For Aleft-hander, Curt Simmons is a nice enough young man. He treats his family withdeep affection, has practically never been known to kick a hole in his lockereven after losing a close game and is spoken of by his teammates on thePhiladelphia Phillies only in terms of admiration and respect. Of course thereare days when other teams in the National League somehow manage to restrainthemselves from going into ecstasy over the character of Curt Simmons, but thisis in the nature of things. Generally, they like him too.
Yet in hisrelations with the press, Curt Simmons has been downright inconsiderate. Withevery opportunity in the world to make one of the most dramatic comebacks inbaseball history, he has flubbed his lines.
He hasn'tdramatized his exits. There was his induction into the U.S. Army in 1950 as thefirst major leaguer to be called up for the Korean war. If his baseball careerwas to be washed up at an early age, what an opportunity there! But since Curtended up in Germany instead of in Korea, he couldn't very well get himselfshot. So he came on back home to pitch just as well as ever, and then stuck hisfoot in a power mower. That would have been a highly dramatic ending, too,except that a month later he was winning ball games again and laughing at theidea that a Pennsylvania Dutchman couldn't pitch just as well with nine wholetoes as with 10. Only then, after escaping such bizarre fates, did Curt Simmonscome to the end of the road in the most prosaic way possible: he went out oneday to pitch and couldn't pitch at all. His arm was sore.
So two years wentby and few people thought much about Curt Simmons any more except possibly toshake their heads sadly when they were reminded of what might have been. Then,one day, Curt Simmons was back. Just like that. Here, right in the middle ofthe 1956 season, he has won seven games in a row, each one of them complete.Almost overnight his earned run average has dropped until he is among thelowest in the league and once again he looks like one of the finest pitchers inall baseball.
August 26, 1956
"I don'tcare," he says now, "if I never make the headlines again. All I want todo is pitch and win games."
And who can blamehim? His first 10 years in baseball were eventful enough to last anyone for alifetime.
Back in 1947 hebegan to receive his first national publicity when it was noted that majorleague scouts were standing on each other's shoulders to get a peek at thishusky pitcher with the blazing fast ball who had pitched a string of no-hittersfor Egypt High School. And of course he had that going for him, too; to abaseball writer, Egypt, Pennsylvania may not have all the endearing qualitiesof Vinegar Bend, Alabama, perhaps, but it is certainly good enough.
On September 28,1947, pitching in his first major league game, this 18-year-old fresh out ofthe Pennsylvania hills beat the New York Giants 3-1 on five hits and struck outnine. At this point, the only thing standing between young Curtis ThomasSimmons and the ceremony which would install his plaque in the Hall of Fame wasa simple matter of hurrying through the next 15 or so seasons in order toretire and become eligible for selection.
Of course itdidn't work out quite that way; Curt was a very young man and he had troublesjust as Bob Feller and Robin Roberts, who was to come along a year later, hadtheirs; a 20-game winner does not spring full-blown even from the hardy stockof Egypt, Pa. He had some trouble with his control and the Phillies manager andcoaches were frankly a little worried about Curt's jerky, twisty pitchingmotion, which they felt needed to be smoothed out at least a little indeference to his arm if nothing else. But National League batters were agreedthat when the young man was right, he was just about the toughest thing to hitthey had seen in a mighty long time. And when the 1950 season rolled around, hewas ready to go.
That year, as thePhils won their first pennant since 1915, Simmons and Roberts were clearly thedifference. Yet for Curt it wasn't an entirely acceptable season—on September4, after he had won 17 games and appeared a cinch for at least 20, he wascalled up for active duty as a member of the 28th Infantry Division of thePennsylvania National Guard.
The Phils went onto win the pennant, barely scraping by on the last day, but they weren't thesame without the big left-hander, and it showed in the World Series, where theYankees took them four straight. It also showed the next year whenPhiladelphia, even with Roberts winning 21 games, finished only fifth. So inthe off season between 1951 and 1952 the Phillies kept their fingers crossedand one eye on passenger manifests from Germany.
Curt didn't quitemake it in time. He missed spring training and it took him a while to get intop shape but even so no one was too unhappy. Once he began to burn them inagain, Simmons won 14 games, had an ERA of 2.82 and tied for the league lead inshutouts with six. Everyone got set for 1953. This was obviously to bePhiladelphia's—and Simmons'—big year.
For a while itseemed that they might be right. Curt won seven in the early weeks of theseason and was pitching better than ever before when—z-z-z-z-t—he chopped offpart of his big toe in that blasted lawn mower. But even this interruptionfailed to stop Curt Simmons; at 24 one is even able to ignore cartoons showinga National League pennant flying off tied to one's big toe. In a month it wasall well and Curt was able to pitch just as before. He wound up winning 16.
Again, 1954should have been the year but it wasn't. Some days Curt would feel all rightand then he would pitch as well as ever. On others he felt so weak he would goto the manager and ask for an extra day off. "Sometimes," he says,"my arm hurt like the devil. I couldn't even loosen it up."
And in thismanner Curt went through the 1954 season, winning about half the time, and tothose who didn't know the truly tremendous potential of this young man hisrecord of 14-15 wouldn't have looked bad at all. But Curt knew—and so did thePhillies. They were worried.
They were alsoright. In Florida in 1955, Curt pitched only three innings. And once the seasonbegan, no one knew from one day to the next whether Simmons would even be ableto pitch, much less win.
Now everyonebegan to theorize about the true cause of Curt's trouble. Some said it was thestrange jerky pitching motion which had finally put too much strain on his arm,and they had a strong argument. Where a normal left-hander will come off themound with his right foot pointed straight toward the batter and release theball almost as his foot touches the ground, Simmons is all different. His rightfoot ends up pointing off somewhere in the direction of the first-base linebetween the plate and the right-field box seats and it always hits the groundbefore he lets go of the ball. Thus Curt is throwing across his body in atwisted and not at all normal position.
"But BennyBengough [one of the Phils coaches] worked with me and we decided that part wasO.K.," explains Curt. "I'll admit the delivery is strange but I make upfor it by twisting the upper part of my body around just a little bit more. Andthe arm is coming through free and easy toward the plate. That's the way I'vealways thrown. No, that wasn't the trouble."
And then theyquit bothering to wonder about Curt's troubles at all and would just look wiseand nod and smile whenever the subject came up.
"They thoughtI was a mental case," he says, "and after a while darned if I didn'talmost think so, too."
He won only eightgames in 1955 and frankly admits most of them were steals. Several were inrelief, and all season he pitched only three complete games. His earned runaverage was a miserable 4.92. Curt Simmons, at the age of 26, was plainly allwashed up.
Only Curt Simmonsrefused to admit it. Last winter he worked for three months in a Philadelphiagym with Roberts and Del Ennis and some ot the other Phillies.
"I couldn'tlet go at first but finally I could throw pretty good," he said. "Iremade myself."
After that itwent slow even though Simmons was feeling better all the time.
"I knew hehad it back right after I joined the team," says Harvey Haddix, who roomswith Simmons on the road now but at the beginning of the season was still a St.Louis Cardinal. "Last year we didn't know what was wrong but we knew hedidn't have it any more. This year, the first time I saw him pitch, he wastough."
And every dayCurt Simmons appears to be getting tougher. On July 3 he had only a 3-6 recordand a rather undistinguished ERA of 4.50. After that he pitched and won sevenstraight complete games. His ERA has swooped down to 2.98; only four otherstarting pitchers in the league can boast of a record better than that.
"He's goteverything he ever had," says Joe Adcock of the Braves. "Too much asfar as I'm concerned."
"He's quickand he's always around the plate now," says Bob Buhl, "and his ball isreally cutting up."
"He's plentyfast," says Red Schoendienst of the Giants. "We couldn't do anythingwith him at all."
"I feelgreat," says Simmons himself. "I may not throw quite as hard as I usedto, but my fast ball is moving. I throw the slow curve a little more and I'mgetting it over better.
"I think I'mjust as good as I ever was. And that—I hope—is the story of my life."
It also may bethe story of the year. Nice and quiet, true, but impressive just the same. Andreally quite dramatic after all.
An ability to beat the Yankees, even if it is asolitary talent, makes a man worth something nowadays. Willard Nixon, aright-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, is a gentleman who has thisparticular faculty and gets paid around $10,000 a year. He has beaten New Yorkthree times this year, and his lifetime record against the club is 11-5.
Last week he was repeating. The mighty bats werestilled as Nixon had a no-hitter going for seven innings at the Stadium. In theeighth, Berra got a streaky single. In the ninth, with Boston leading 2-0, MiltBoiling flubbed McDougald's grounder to short. Maury Mc-Dermott singled tocenter, then Billy Goodman booted Pitcher Don Larsen's grounder. The game whichshould have been won was in jeopardy, the bases were loaded with fearsomeYankees, and Nixon's temper—never equable—began to boil. He massacred the moundwith his spikes, looked daggers at his embarrassed infield.
Later he admitted: "Sure, I was mad. Not just atthe others. I could have fielded McDougald's grounder."
But Nixon didn't blow up. He struck out Hank Bauer onthree curves. Martin grounded out, scoring a run. Next up was a shatteringsight: The Mantle itself.
Nixon had been feeding Mickey knucklers all afternoonand decided to fool the home run king with a fast ball. He almost didn't, forMantle's drive to left field was high and deep. Gene Stephens, however, manageda desperate grab for the out and the ball game.
Nixon was unable to explain why he does so wellagainst New York: "I don't try to figure it out. But I know this: you can'thave a good year just beating one team." Nixon's season record is a modest7-5.