Willie Simms

This article was written by Jay Hurd

Willie Simms

Before the lumber,1 natural gas,2 and oil3 industries brought unprecedented economic growth to Louisiana in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, baseball had already established itself as a favorite pastime throughout the state, centering on the cities of New Orleans and Shreveport.4 Baseball teams, created and maintained by industrial magnates, emerged. One such team, the Monroe Monarchs, developed from the multiple business enterprises of Fred Alonzo Stovall. Stovall acquired great wealth from the oil industry, and later from numerous other business ventures. He employed Whites and Blacks, provided housing for all, and encouraged the formation of baseball teams.

By 1920, Stovall had time and money to form a Negro baseball team, the Monroe Monarchs. This team, originally part of the Texas League, became a premier attraction due to its talent level. After the Great Depression, and the demise of Rube Foster’s Negro National League, the Monarchs formed the cornerstone of the Negro Southern League: after “the collapse of the first version of the Negro National League, in 1932the NSL turned out to be the only African American baseball league operating that year, making it black baseball’s de-facto ‘major league,’ which turned the Monroe Monarchs, for one brief, shining moment, into the center of the blackball world” Regarding Stovall as a team owner, Buck O’Neil said Stovall was just like J.L. Wilkinson in Kansas City… when things got tough in the winter and his players needed some spare change to get by, he’d give it to them.”5

Former Monroe Monarch Marlin Carter talked about playing for Stovall: “Fred Stovall was a very wealthy man. On his plantation he built a ballpark for his team. He also built a recreation center where the players relaxed when they weren’t playing. Stovall spent a lot of money on his ball team. The players lived in houses on Stovall’s plantation, and our meals were prepared by a cook the Stovalls employed … [and] most importantly, we always got paid.”6 The Monarchs gave professional starts to Negro League greats – and Hall of Famers – Willard “Home Run” Brown and Hilton Smith; the Monarchs also developed lesser-known players such as Willie “Bill Simms.

Willie Simms was born on December 23, 1908, in Shreveport. While records are not particularly clear, it does appear that his father was William Simms, a farm laborer, and his mother was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Gould Simms. If indeed these were his parents, he also had six brothers and sisters. Willie said that he loved to play baseball and played as a young boy on “the sandlot” in Shreveport.7 By the time he was 14 or 15 years old, he played more regularly with a team organized by a friend’s father, who was a carpenter by trade. These teams played often; they became popular for entertainment and provided opportunities for betting.

As Simms grew older, his love for baseball grew as well. In Shreveport he attended as many games as possible played by a local team (perhaps the Shreveport Sports) that competed in the Texas League. When he could not attend games, he would listen to the radio (local stations, including KWKH and WCAQ, provided music and sports news in the Shreveport area.8) When he approached the age of 20, in 1928, he played with traveling teams of the Sawmill (also known as Sawdust) League. From Shreveport he traveled to the surrounding towns of Leesville, Boley, and Mansfield. A year or so later, his baseball talent earned him a spot on the roster of another traveling team which barnstormed as far north as Canada.9 Now around 23 years old, he enjoyed traveling and playing in different cities, and thought he could get used to playing under these conditions: “Shucks, I like this. I’m gonna make a career out of this. … One day I might get a chance to play some big league baseball.”10 While records are uncertain, the Negro Southern League Museum Research Center website notes that Simms may have played with the following teams (prior to playing with the Monroe Monarchs and Negro League teams): Shreveport Black Gassers, 1923-27; Shreveport-Leesville, 1928-31; Alexandria Giants, 1932-33; Shreveport Cubs (as Sims), 1933.11

Despite information supporting the fact that he played baseball into and beyond the 1930s, confusion arises around his personal life. The 1930 US Census notes that Simms lived in Shreveport, but it lists him as the adopted son of a 62-year-old “washwoman” named Lorine Harris. In this record, Simms is identified as 21 years old and a professional baseball player; interestingly, professional baseball was linked with the agriculture industry. Also, records are not clear as to when Simms met his wife-to-be, Mazie Elemease Brown. Mazie was also from Shreveport and was born on December 15, 1913, to Wylie and Helen Brown. The 1940 US Census indicates that Simms, 31 years old, was married, although Mazie’s name is not recorded; Simms was identified as a “lodger” who was married and lived with his wife in Shreveport. Records indicate that Simms registered for the World War II draft on October 16, 1940, and named his next of kin as Mazie Simms. Simms’s draft registration also noted that he was employed by H.G. Hall (Horace G. Hall), owner of the Chicago American Giants.

Whatever the exact circumstances of his personal life may have been, Simms’s consistent play continued to draw attention and in 1934 he began a stint as an outfielder with Fred Stovall’s Monroe Monarchs, managed by Frank Johnson. Early that year, Simms (also identified as Sims) was one of the players seeking a spot on the team.12 The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Simms did make the team, and the left-handed-batting, right-hand-throwing player could be seen in left field and center field. The Monroe Monarchs played numerous teams that season, including the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Bastrop Red Sox, the Van Dyke’s House of David team, and the Birmingham Black Barons. In an exhibition game against the Crawfords, he had two hits, one a home run, off Satchel Paige.

In 1936, after his time with the Monroe Monarchs, Simms joined the Cincinnati Tigers, of an Independent Clubs organization,13 managed by Carl Glass. Simms appeared in eight games for the Tigers, playing in right field, and had a .320 batting average. Candy Jim Taylor, then player-manager of the Chicago American Giants, signed him to play with Chicago in 1937. Simms did play with the Giants, and with two other teams that season: the Kansas City Monarchs, managed by Andy Cooper; and the Cincinnati Tigers, now managed by Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe He played 30 games in center field with the Monarchs, had 30 hits, a .283 batting average, and 10 stolen bases. With the Tigers, he played in three games in right field and was 1-for-7; and with the Giants he appeared in two games in left field, had two hits and was 2-for-7. In a 1937 Monarchs exhibition game versus a White major-league team led by Bob Feller, Simms went 0-for-5 at the plate.

In 1938 Simms played for both the Chicago American Giants, managed by Candy Jim Taylor, and the Kansas City Monarchs, managed by Andy Cooper. For the Giants, he appeared in 16 games, all in center field, had 18 hits, a .245 batting average, and two stolen bases. He appeared in three games in center field for the Monarchs and went 3-for-12. In 1939, now 30 years old, Simms appeared in 29 games with Candy Jim Taylor’s Chicago American Giants. He was the top hitter on the team with 34 hits and a .296 batting average. Defensively, he was again in center field. At this point in his career, he certainly wanted to play every day, and with more game appearances with the Giants, he remained there through the 1940 season. That season, the Giants, managed by Wilson Redus, Simms was in 17 games, playing center field, and had 14 hits, a .209 batting average, and one stolen base.

Throughout his career Simms was known as a solid defensive outfielder, and “the quintessential leadoff batter: [had] an excellent eye, patience at the plate, a good base stealer, and the speed to take an extra base if the opportunity was presented.”14 These skills brought him to the Kansas City Monarchs for three more seasons. In 1941, as the left fielder, he shared outfield duty with Willard Brown in center field and Ted Strong in right field. Also on that team were pitchers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith. In 32 games played, Simms had 22 hits, a .183 batting average, and six stolen bases.

Simms remained with the Monarchs, managed by Frank Duncan, through the 1942 season. Now 33 years old, he played in 36 games, all but one in left field. In 152 at-bats he had 29 hits for a .191 batting average, with three stolen bases. The Monarchs won the Negro American League title with a 35-17 record. The Monarchs faced the Negro National League’s Homestead Grays in the Negro League World Series. Simms (then called Bill) appeared in four of the games, playing left field. He had five hits, one a triple. Although not one of the stars of the Monarchs that year, he was still an integral part of getting the team to and winning the World Series. Also during the 1942 season, in a Monarchs game versus a White major-league aggregation, Simms went 2-for-5 at the plate off Dizzy Dean, Johnny Grodzicki, and Al Piechota.

In 1943 Simms was once again a member of the Monarchs. In 30 games, with 110 plate appearances, he had 15 hits and a lowly .160 average. Also, in 1943 he played left field for the South All-Stars in a North-South All Star Game; he went 2-for-4. His team included Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Willard Brown, and Sam Bankhead on its roster.

At the end of the 1943 season, Simms thought his time in professional baseball might be over. He moved to California in February of 1943 and got a job. Simms worked five days a week but played semipro ball on Saturdays and Sundays in the California Winter League (with the Kansas City Royals, 1943-1945).15 Soon however, he heard his Kansas City teammates asking him, “What’s the matter – you not comin’ back with us. … We need you.”16 He received a call from “Mister Wilkinson” (J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Monarchs) and by the end of May 1944, Simms was again in Kansas City with the Monarchs, playing center field.17

After playing for Kansas City again in 1944, Simms and his wife, Mazie, moved permanently to Los Angeles. He now found employment with the Sinclair Paint Company, for whom he worked until retirement. He was able to buy a home, and the 1948 California US Voter Registrations for 1948 indicate that he and Mazie, both registered Republicans, lived at 738 East 51st Street, Los Angeles.

While in California, Simms began to play golf and took great pride in his 6 handicap.18 He was a member of the “T” Masters’ Golf Club and was the handicap chairman in Los Angeles. On August 29, 1974, at the age of 61, Mazie died. The location of her burial is unclear. Soon after, Simms left Los Angeles and moved to Perris, California, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and lived there until his death at the age of 93 on May 10, 2002. He is buried in the Perris Valley Cemetery.

Willie Simms – nicknamed Bill, Simmy, and Jeep19 – was a modest man who was not certain if he could have played in the White major leagues, but he would have welcomed the opportunity to try. He loved baseball and asked himself, “Why in the world didn’t I get a job managin’ before I put the game down.”20 According to Percy Reed, a semipro ballplayer and a Negro League umpire (1929-1947), Simms was an “average ballplayer. Clean cut.”21 Average or not, Willie Simms certainly was a player many professional teams would have liked to have fielded. He admitted that his speed on the bases could not match that of Cool Papa Bell, but he regarded himself as an ideal leadoff hitter who could get on base and make things happen.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Seamheads.com, Baseball-Reference.com, Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, FamilySearch.org, findagrave.com, and newspapers.com.

 

Notes

1 Donna Fricker, “The Louisiana Lumber Boom c. 1880-1925,” Historic Context, https://www.crt.state.la.us/Assets/OCD/hp/nationalregister/historic_contexts/The_Louisiana_Lumber_Boom_c1880-1925.pdf. Accessed May 8, 2021.

2 “History of the Industry,” Louisiana Mid Continent Oil and Gas Association, https://www.lmoga.com/about-us/history-of-the-industry. Accessed May 8, 2021.

3 “The History: How Did This All Start?” Louisiana’s Oil, https://www2.southeastern.edu/orgs/oilspill/history.html.

4 “Louisiana Club of New Orleans v. Louisiana Club of New Orleans 29 July 1859,” Protoball. https://protoball.org/index.php?search=louisiana&title=Special%3ASearch&go=Go; “Pre-pro Clubs and Games in Shreveport, La.” Accessed May 8, 2021.

5 Paul Letlow, “The Monroe Monarchs,” Paul Letlow’s Sport Shorts, http://louisianasportsshorts.blogspot.com/2009/06/monroe-monarchs.html. Accessed May 8, 2021.

6 Paul Letlow, “The Monroe Monarchs,” Paul Letlow’s Sport Shorts. Accessed May 8, 2021.

7 Brent Kelley, The Negro Leagues Revisited: Conversations with 66 More Baseball Heroes (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000), 44.

8 Lillian Jones Hall. “A Historical Study of Programming Techniques and Practices of Radio Station Kwkh, Shreveport, Louisiana: 1922-1950.” Louisiana State University Historical Dissertation and Thesis, 1959. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1557&context=gradschool_disstheses. Accessed May 8, 2021.

9 Possibly the Shreveport Acme Giants.

10 Kelley, 45.

11 “Negro League Player Register,” Negro Southern League Museum Research Center, http://www.negrosouthernleaguemuseumresearchcenter.org/Portals/0/Birmingham%20Player%20Profiles/R-S.pdf. Accessed May 8, 2021.

12 “Monroe Monarchs Squad Stages Daily Workouts,” Monroe (Louisiana) Star News, March 13, 1934: 5.

13 Seamheads, https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/team.php?yearID=1936&teamID=CT&LGOrd=2. Accessed May 8, 2021.

14 Kelley, 44.

15 “Negro League Player Register,” Negro Southern League Museum Research Center, 352, http://www.negrosouthernleaguemuseumresearchcenter.org/Portals/0/Birmingham%20Player%20Profiles/R-S.pdf. Accessed May 8, 2021.

16 Kelley, 45.

17 Kelley, 45-46.

18 “Willie Simms,” Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, eMuseum Electronic Resources for Teachers, https://nlbemuseum.com/nlbemuseum/history/players/simms.html. Accessed May 8, 2021.

19 “Bill Simms,” Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Bill_Simms. Accessed May 8, 2021.

20 Kelley, 46.

21 Kelley, 34.

Full Name

Willie Simms

Born

December 23, 1908 at Shreveport, LA (USA)

Died

May 10, 1927 at Perris, CA (USA)

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