Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Memorial Day: Curt Simmons misses the '50 pennant race

Someone Curt Simmons didn't know came running out of one of the barracks at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, hollering, "Sisler just hit a home run for the Phillies. Sisler just homered."

More than 1,000 miles away, the Philadelphia Phillies were rushing out of the dugout, hugging one another, most of them in tears.

They mobbed hero Dick Sisler as he stepped on home plate at Ebbets Field. His three-run, 10th-inning home run beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, 4-1, on the season's final day.

On Oct. 1, 1950, the Phillies' 35-year pennant drought was over. The Whiz Kids were going to the World Series as National League champions.

Curt Simmons , the Phils' 21-year-old lefthander, was going nowhere.

He had gone from the big leagues to scrubbing floors in the Army.

He was marooned at boot camp, in the middle of nowhere, far from any signs of the pennant race he had helped keep the Phillies in with 17 victories.

With the Korean War heating up, Phillies owner Bob Carpenter had suggested in 1948 that Simmons join the National Guard to avoid being drafted. On Sept. 10, 1950, Simmons's unit was activated. He would miss the remainder of the Phils' magical season and all of the '51 season.

"The Saturday before I went in, I pitched on two days rest, and won, and Sunday I was on the train, headed for the Army," said Simmons, who didn't return to the mound until 1952. "I remember Frank Powell, our traveling secretary, kept telling me, 'Don't worry, we're gonna get you out. Don't worry about it, we're working on getting you out for 30 days.'

"It got kind of funny after a while. Even as we were standing at the train station, Powell's saying to me, 'Don't worry, we're gonna get you back. You're gonna help us with this pennant.'

"It hurt like hell getting on that train. I went from the top of the ladder, boom, to the bottom real quick."

One sunny September afternoon, Simmons was pitching for the Phillies at Shibe Park, in front of 30,000-plus. The next day, he was on his hands and knees, cleaning the barracks latrine.

"I get to camp and it's raining . . . the barracks were beat up . . . they made us scrub floors . . . they didn't have enough food, so we ate rations for a few days. It was a different world.

"It was pretty depressing. But I got used to it, I guess, if there is such a thing as getting used to that stuff. Other guys were in the same boat, you know, so I didn't make a big deal out of it. Going into the service was just something you did back then. It was just my bad luck that I got called when I did."

Simmons, 61, a majority owner of Limekiln Golf Club in Ambler for the past 25 years, recalled there being just two telephones, two radios and no television sets on the base at Atterbury 40 years ago.

"When you're in the Army, you don't have time to listen to ballgames, so it was hard to keep up," he said. "Basic training, I mean, we were up at 5 a.m. and gone all day (physical training). But Sundays was our touch football day, and we were throwing a football around between the barracks when one of the guys came running out, saying the Phillies had won it."

Simmons was so nervous about the Phils' final game that he couldn't bear to listen to it.

"The guys on the base were all over me that final week," he said. ''Saying we were in the tank, and all that kind of stuff. There might have been a radio on nearby, but I couldn't listen."

Robin Roberts phoned Simmons that evening from a wild team party to relive the day with his good friend.

"That was the kind of team we were. As close as they come," Simmons said. ''It made me feel good to hear from the guys, but it also made me wish I was there even more, you know. It was pretty funny, because Robbie passed the phone around, and some of the guys weren't too coherent. It was fun. But it gave me a little homesick kind of feeling, you know?"

When Carpenter recommended to his rookies in 1948 that they enlist in the National Guard to avoid the peace time draft, Simmons went along. "I said, 'OK, Mr. Carpenter, you're the boss,' " Simmons said. "I could have said no, but in those days when the boss said something, you snapped to it. Plus, I thought it was a good deal."

That commitment involved two weeks of Guard duty each year, with Simmons doing his at Indian Town Gap, Pa. Simmons got word during his early August stint with the Guard that his 28th division would be called for active duty.

Until being shipped to Atterbury, Simmons was stationed at the old armory at Broad and Diamond streets in North Philadelphia.

"We were there for about a week before we were activated," he said. "I'd work like 7 to 5, grab a sandwich and get to the ballpark in time for the game. Some nights, I'd pitch after working all day."

According to Simmons, the Phillies tried all avenues to pressure the military into freeing the lefthanded half of their devastating, 1-2 pitching punch. But when a waiver of U.S. Army policy eventually came through, it turned out to be too little, too late to aid the Whiz Kids.

"I remember the general calling me in his office," Simmons said, before his daily round of golf at Limekiln. "I didn't salute him or anything. I was a rookie, a little nervous, you know. He said, 'We could give you a 10-day furlough without pay if you want it, and you can go home for the Series.'

"I said, 'Thank you, I'll take it.'"

The Phillies, however, already had played their postseason hand, unaware that Simmons would be granted a 10-day leave in late September. Lefthander Jocko Thompson, a third-year pro with 10 games and 44 innings of experience in 1948 and '49 with the Phils, was called up to replace Simmons on the 27-man World Series roster.

"I'd been in the service about a month and hadn't thrown a ball or anything," Simmons said. "I might have thrown a few between the barracks now and then, and I was in decent shape and probably could've pitched, but there was nothing the Phillies could do. They didn't know I was getting out, because I got called in at the last minute. If I'd known . . .

"Apparently, the Phillies were pressuring them to let me out, and there was a lot of politics involved. A guy named Strickler (Daniel B. Strickler ) was lieutenant governor (1947-51) of Pennsylvania, and the club even got him involved. I didn't know all that was going on behind the scenes until later. All I knew was, whatever they tried didn't work. There were so many men trying to get out (of their military obligation), that they just turned everyone down."

To this day, Simmons is often reminded by fans of what might have been had he been able to contribute to the Phils' September cause. In 31 appearances (27 starts) before departing Sept. 10, Simmons was 17-8 with 11 complete games, 146 strikeouts and a 3.40 earned run average in 214 2/3 innings pitched.

"If we'd had Curt down the stretch, there's no doubt in my mind we'd have won the pennant a week or so earlier," said Maje McDonnell, the Phils' coach and batting-practice pitcher now working in the club's community relations department. "You don't replace your No. 2 man. With Curt, we'd have clinched early and been well rested for the Series, and I think we'd have won it."

All these years, Simmons has preferred not to look back bitterly, but to be thankful that he got another chance, in 1964 with St. Louis, to pitch in a World Series. Ironically, that experience came at the expense of the Phillies, who collapsed in the final week and a half of the season.

"I wasn't happy about it, don't get me wrong," said Simmons, who started two games in '64 as the Cardinals defeated the Yankees in seven games. "But the situation was there. I mean, the Korean thing was a pretty big deal. They were drafting kids, and I was one of them. If I wasn't in the National Guard, who knows, I might have been drafted sooner. You could moan all you wanted. The war was reality in 1950.

"The good news was I got out in 17 months. And they sent the Oklahoma division to Japan, and we got Germany. So I was one of the lucky ones."