SOURCE: Indianapolis Star (9-28-06)
It was a picture of the 1913 Homestead Grays, a primordial Pittsburgh-area baseball team that played before the Negro leagues were even born. His mind, Simmons said, needed time to connect the faces to positions to names. He was entitled to the delay; next month, he will turn 111 years old.
Simmons, known as Si, was born on Oct. 14, 1895 -- the same year as Babe Ruth and Rudolph Valentino. He played at the highest level of black baseball while a boy named Satchel Paige was still in grade school.
That Simmons is still living was unknown to baseball researchers until this summer, when a genealogist near the nursing home where he lives in St. Petersburg alerted a Negro leagues expert.
"My reaction," said Negro league researcher Wayne Stivers, "was, 'We need to talk with him immediately.' "
A member of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research confirmed a baseball historian's dream: that Simmons was indeed a man who had pitched and played the outfield in the equivalent of the black major leagues on and off from about 1912 through at least 1929, and that he had played against such stars as Pop Lloyd, Judy Johnson and Biz Mackey.
Lloyd was like "the second Honus Wagner," Simmons said. "Judy Johnson, they called him Pie Traynor."
The oldest living person who played Major League Baseball is Rollie Stiles, 99, who pitched for the St. Louis Browns in the early 1930s.
Confined to a wheelchair but reasonably communicative, Simmons has no major health issues beyond his extraordinary age. He is an avid sports fan who watches many Tampa Bay Devil Rays games on the television in his room -- "I like young players," he said -- and even attended a Devils Rays game at Tropicana Field this summer with his church group.
Friends of his at the Westminster Suncoast retirement community said Simmons rarely talked about his Negro leagues career. Dorothy Russell, 90, said: "When we played volleyball -- with balloons -- he said, 'You know, I used to play baseball.' But he didn't make it sound so spectacular. And I didn't know enough to ask him about it."
Simmons' first games were not in the Negro leagues as they are now remembered. The first established circuit, the Negro National League, started in 1920. Before that, local all-black teams would play against one another, against all-white teams or occasionally against groups of big leaguers barnstorming in the off-season.