Perhaps Joe Simpson was destined to play and describe a game of pitch and catch and hit. For one thing, the holiday baby was born December 31, 1951, at a time when baseball was the only game in town. Imagining the pastime, hearing it on radio, or watching on television, no one needed slow motion, stop-action, or instant replay: Baseball’s presence was enough. For another, Joe was blessed by geography. The decade’s titan, Mickey Mantle, hailed from Spavinaw, Oklahoma, only 170 miles from Joe’s birthplace in Purcell, speaking to and for Simpson’s Baby Boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964). It was mesmerized by the Mick’s shock and awe of speed and power. In his 1951 rookie year, Yankees manager Casey Stengel said memorably, “That kid can hit balls over buildings.”1
When Mantle died in 1995, Bob Costas spoke at a memorial about how he and millions of others idolized number 7 in their youth: “We tried to crease our caps like him; kneel in an imaginary on-deck circle like him; run like him, heads down, elbows up.”2 Simpson understood. Each 1950s baseball morn, Joe and his father inhaled the prior day’s box scores: “Dad taught me to read about the Yankees. I mean, they were baseball,” Simpson said. “Whitey Ford, Yogi [Berra, Roger] Maris — the whole club, a national team. But above all, how’d Mick do? Did he homer, go two-for-four? Mantle’s how I learned to read.”3
Simpson shared most of the speed but not the power of the pinstripes’ icon — ultimately taller than Mantle (6-feet-3 vs. 5-11), but slimmer (175 vs. 195 pounds). The bat-and-throw-left All-American outfielder-first baseman at the University of Oklahoma was picked by the Dodgers in the third round of the 1973 draft, played for LA, Seattle, and Kansas City, and retired in 1983. He then became a popular 1987-91 Seattle Mariners announcer, since 1992 eclipsing that appeal on Atlanta Braves radio/TV. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”4 Humor has been one Simpson ally; indefatigability, another.
Initially, his need for both seemed dim. In 1970, the Norman, Oklahoma, high-school senior hit .435, made the All-Boomer Conference and All-Oklahoma first team, and led his club to the state Class 4-A title. Next, the college marketing major twice led the Sooners to the NCAA World Series, forging their then-career-best in runs (93), hits (125), and doubles (27). In 1973, the LA draftee debuted for the Pacific Coast League Albuquerque Dukes by stealing a base, knocking in a run, and throwing out a runner at the plate. Struggling in the PCL — “It was a compliment I was even there,” he said — Simpson moved to California League Bakersfield, tying a .304 average, 24 RBIs, and 14 steals, then to 1974 Waterbury, hitting an Eastern League sixth-high .298. His 30 RBIs and 18 stolen bases helped him make its All-Star team.5
In 1975 Simpson joined the defending National League titlist Dodgers, playing scattered parts of that and the next three years, never with more than 30 at-bats in more than 29 games. “The farm system was stacked, the Dodgers had a good team, it was hard to break in,” he said.6 On October 1, 1978, the Angelenos, soon to lose a second straight World Series, played at fourth-place San Diego in a game that meant little except for Gaylord Perry, “who wants his 3,000th career strikeout before everybody goes home,” starting against LA to coincide with Fan Appreciation Day. By the fifth inning, Joe was playing center field, “giving a Dodgers regular the rest of the day off.” In the 10th inning, he hit with two out and Perry at 2,999 K’s. Gaylord got two strikes before Simpson fouled off “four super wet spitballs.”7
Finally, Simpson took a pitch “a foot off the plate. Big Lee Weyer yells, ‘Strike three!’ me cussing him in vain.” The ballpark popped a cork. “Gaylord gets his milestone, the Padres carrying him off the field. At least I’ve made history: victim 3,000!” Two weeks later, Simpson saw in The Sporting News that baseball had somehow miscounted. Another strikeout had been number 3,000 two innings earlier. Who was it? “Me!” he said, in a rare game with the Dodgers where he actually had two at-bats.8 “I already held the record when in the 10th I set the record.” In truth, his niche with the Dodgers had become no laughing matter.
Picture Simpson as a 1975-79 jack-in-the-box: pushed down, tearing up the minors’ pea patch, then popping up to again ride the big-league bench. In 1975 he stole 30 bases and knocked in 49 runs for Albuquerque. In 1976 he was sent down once more, swiping 40 bases with 60 RBIs. Again, LA ho-hummed, Simpson getting just 30 bigs’ ups in 23 games. The Oklahoman was the last player cut in 1977 spring training — “a bitter disappointment.”9 He replied by topping the PCL in average (.370) and triples (10) for the first half, adding 45 RBIs, a league third-best 26 steals, and 13- and 19-game hit streaks — lining to all fields, standing more erect, and working with LA hitting instructor Dixie Walker and ex-Dukes outfielder Paul Ray Powell.10
Surely, this would get Simpson noticed — except it didn’t. In his view, the Dodgers had become a franchise of Doubting Thomases. Later he said, “I never got a chance,”11 despite hitting .303 in the 1973-78 Dodgers farm system, and .313, .349, and .309 in 1977-79 spring training. The year that resembled most a burr under his saddle was understandably 1977. After hitting well all spring and in the Freeway Series against the Angels, Joe was released a day before the opener to accommodate Boog Powell, who “was to give the Dodgers insurance against an injury to starter Steve Garvey,”12 but was himself released.
Despite marauding through Triple A, Simpson watched LA sign or trade for Jimmy Wynn, Dusty Baker, Rick Monday, Vic Davalillo, Derrel Thomas, Gary Thomasson, and Von Joshua. Joe’s rationale: “The Dodgers have lost confidence in their farm system”13 — and therefore in him.
“Ridiculous,” Dodgers vice president Al Campanis jibed, noting to TSN what he termed “a strong crop of youngsters”14 in the system. “It’s frustrating,” Simpson told TSN’s Gordon Verrell, “not only for me but for all the young players in the organization.”15 A likelier cause was his paucity of power: at that point, only 15 home runs in six professional years.
Given “a chance,” Joe showed occasional embers of the Dodgers’ hoped-for punch. In 1976, demoted by Big Blue, Simpson bashed two home runs in three days, crediting LA outfielder-first baseman Bill Buckner: “Bill talked to me and helped me lay the bat more over my shoulder.”16 Sadly, the power surge became the exception, not rule. Ultimately, Joe retired having gone deep once every 155 at-bats in his nine-year (1975-83) major-league career.
On April 30, 1979, Simpson, signed by Seattle after the Dodgers’ adieu, hit a two-run pinch-hit ninth-inning homer, his first, against Baltimore, the O’s winning, 8-7, an inning later.17 That August 27, he became the first Mariner to get five hits in a game, the first four singles. In the 12th inning, he doubled and scored Seattle’s sixth run as the newest and “10th … member of the American League’s five-high society,” read The Sporting News, the M’s edging Cleveland, 6-5.18 Simpson’s first year in Seattle was his finest in the bigs, hitting .283 in 120 games.
He also found that even in the majors things could even out. On April 25, 1979, Simpson bashed his first big-league dinger, off Boston’s Tom Burgmeier. Two years plus one day later, the savvy center fielder made a bonehead play. With one out and runners at first and second, Oakland’s Dave McKay hit a drive deep to center field that Joe corralled for an out — number three, he surmised. Ambling toward the dugout, not a care in the world, Simpson belatedly learned the error of his ways, Cliff Johnson scoring from second base: A’s win, 9-4.19
Increasingly, Simpson also flashed the humor familiar to Braves radio/TV. The Eastern Seaboard is often dubbed unforgiving — witness Bob Uecker’s mot, “They have Easter egg hunts in Philadelphia, and if the kids don’t find the eggs, they get booed.”20 In 1982, Simpson’s last year with the M’s, he saw another side of the Seaboard in Fenway Park, not always a pacific place for an enemy center fielder. A bleacher creature yelled, “Okie Joe!” (Recalled Simpson: “This guy had done his homework.”21) Soon a chant began: “Ok-ie Joe! Ok-ie Joe!” Later the man began singing the title song of the musical Oklahoma!, leading “Ok-ie Joe!” to turn around and start conducting. He recalled, “The guy’s singing, pals join in, and we converse.” Next night, Simpson back in center, the same fan brought photocopies of the words, “passed them around, and soon the bleachers are in song! A year later I’m traded to Kansas City, not even playing, and from the stands I hear, ‘Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.’22 Amazing. The musical ends, ‘Oklahoma! OK!’ — a good word for these fans.”23
Later that year Simpson coined “Mr. Jello,” a “caper” from Jessica Fletcher via Raymond Chandler. The Mariners arrived in Chicago amid an already endless season — Joe, beat writer Tracy Ringolsby, and co-conspirator Richie Zisk determined to shorten or at least enliven it. “Ringolsby is in the bar trying to distract manager Rene Lachemann,” said Simpson. “Zisk gets Rene’s suite key from traveling secretary Lee Pelekoudas.”24 He, the recently named “Ok-ie Joe!”, and Larry Andersen went upstairs, put cherry jello with buckets of ice in the toilet, and suite furniture, including bed, in the bathroom. When the dresser didn’t fit, they unpacked Rene’s suitcase and stored his clothes. The phone rang, so “we remove the speakers, jimmy the suite door, write disparaging remarks on the mirrors and TV screens with soap, and leave,” said Simpson. “Rene enters, is trapped, nowhere to sit, no way to call, jello everywhere, the bathroom so jammed the hotel had to take off the door.”
A day later, arriving at Comiskey Park, the conspirators saw a message on the blackboard: “$500 reward for information on Mr. Jello.” Rene tried to make them confess by saying his friend, White Sox skipper Tony La Russa, had security people dusting for fingerprints. “Next, he said the hotel was going to charge us for room damages. Scared, we didn’t buckle,” said Simpson. “In Milwaukee, we put balloons in Rene’s office holding up a box of Jello. He calls area balloon shops to find who placed an order — all but hired a private eye.”25 Finally, at the year-end team party, Mr. Jello’s offenders confessed. It didn’t make the Mariners better — they finished 76-86 —but at least made the season seem shorter.
Simpson finished 1982 with a .257 average, hitting a strong .284 in the second half but not convincing M’s President Dan O’Brien. “Generally there was a feeling,” he said, “we should get some of our younger players on the roster.”26 Simpson knew the way — shipped if not to San Jose then to the M’s Triple-A affiliate at Salt Lake City, admitting to being to “dumbfounded” yet choosing to view it as “a positive thing. I had a good second half, and I’m sure some team can use me.”27 The culprit, as usual, was cash, The Sporting News reported, Simpson earning “a reported $100,000 in 1982. … He could have figured to command at least $120,000 this year,” the major-league minimum salary then $35,000.28 There is no way of knowing if Mr. Jello played a role.
Unflagging, Simpson wrangled a 1983 tryout, then one-year contract, with Kansas City, a franchise culturally at one with the people of his youth. Its Royals (later, Kauffman) Stadium had just turned 11 years old, a paladin of personality. In a Kansas City Star story headlined “Royals’ New Outfielder Treasures Old-Fangled Ballparks,” Simpson revealed that “I somehow wish I could get in a time machine and go back and watch a game at Ebbets Field.” He had a turn-of-the century photograph of the Dodgers’ home, prizing big-league parks no longer here. “I love the game, and I love nostalgia,” he said, “so I put the two together in a hobby.”29
In “There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here,”30 Frank Sinatra sang tenderly of 14 classic parks built from Shibe Park in 1909 to Yankee Stadium in 1923. Simpson collected photos of each — Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, its vast acreage grown heavy with base hits; the Polo Grounds, its pee-wee foul lines flanking a Sahara of a center field; Tiger Stadium in Detroit, a right-field overhang making the upper deck much closer than the lower to home plate. Joe played in or visited post-1950s big-league parks, including the almost two dozen built since Camden Yards opened in 1992 — each a cathedral of the outdoors, different in length, size, and feel.31 His favorite: Fenway Park, its left-field wall as seductive to a pull hitter as a beer in Prohibition.32
Sadly, Simpson’s large love of ballparks did not enlarge his home-run panache. In 1983 he batted .168 in 91 games with no home runs, 20 hits, and 21 strikeouts in 119 at-bats. He also pitched in two games, threw three innings, and allowed one run. Simpson made more pitching than at-bat appearances, two and one, respectively, in the season’s last six weeks — not good, if you’re an outfielder, which Joe was.33 After the season, the parent Royals left him unprotected, assigning his contract to their Triple-A club in Omaha — for no big-league team would purchase it for a mere $25,000, as Kansas City had bought Simpson’s pact from Seattle a year before, rescuing him from possible reassignment to the minors.
That winter the Royals also acquired Orlando Sanchez, Jorge Orta, and Lynn Jones, vying for his position. “The Royals are talking about a commitment to youth,” wrote Ringolsby in the Kansas City Intelligencer. A headline read: “Royals’ Simpson has work cut for him.”34 On Joe’s side were speed, glove work, and likability, skipper Dick Howser saying, “If a manager ever pulls for a guy to make a club, I’m pulling for him,” adding that Okie Joe would get “every opportunity to make the club. The thing he has to do is show me he can hit.” Simpson said, “I don’t care how many bus rides I have to make or how many ‘B’ [early-morning] games I play in, I just want to get the chances.”35 They would come from elsewhere, and soon.
Four times that offseason his old club, the Mariners, called to offer Joe a job as a TV commentator. Each time he declined, not ready to give up the joy of playing, prophesying Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in The Natural,36 the story of a veteran in love with baseball, released later in 1984 to spectacular success. “Eventually, I want to get to into broadcasting, and I may never have an opportunity like that fall in my lap,” Simpson said. “But I don’t want to look back in 10 years and say, ‘I know I could play better than I did in 1983.’ I want to prove that now.”37 The Royals cut him. Hired as an Angels coach, he became, as Dizzy Dean often said, a TV “commertater” for Seattle, who each of his five years there (1987-91) finished in the second division of the American League West.
A decade earlier radio/TV’s Dave Niehaus had fashioned the then-expansion Mariners’ Northwest Opening into states like Idaho, Utah, Montana, Oregon, and up into Alaska. Enormously popular, he won a landslide 2003 Sports Illustrated survey that asked Washingtonians, among other things, their favorite announcer: 36 percent said Niehaus; next, football’s John Madden, 8 percent.38 “He was a great man,” said Simpson, working closely with Niehaus. “I learned from him how to prepare, to be objective, not to think of yourself as a player anymore, and always to be the people’s voice. He taught me so much.”39 Simpson spent his time wisely: learning, analyzing, laughing, numbed only by the Mariners’ home Kingdome — to the online book This Great Game “a swirling, petrified cupcake bitten into by locals, who quickly disliked [it] once the new stadium smell wore off.40” In 1992 he joined a wagon train more pioneering than even the Mariners into the Great Northwest.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines cable TV as “a television system in which a high antenna and one or more dish antennas receive signals from distant and local stations, electronic satellite relays, etc., and transmit them by direct cable to the receivers of persons subscribing to the system.”41 By the 1970s, newly available satellites forged cable channels that charged a monthly fee to complement free programming. In 1976 Ted Turner changed Atlanta station WTCG’s name to WTBS, made it the first television “SuperStation,” bought the Braves, and next year made their schedule the outlet’s TV program cornerstone, becoming a profound influence on his team specifically and baseball generally. The Braves became the self-styled “America’s Team.”
Cable swelled baseball’s stage; baseball, cable’s audience. “TBS was just one offering,” said Braves Voice Ernie Johnson Sr. “People weren’t aware how it could sell the Braves a world from Georgia.”42 In 1982 Atlanta began the season a big-league record 13-0 — and people were. To Johnson, the streak became “the ‘two-by-four’ that hit America between the eyes.” In Storm Lake, Iowa, a sign read “The Atlanta Braves: Iowa’s Team,” Ernie said, adding that in Valdez, Alaska, a Braves Fan Club chapter pooled cash, bought a screen, and named its bar “The Braves Lounge.”43 Across the country viewers thanked Turner for bringing TV baseball back to small-town America. SuperStation Voices emerged: Tim McCarver on WOR New York; Harry Caray on WGN Chicago; above all, Caray’s son Skip, Pete Van Wieren, and lead Voice Johnson, TBS.
“All during this time,” said the New York Times’s George Vecsey, “cable led baseball’s growth.”44 Picture nightly TV baseball, coast to coast — if not a miracle, as welcome as an open bar. In January 1992 this happy hour welcomed Simpson after Turner Sports TV and WGST Atlanta regional radio spent late 1991 judging Voices to replace Dave O’Brien, leaving for the new Florida Marlins, and Johnson, arguably cable TV’s first superstar, retiring.45 According to Turner executive producer Don McGuire, network execs heard tape from more than 100 broadcasters and talked to Johnny Bench and Jim Palmer — but chose Oklahoma ’73 to complement TBS’s Caray, Van Wieren, and Don Sutton because of “the style. [It] is similar,” said Simpson, 42. “They treat games as games — not life or death,”46 basic cable by then wiring almost every US home.
In a sense, history heightened irony. Royals general manager John Schuerholz had released Simpson in 1983, effectively ending his playing career. Now Braves GM, he helped nationally launch Okie Joe’s new career. McGuire said he was “alarmed at how many [Voices] are vociferous home-team cheerleaders,” not thinking “we did that anymore.”47 Simpson’s contrast made him the only person offered the position. He likened his new job to a Texas two-step. Step one was to be nice and easy. A second: be honest — more irony, given what happened several decades later. “If you always tell the truth, you won’t get in trouble.”48
Trouble had recently submerged the Braves, including four straight 1987-90 last-place NL West crashes in a row. In 1990 Atlanta braved baseball’s worst record: 65-97. A year later the worst-to-firsters led the Dodgers on the last day of the season by a game. “Stretch by John] Smoltz,” Van Wieren said on TBS. “The pitch to Cedeño. A high fly ball to right field! … Back goes Justice! He’s got it! And the magic number for Atlanta is one! The Braves have clinched a tie for first.”49 The Giants then beat LA, Atlanta taking the West for the first time since 1982. Next, it won the League Championship Series and went to the limit against Minnesota in the World Series. Three games went extra innings. Five went one-run. “It was phenomenal,” said Van Wieren, “and Game Seven was terrific”50 — the Twins’ Jack Morris beating relief pitcher Alejandro Peña in 10 innings, 1-0.
Next year was as theatric, the ’92ers scoring thrice in the ninth inning of NLCS Game Seven to edge the Pirates, Joe briefly airing the World Series on WSB Atlanta.51 Simpson meshed well, at one with the South’s culture, in only his fourth year as a Braves Voice named “Georgia Sports Broadcaster of the Year.”52 His honor lit 1995, after a strike begun in August 1994 curbed each year’s schedule, stained the record book, and put a premium on likability — a Simpson forte. It also helped that the Braves routed the NL East, won the Division Series and LCS, then became the first team to win the World Series for three different cities — Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. “Fly ball, deep left-center! Marquis] Grissom on the run! Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship!”53 Caray said of World Series Game Six. Van Wieren later said of the Series title: “I keep thinking of ’95. We thought that we’d win a bunch more than one.”54
Atlanta lost other World Series in 1991-92, 1996, and 1999.55 The Braves coming so close time and again was softened historically by how except for 1994, the player strike and lockout erasing the postseason, they won their division title each year from 1991 to 2005 — a nonpareil 14 straight years.56 Similarly, the broadcast team began feeling angst off air. For a long time, the Braves’ 1976-89 trio of Ernie, Skip, and Pete had been thought immutable (to some, doubtless immortal). Johnson’s 1991 retirement saddened millions. One weekend in 2000, Simpson found that without the serenity of TBS baseball’s Mr. Rogers, things perhaps inadvertently didn’t run as unflappably as before.
On Saturday, June 24, TBS superimposed a Friday night video box over the next night’s at Atlanta’s Turner Field to show that the latter was four-five inches smaller. This backed Brewers manager Davey Lopes’s claim that the Braves had been unfairly utilizing the catcher’s-box rule to get outside strikes called.57 The fracas infuriated the Braves, leading them to ban TBS Voices from taking the team charter flight to Montreal. Tuesday morning club President Stan Kasten and Turner Sports President Mark Lazarus met, releasing a statement affirming the Braves-TBS “long-standing, warm relationship.”58 That night manager Bobby Cox met with Simpson and Turner Sports coordinating producer Glenn Diamond before batting practice. TBS Voices boarded the club flight later — the catcher’s-box dispute leaving almost as quickly as it came.
In late 2002 Simpson, Caray, Van Wieren, and Sutton each signed a four-year pact with Turner Sports, which then set about breaking up its old gang before another opening pitch. In March 2003 TBS, citing “network research,” yanked Skip and Pete from their quarter-century niche, replaced by Simpson and Sutton. Its “logic” was two-fold. Turner wanted a less partisan national tilt. After 27 years, it also felt the pair too closely twinned to the Braves. Overnight, Caray and Van Wieren careened from shore-to-shore video to regional radio and 36-game Fox Sports South TV, seen only in Southeast precincts. Creatures of habit, baseball-watchers turned off the dial. “TBS just doesn’t sound the same,” rued the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson. Ratings fell, many missing Pete’s studied delivery and Caray’s acidic charm. “Neither man’s strength,” Jackson wrote of Sutton/Simpson, “is play-by-play.”59
For Okie Joe, much of this mental worry turned problematic in 2004. Soon after turning 52 on New Year’s Eve, he felt pain in his midsection that paled after an hour. A month later, as Simpson slept in his Marietta, Georgia, home, it struck again, more intensely. Initial diagnosis at a nearby hospital traced the cause to reaction to medication. Next day, waiting for his dentist’s office appointment, he doubled over in enormous pain and was rushed by ambulance to Piedmont Hospital. An infection, coupled with high fever, put him in such peril that daughter Meg, a Villanova law student, and Gabe, an Auburn freshman, were asked to hasten home. “That’s how scary it was,” Simpson said.60
From a hospital bed, Dad brightened to see his two children home from college to lend moral support, not knowing they had been summoned in case there was a funeral to attend — his. Simpson would spend more than half of February there, suffering from acute pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that left him seriously ill and hospitalized for two weeks. Medically, a gallstone had clogged his bile duct, forcing the pancreas to start eating away. “Metaphorically?” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mike Tierney. “He was caught in a rundown, with no certain escape before getting tagged out. Doctors ‘didn’t know which way it was going to go,’”61 he wrote, meaning life or death.
Eventually Simpson was released after a 16-day stay, knowing that he must return to have his gall bladder, with its hundreds of stones, removed. He got a blunt reminder 1½ weeks later — a gall-bladder attack. Its location in his body led to more complicated surgery than usual in early March. The Braves announcer’s voice, usually familiar, was “barely recognizable,” said Tierney. He had lost 30 pounds, “becoming Simpson Lite, resuming regular eating, easy on the fat.” Much of 2004 was spent regaining physical health.62 After a year off for good behavior, Simpson was accosted by an inchoate 2006 that tested his mental equilibrium. “May you live in interesting times” is an old Chinese curse.63 On occasion the broadcaster must have yearned for tedium. Meantime, many Braves viewers did, for reasons quite apart from health.
In April 2006 the Fox Cable Network acquired the regional network Turner South TV from Time Warner, airing 58 games and changing the booth. Out: the familiar Caray, Van Wieren, Simpson, and Sutton. In: Bob Rathbun and Jeff Torborg. The shakeup left TBS’s old foursome calling 70 national games a year — Caray and Van Wieren’s fewest since the 1970s — plus Braves radio, a change inviting backlash, which came.64 “A Braves broadcast simply isn’t a Braves broadcast without Skip, Pete, and Don,” said Robert Bruce, 30, of Dunwoody, Georgia. “I think this really stinks.”65 Somehow the franchise was trying to bridge the gulf between Ted Turner’s original product and a Braves new world.
The most seismic change, once unimaginable, upended 2007, Turner selling the Braves to Liberty Media while also peddling TBS to Time Warner, which, the Oklahoma City News noted, had “national ambitions.” On September 27, Mel Bracht wrote, “Bye, bye, Braves,” in a story headlined “After 30 Years Together, Braves, TBS Parting Ways.”66 He was mourning on behalf of many who had never even set foot near the South. Three days later the Braves bid a sad goodbye to TBS, its regular coverage having linked five American presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush — Skip Caray and son Chip suitably calling the final game: Houston beating the visiting Braves, 3-0, on Sunday, September 30.67 The telecast included the “top moments of Braves baseball on TV,” as voted by the public.
Coming from the broad interior of America, Simpson was among those who especially grasped what TBS had meant and what its loss might cost. “I think the people who are going to be most disappointed about this are some of the older generation who enjoy watching across the country and have grown to be really attached to them,” he said. “The Braves have become their favorite team whether they lived in Montana or Illinois or anyplace else.”68 He — they — recalled how Turner bought, renamed, and promoted TBS as a SuperStation, airing almost each regular-season game, even replaying them in early-A.M. hours, and billing the club as “America’s Team” — even as a second-division franchise.
“I don’t think that [label] was really a stretch because we still get fan mail from every state,” Simpson told Bracht.69 At peak, TBS’s Voices were household names, as well-known as WGN’s Harry Caray or even NBC’s Vin Scully. By contrast, in 2008 new ownership’s “national ambitions” ended daily baseball, aired a big-league first-round playoff series and LCS, and debuted a July-September Sunday Game of The Week — hype less than TBS’s, despite Ernie Johnson’s excellent work as studio host. Simpson did 40 to 45 free Braves games for Peachtree TV and 105 paid for Fox Sports Net (FSN) South.70 It was a stark change from the SuperStation entering your den nightly.
Easy and relaxed, Simpson practiced what Ronald Reagan said he had learned from airing Cubs radio in the 1930s: “You can have 15 facts and one story, and if the story is told well it’s the story the audience recalls.”71 Such a one-size-fit-all style suited regional TV (Turner Field’s 1997 debut, replacing Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and outside events at Atlanta’s 2000 All-Star Game), national video (TBS’s 2007 Colorado-San Diego playoff and 2007 and ’09 Rockies-Phillies Division Series) and Atlanta’s regular season, hopscotching via such variations as Peachtree TV, Turner South, FSN South, and Fox Sports Southeast.
In 2017, the Braves left Turner Field, afterthought to the 1996 Olympics, for a real baseball site, suburban SunTrust Park, nearer their season-ticket base. Execs hoped that it would swell team attendance and postseason buzz, using the franchise’s two prior parks as a model for what to mimic and avoid. On January 27, 2018, Okie Joe was inducted into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame.72 On August 8, 2018, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley wrote, “As an emcee for official functions, inductee into the … Braves Hall of Fame, and main TV commentator, in sum he’s a big deal, the Braves’ leading ambassador.”73
By then, that status had become clouded — due to criticism, depending on your view, that was legitimate or hyperbolic. Bradley wrote that on July 28 Simpson had criticized the Dodgers for a minute and a half for “wearing T-shirts and pulled-up pants during practice at SunTrust Park,” Braves TV showing the garb. “If I were a Dodger fan, I’d be embarrassed,” Simpson said, “and I don’t know how Major League Baseball allows such attire when the gates are open.”74 He called “an embarrassment what (LA’s Chase Utley) had on” — a T-shirt reading “K Cancer,” the Atlanta Voice not knowing it meant a charity begun by pitcher Jason Motte, briefly a Brave. Later Simpson privately spoke with Utley to explain.75
Ten days later, on August 7, Washington Nationals rookie Juan Soto batted in the first game of a doubleheader at Nationals Park. “If he’s 19,” Simpson said on-air, “he’s certainly got his man’s growth,”76 implying that Soto must be older, as fellow Dominican Danny Almonte had been in 2001, throwing a perfect game for a New York team in the Little League World Series when he was two years too old.
After that fiasco and 9/11’s trauma in 2001, foreign visas had become more tightly scrutinized. Even so, the Braves somehow failed to discern Rafael Furcal’s real age — 21, not 19 as listed —embarrassing the team when his visa was uncovered before he reported to 2002 spring training.77 This backdrop preceded Simpson needlessly, mistakenly, tarring Soto. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that between games of the 2018 twin bill Nats President Mike Rizzo approached the Braves announcer to set the record straight.78
In Game Two, Simpson thought he did, saying on-air, “If you were with us in Game One, you might have heard me make a comment off the top of my head about if [Soto is] 19. Well, he is. He’s a bona fide 19.”79 It was not enough for those to whom the incident merged politics, age, and even alleged homerism. “The idea that Soto is lying about his age is one that’s never been raised before,” wrote USA Today’s Jesse Yomtov, “and there’s certainly a racial undertone behind Simpson’s remark.”80 Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, via Twitter, assigned Joe to “the past, so it’s not a surprise that he proffers this sort of garbage.”81 Absent was past context.
Suddenly, ideology seemed a prism for everything Simpson. Once, Milwaukee leading Atlanta at SunTrust, the broadcaster said, “The Braves are getting smoked, they just gave up another run, and the organist is playing songs for the [opposing] team, the guys walking up to the plate … like everybody’s holding hands and singing Kumbaya. I don’t get it.”82 To Mark Bradley, it showed favoritism, the Atlanta columnist writing, “[Joe] rarely criticizes a Brave, while praise for an opponent seems offered through gritted teeth.”83 Was favoritism a legitimate gripe, or a guise to curb free speech?
That November, Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast jointly announced Simpson’s demotion as lead broadcast analyst on their regional networks. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Tim Tucker said both would brook an extreme 2019 makeover — and as it happened, beyond. Former Braves first-round draft choice Jeff Francoeur replaced Simpson on each, working about 100 games.84 Okie Joe shifted more to radio while still having a video presence, albeit reduced. Analyst and former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine upped his number of TV games, filling Simpson’s void. Chip Caray remained on play-by-play.
According to Tucker, Simpson was surprised by the joint Braves-Fox decision. “I had proposed cutting back, but my proposal was a lot different than theirs,” the broadcaster said. “I was suggesting maybe cutting back to the 120 TV games, hoping to fill in the rest with some radio. But they’ve cut me back to 20 or 30 TV games with the rest [about 100] being radio,” working with Ben Ingram, Jim Powell, and past TV partner Sutton on a rotating basis, “so that came as a surprise.”85
Team CEO Derek Schiller and Fox Sports South GM Jeff Genthner both insisted that Simpson’s “controversial” statements over the past year had not factored into the decision. “Absolutely not,” Genthner said. “To emphasize that point, we didn’t reprimand Joe, didn’t do anything to admonish him in any way.”86 Schiller called the demotion “just coincidence. Remember, he still is going to be a broadcaster for the Braves.”87 A Journal-Constitution headline best caught the mood: “Not What the Braves Had in Mind: Joe Simpson, Controversy Magnet.”88
To Simpson, among others, such criticism missed his intent. “I have a very strong protective instinct on the game and its customs and history and traditions, so my comments [on Dodgers garb] were only intended as a defensive mechanism of the game,” he said, noting the Braves “expect[ing] their players to be professional, look professional.”89 Simpson attributed his Soto misstep to a larger issue baseball had mishandled in the past. Read that way, his view was understandable. Others read it differently. Welcome to America today.
Either way, Okie Joe remains a Braves link to the grand troika of Ernie Sr., Skip, and Pete at a time when “America’s Team” became baseball’s TV linchpin to the land, especially the sprawling rural and small town. That sublime legacy is unlikely to be forgot.
Grateful appreciation is made to reprint all play-by-play and color radio text courtesy of John Miley’s The Miley Collection. In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, most especially the Society for American Baseball Research, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for box scores, player, season, and team pages, batting, and pitching logs, and other material relevant to this history. FanGraphs.com provided statistical information. In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:
Koppett, Leonard. Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2015).
Smith, Curt. A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth. (Washington: Potomac Books, 2012).
__. Voices of The Game: The Acclaimed History of Baseball Radio and Television Broadcasting (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).
Van Wieren, Pete, with Jack Wilkinson. Of Mikes and Men: A Lifetime of Braves Baseball (New York: Random House, 2010).
Whitaker, Lang. In the Time of Bobby Cox: The Atlanta Braves, Their Manager, My Couch, Two Decades, and Me. (New York: Scribner, 2011).
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been a primary source of information about Joe Simpson’s career. The Kansas City Intelligencer, Miami Herald, The Sporting News, and USA Today also were extremely helpful. Other contemporary sources include Associated Press and Yahoo Sports.
Ernie Johnson Sr., with author, May 1986 and August 2001.
Ronald Reagan, with author, March 1980.
Joe Simpson, with author, July 2011 and December 2019.
George Vecsey, with author, March 1986.
Pete Van Wieren, with author, March 2008.
3 Joe Simpson interview with author, December 2019.
5 Material in this paragraph, 1975 Los Angeles Dodgers Media Guide.
6 Simpson December 2019 interview.
7 Simpson July 2011 interview.
8 “Padre Pickups,” The Sporting News,” December 30, 1978: 37.
9 Simpson December 2019 interview.
10 Carlos Salazar, “Simpson Swinging Torrid Bat in Bid to Join Dodgers,” The Sporting News, July 16, 1977: 35.
11 Simpson December 2019 Interview.
13 Gordon Verrell, “It’s Now or Never For Dodger Rookie Simpson,” The Sporting News, March 24, 1979: 40.
14 Verrell, “It’s Now or Never.”
15 Verrell, “It’s Now or Never.”
16 Simpson July 2011 interview.
17 “Mariners Notes,” The Sporting News, May 19, 1979: 15.
18 “A.L. Five-Hit Clubbers,” The Sporting News, September 15, 1979: 28.
19 “A.L. Box Scores,” The Sporting News, May 16, 1981: 20; Simpson September 2016 interview.
21 Simpson July 2011 interview.
25 Simpson July 2011 interview.
26 “M’s Drop Simpson, Add Rookie Moses,” The Sporting News, November 22, 1982: 41.
27 “M’s Drop Simpson, Add Rookie Moses.”
28 “M’s Drop Simpson, Add Rookie Moses.”
29 Mike McKenzie, “Royals’ New Outfielder Treasures Old-Fangled Ballparks,” Kansas City Star, March 11, 1983: 3C.
31 Simpson December 2019 interview.
32 Simpson December 2019 interview.
33 Tracy Ringolsby, “Simpson Faces Adversity, but Buttons Up,” Kansas City Intelligencer, March 2, 1984: D-1.
38 Bill Syken, “The Poll Washingtonians Weigh In on Sports,” Sports Illustrated, November 17, 2003. si.com/vault/2003/11/17/354065/the-poll-washingtonians-weigh-in-on-sports.
39 Simpson December 2019 interview.
41 Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. (New York: Macmillan USA, 1999), 203.
42 Ernie Johnson Sr. interview, with author, May 1986.
43 Ernie Johnson Sr. interview, with author, May 1986.
44 George Vecsey interview, with author, March 1986.
45 “Turner Adds Simpson on Braves Show,” USA Today, January 23, 1992.
46 “Turner Adds Simpson on Braves Show.”
47 “Turner Adds Simpson on Braves Show.”
48 “Turner Adds Simpson on Braves Show.”
49 Play-by-play courtesy of The Miley Collection.
50 Pete Van Wieren interview, with author, March 2008.
51 Simpson December 2019 interview.
52 “Joe Simpson: Fox Sports South & Fox Sports Southeast. 2018 Atlanta Braves Media Guide,” 471.
53 Play-by-play courtesy The Miley Collection.
54 Van Wieren March 2008 interview.
55 worldcat.org/title/official-major-league-baseball-fact-book. Official Major League Baseball Fact Book 2001 Edition (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 2001), 412.
57 Carroll Rogers, “Braves Report: Announcers’ Flight Ban Lifted,” AccessAtlanta!, June 28, 2000.
58 Carroll Rogers.
59 Barry Jackson, “TBS Just Doesn’t Sound the Game: Van Wieren, Caray Missed,” Miami Herald¸ April 25, 2003.
60 Mike Tierney, “Simpson on the Upswing after Illness,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. March 28, 2004.
64 Tim Tucker, “Turner South TV Crew Replaced,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 29, 2006. ajc.com.
65 Tucker, “Turner South TV Crew Replaced.”
68 Simpson December 2019 interview.
69 Simpson December 2019 interview.
70 Simpson December 2019 interview.
71 Ronald Reagan interview with author, March 1980.
72 foxsports.com/south/story/tim-hudson-joe-simpson-braves-hall-of-fame-010418. “Tim Hudson, Joe Simpson to Be Inducted into Braves Hall of Fame,” FOXSPORTS.com., January 4, 2018.
73 ajc.com/blog/mark-bradley/not-what-the-braves-had-mind-joe-simpson-controversy-magnet/ZAZAGpQL5xBmjBPBdS6hCN/. Mark Bradley, “Not What the Braves Had in Mind: Joe Simpson, Controversy Magnet,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 8, 2018.
74 Bradley, “Not What the Braves Had in Mind.”
75 Bradley, “Not What the Braves Had in Mind.”
76 Bradley, “Not What the Braves Had in Mind.”
78 sportingnews.com/ca/mlb/news/juan-soto-age-joe-simpson-video-nationals-braves-fox-sports-south-southeast/1ktowpz7zrtkh1fcd5fdv95z2q. Tom Gatto, “Joe Simpson Wonders Whether Nats’ Juan Sato Telling Truth about Age,” The Sporting News, August 7, 2018.
80 usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2018/08/07/juan-soto-joe-simpson-age/930668002/. Jesse Yomtow, “Braves Announcer Joe Simpson Backtracks After Suggesting Juan Soto Is Lying about Age.,” USA Today, August 8, 2018.
81 awfulannouncing.com/mlb/braves-analyst-joe-simpson-creates-even-more-controversy-with-age-related-comments-about-nationals-star-juan-soto.html. Matt Yoder, “Braves Analyst Joe Simpson Creates Even More Controversy with Age-Related Comments about Nationals Star Juan Soto,” Awful Announcing, August 8, 2018.
82 Bradley, “Braves Analyst Joe Simpson.”
83 Bradley, “Braves Analyst Joe Simpson.”
84 ajc.com/sports/ajc-exclusive-changes-coming-braves-broadcast team/6Fcr7e7lIYrlMKnE21J8iI/?ecmp=braves. Tim Tucker, “Exclusive: Changes Coming to Braves’ Broadcast Team: Francoeur Becomes Lead TV Analyst; Simpson Moved Mostly to Radio,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 29, 2018.
85 Tucker, “Exclusive: Changes Coming to Braves’ Broadcast Team.”
86 Tucker, “Exclusive: Changes Coming to Braves’ Broadcast Team.”
87 Tucker, “Exclusive: Changes Coming to Braves’ Broadcast Team.”
89 Tucker, “Exclusive: Changes Coming to Braves’ Broadcast Team.”