MonthJune 2018

Here Lies Old Joe

Bayview-New York Bay cemetery, Jersey City, NJ

Somewhere in here lie the remains of Joe Simmons.

With the help of a ferry ride, I biked out to Jersey City recently to try and find him but the Bayview-New York Bay Cemetery is pretty big, there was no one on duty the day I got out there to access any records, and hundreds of tombstones were more or less inaccessible unless I’d risk tick bites in the high grass. I’m not even sure Joe has a marked tombstone but I spent an hour of so wandering through looking anyway. No dice.

That Joe Simmons is overlooked in death is a kind of ironic match for how overlooked he was in life, and also, how he looked after those who themselves might be overlooked. Of the characters making up the 1884 Quicksteps, manager Simmons, sometimes called “Ice Water” or more commonly, “Old Joe,” was hugely influential in assembling the club that dominated the Eastern League in 1884 and eventually became the only “major league” club in Delaware history.

In the days when you couldn’t access a player’s statistics on your phone, or even consult a scouting bureau for a report, there was no substitute for the experience of a well-traveled baseball man. The game at that time was a speculative venture on many fronts.  Among the second-tier players available to minor league clubs, there was no shortage of guys who could fake a resume or exaggerate their accomplishments in some other city in order to land a job. For many, it was preferable to the only alternative, likely a low-paying factory job or hard manual labor. But Joe Simmons knew a ballplayer when he saw one.

Simmons in 1871

Born Joseph S. Chabriel to French immigrants in New York  in 1844 or 1845 (records vary) Simmons — he used the American-ized non de plume as a ballplayer, likely a version of a middle name Simon) came of age at the right time for a baseball pioneer. His experience dated to his childhood around New York where he came up as a cricketer then took up baseball with storied clubs like the New York Gothams (1865), New York Empires (1866-67), and Unions of Morrisania (1868). In 1869, Simmons headed west and played two seasons with the Rockford, Illinois Forest Citys, where his teammates and contemporaries included future Hall of Famers George Wright and Albert Spalding.

When baseball went professional Simmons was the center fielder for the Chicago White Stockings of 1871 — a team whose pennant hope died when their stadium burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire. Simmons also worked as an American Association umpire and manager with a variety of pro clubs including the Rochester Hop Bitters, whom he led on an 1879 tour that reached San Francisco — an extraordinary long journey back then.

By the time he was engaged to manage the Quicksteps at age 38, Simmons had been through enough hot summers on the baseball field to know his team needed to be in great shape physically: He had his club work out in gyms and led them on long walks. Beyond that, Simmons developed a reputation as the kind of manager willing to take on players who might be considered  discipline problems by his counterparts. For Wilmington, he engaged two such men — the fiery and violent tempered slugger Oyster Burns, and most famously, the notorious carousing pitcher, Edward “The Only” Nolan. The veteran Simmons and the wild rookie Nolan had been teammates on the 1876 Columbus Buckeyes, but by 1884, Nolan’s history of discipline issues, egomanical behavior and suspensions had rendered him virtually employable by pro clubs. Deftly handled by Simmons, who allowed the pitcher to retain  his regal bearing as long as his pitching held up, Nolan had a resurgent campaign many felt was beyond him. As to Burns, Simmons presciently installed him as team captain, though he was only 19 years old. Of the 1884 club, Burns would the longest and most productive pro career, emerging as one of the earliest power hitters of the Dead Ball Era.

Simmons remained a champion of those left behind by a myopic baseball world including employing black players with his minor league clubs after racist leanings drummed them out of the pro game just as it was getting started. Fleet Walker, a catcher on the 1884 Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, was the majors’ last black ballplayer until Jackie Robinson came along, but he found work with Simmons’ 1886 club in Waterbury, Connecticut. In 1887, managing in Syracuse, Simmons engaged a young black lefty named Robert Higgins, whom he continued to put on the mound even after teammates sabotaged his performances and refused to sit for a team portrait with him.

In 1891, Walker wandered into a white Syracuse neighborhood, encountered some local toughs who demanded what was he was doing there, and in an ensuing scuffle fatally stabbed one of his attackers. (Walker was charged with second degree murder but eventually found not guilty). Walker was there, he said, to visit his friend Joe Simmons.

Simmons supported himself in offseasons variously as a cook, a furntiure polisher and a carriage driver. A second stint as an umpire reportedly ended in 1889 when he struck in the eye by a ball, permanently compromising his vision.

Simmons died at his home in Jersey City in 1901 at age 56. He’s still around somewhere.

Long Live the Queen

The Queen today.

Here’s the Queen Theater at 5th and Market streets in downtown Wilmington, which for more than 200 years has been — off and on — a central gathering place in Wilmington.

Said to have been built shortly after Thomas Willing laid out the city in 1732, it was address of a pub known as Welsh’s Tavern, and by the 1790s the Queen of Otaheite, said to have been named in honor of a local whaling crew that touched down in Otaheite or what today is known as Tahiti. Likely for reasons of pronunciation, it became popularly known as the Indian Queen, and its guests included future president Martin Van Buren. Writing in the Wilmington Morning News, columnist W. Emerson Wilson relayed that it was expanded to three stories by proprietor John Hall in 1846 and for a time was occupied by high-ranking officers fighting the Civil War. In 1863, confederate leiutenant Samuel Boyer Davis was said to have breakfasted there after escaping from a hospital in Chester, overhearing Union soldiers seated at an adjoining table plotting his recapture.

Artisans Bank and First National Bank of Wilmington in the 1870s acquired the property with intentions of turning it into corporate headquarters but with the industrial revolution bringing rapid growth to the city, decided instead to renovate and reopen as a luxury hotel. Adding two stories to the building, the Clayton (named in honor of the noted Delaware statesman John M. Clayton, a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State under fellow Whig Zachary Taylor), opened in 1873 and was designed to rival the finest locations in bigger cities.

In 1884, the Clayton was the address of choice for many of the Quicksteps players, and for the visiting baseball clubs passing through town. On September 4, Quicksteps outfielder John Cullen stumbled into an empty elevator shaft in the lobby and fell a dozen feet into a basement well of filth sustaining serious back injuries that ended his season. Cullen said later that a light alongside the elevator was out at the time he approached the door and so never realized the elevator car was on an upper floor. Given the time of his arrival, shortly before midnight, his company, Jimmy Say, and Cullen’s own history with alcohol, it’s quite likely he was drunk.

The Clayton hosted guests through 1915, but by then its status as Wilmington’s finest hotel had been surpassed by the Hotel duPont a few blocks north. The building the following year reopened as the Queen Theater, a 2,000-seat movie theater. That iteration lasted until 1959. The building sat unused for about 50 years before a renovation begun in 2009 led to the present Queen, a live music venue. Builders at work on that project uncovered murals, textures and an old organ some dating to the Clayton’s glory days.

Today the Queen, not unlike the Blue Rocks who themselves revived a long-dead entertainment in Wilmington, continues a tradition dating to the 19th century. See more in this video:

World Tour Begins

Hey Wilmington! Please join me Saturday, June 16, at 11 a.m. at the Barnes & Noble store next to the Concord Mall, where I will be holding a discussion of ONCE UPON A TEAM, give a short reading and will sign as many books as I possibly can.

Saturday, June 16, 11 a.m.; Barnes & Noble, 4801 Concord Pike, Wilmington

Hey New York! On Thursday June 28, I’ll join the writers Greg Prince (co-founder of the mighty Faith and Fear in Flushing blog and author of PIAZZA: CATCHER, SLUGGER, ICON, STAR) and Dave Jordan (founder of Instraam Sports and co-author of the terrific FASTBALL JOHN) at Two Boots Pizza- Midtown East for a night dubbed “Readin’, Writin’ & Rusty.”

I just devoured FASTBALL JOHN, a revealing and funny autobio of the 1970s-era pitcher John D’Aquisto, and so I’m excited to meet Dave at this event and perhaps get his signature on my Kindle. I’ve known Greg forever; his writing about the experience of being a Met fan is the best there ever was, and his feel for Mets history is remarkable, his books are great.

Somehow we’ll all find a way to discuss our recent work and eat plenty of pizza, while also paying tribute to the late Rusty Staub, a famous New Yorker and famous eater.

This is all tied together through Two Boots founder and owner Phil Hartman, who was gracious enough to have hosted a series of similar events at his restaurants a decade ago when Greg was promoting his FAITH AND FEAR book and me the METS BY THE NUMBERS. These hangouts were great fun; I hope you can join us there.

Thursday, June 28, 7 p.m.; Two Boots Pizza: 337 Lexington Ave. (at 39th Street).

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