Another of the random perseverations I tend to write when it’s not baseball season.
Imagine taking a job knowing ahead of time that only the most superhuman of success will prevent your prompt dismissal — and the clock starts anew every year.
I was thinking about that today while wading through the latest round of chatter about Philadelphia’s sports teams.
The Phillies managing job pretty much ate the well-regarded Ryne Sandberg alive; he was let go late last season. Now the pundits have moved on to call for the dismissal of Eagles coach Chip Kelly, apparently for the eternal sin of being unable to win big with modest talent.
It turns out that a guy with local ties tackled the challenge of managing in Philadelphia earlier than almost everyone else. This being a temperate day off, and thoughts of baseball very much with me, I decided to track him down.
Unlike today’s managers, Lew Simmons did not come to the dugout after years of experience with hit-and-runs, double plays and pitching changes.
Instead, he came to baseball from the blackface minstrel-show stage. According to a book called Monarchs of Minstrelsy, Simmons began as a blackface performer in Ohio in 1849 and became a hit performer in Philadelphia in the 1860s and 1870s, operating his own minstrel company and touring abroad.
Simmons did well enough to buy in, around 1881, as a partner in the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association.
(This was the second team to do business as the Philadelphia Athletics. The familiar Philadelphia A’s of Connie Mack, founded in 1901, were the fourth. What we know today as major league baseball traces its roots to 1871, so Simmons was in on the ground floor.)
The A’s main owner at the time, Bill Sharsig, was a theater producer who likely knew Simmons from the world of Philadelphia stages.
While Sharsig also lacked an on-the-field baseball background — at least, in the modern Ryne Sandberg sense — he served as field manager of his own team for parts of four seasons.
John Shiffert’s book Base Ball in Philadelphia indicates that the Athletics’ business partners tended to rotate front-office roles from year to year. That, presumably, is how former minstrel showman Simmons was at the helm of the team when it opened the 1886 season against the New York Metropolitans.
Simmons’s A’s won that first game, 10-3, and the rookie leader managed to keep his team at or above .500 through the end of June. On May 2, they played a 19-19 tie against Brooklyn that must have been a sight to see.
But the losses stacked up in July and August. And, although the Athletics won their last five games under Simmons, he was either fired or agreed to rotate out of the job on Aug. 25, with a 41-55 managerial record.
Sharsig took over the rest of the year, posting a 22-17 record. All told, the A’s finished sixth in an eight-team league.
(The 1886 Athletics’ noteworthy players included rookie catcher Wilbert Robinson, later to be the longtime manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers; second baseman Louis Bierbauer, whose signing by the Pittsburgh National League team would cause them to be nicknamed the Pirates; and pitcher Al Atkinson, who started 45 games and completed 44.)
Simmons never returned to the dugout. Shiffert’s book says Sharsig bought out his partners after the 1887 season, ending the vaudevillian’s connection to the fledgling world of major league baseball.
Monarchs of Minstrelsy, meanwhile, says Simmons returned to the stage in the early 1890s and was still performing as of 1910, when the book was written.
Simmons died at age 73 in Reading, Pa., September 1911. According to various sources, he is buried in Fairview Cemetery on the south side of Allentown. I decided to go look him up there; it seemed like an interesting excursion for a day off.
Fairview Cemetery is not the best-maintained graveyard I’ve ever visited. Falling branches have caused havoc in one area of the grounds, and every section is plagued by sliding or buckling stones, occasional bursts of overgrowth, a reluctance on the part of the lawnmower to clean off the stones afterward, and the occasional grim sunken patch.
(It’s enough to remind a visitor that one of the great horror movies of all time begins in a real-life Pennsylvania cemetery — not this one, but one out in the western part of the state, not tremendously far from Lew Simmons’s birthplace.)
I found a baseball, of all things — a blue-and-white child’s novelty model — but in a walk that took in every path on the grounds, I couldn’t find Lew Simmons’s gravesite.
I tried a building or two at the front of the property, but no one was there. I tried some Googling, in case a full list of burials had been posted online by some resourceful genealogist, but no luck there either.
If Lew Simmons is there, he perhaps has a flat stone, or one that has been undermined by the forces of time.
Or perhaps he is rested far from even the dedicated searcher, in some peaceful corner.
That would be fitting. Anyone who has managed a ballclub in Philadelphia has earned a quiet rest.