons disciple, Bay Area born and raised Jon Miller, who like his mentors also became a recipient of the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award. Like so many growing up in the Bay Area at the time, Miller too was a dedicated Giants fan and is adamant about the impact that both Hodges and Simmons had on his ability to not only grasp a concise understanding of the action on the field but of how to capture the fun, beauty and the wonder of the game itself. On a daily basis throughout the season, Hodges and Simmons would issue an unconditional invitation to join in and be a part of their world at the ballpark, allowing us all to know and feel the unfolding energy of the game, and in doing so, became in a way as much a part of the game as the players themselves. Said Miller, in his 2010 acceptance speech of the Frick Award:
“The first time I went to Candlestick Park was when my dad took me to a Giants/Dodgers game in 1962. Well, from where we sat we could see down into the Giants broadcast booth. And my dad had a transistor radio with a little wire and earpiece, and throughout the game I’m listing to Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges. My dad said: ‘Why aren’t you watching the game?’ But to me, Russ and Lon were larger than life, as big as the biggest movie stars...”
“When (Hall of Fame President) Jeff Idelson called me and told me I had won the award, the first people I thought of were Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges – and Willie Mays. If it wasn’t for Russ and Lon telling me about the great Willie Mays – and Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou, Juan Marichal and the rest of those wonderful Giants – I wonder if I would be where I am now...It’s all kind of astounding to me.”
A lot of people over the years, including myself, have told Simmons that as kids they would fall asleep listening to a Giants night game broadcast on their transistor radios. His reply?
“Don't worry about that. Everybody fell asleep listening to me."
Well, not everybody, Lon. Not by a long shot.