Ernie Harwell, the great Detroit Tigers’ play-by-play man, will get most of the ink in the coming days as he signs off for the last time in the Motor City. He’s a Hall of Fame game-caller, and he will be missed. But for my money, the best of them is the other announcer pushing back from the mike for the last time this week.
San Francisco Giants play-by-play man Lon Simmons probably won’t garner a Sunday New York Times sports section salute. Perhaps it’s because he’s been semi-retired for the past few years. Or, unlike Harwell and Jack Buck, he never had a regular, national “Game of the Week” gig. Or, unlike Vin Scully and Mel Allen, he didn’t do much national television, even when it became the dominant medium for sports.
I’d like to think it was because he was viewed as a voice inextricably tied to the San Francisco Bay Area — and that he liked it that way. He’s best known as the voice of the Giants. But Simmons was a great play-by-play man for the San Francisco 49ers for many years, and when, in 1981, the Giants decided to take the announcing team in “another direction,” Simmons did too, crossing the Bay Bridge to do A’s games with the legendary Bill King. He returned to the Giants booth part-time in 1996.
On any level, Simmons should be recalled as one of the greats, right up there with Harwell, Buck, Harry Caray, Mel Allen, and the oft-imitated Scully. You can’t imitate Simmons. His voice, a deep, rich baritone so powerful my parents could tell I had the radio on under my pillow to hear the game after lights out, was one of a kind and instantly identifiable.
Even when paired early in his career as the second-seat man with the great Russ Hodges, Simmons’s voice allowed him to stand apart. For his home run call, Hodges had, “You can kiss it bye-bye baby!” But Simmons added a bit of drama and low-key panache to his: “Way back, way back, way back! You can tell it good-bye!” Many an announcer attempting to string the listener along like that has been burned by a catch at the warning track. I can’t recall Simmons ever misjudging his home run call.
From Willie Mays to Barry Bonds, Willie McCovey to Jeff Kent, Simmons’s “You can tell it good-bye!” cry was electric. It was the call that kids of a certain generation all over San Francisco worked into their imaginary heroics in the sandlot: standing at home plate facing the hated Dodger Don Sutton with two out, bases loaded and down by three in the bottom of ninth at wind-swept Candlestick Park.
Simmons seemed to enjoy every facet of the game, from the uneven rhythms of the early innings, to blowouts, where the challenge was keeping the listener’s ear to the radio when there was no drama to hold them. Even the post-game interview was fun with Lon. He’d view uncommunicative sorts like Jack Clark and decent-glove, no-bat shortstop Johnny LeMaster as challenges, and question them on anything to get more than a mono-syllabic response.
And unlike other play-by-play men who hated sharing the booth, Simmons always seemed to be a team player. Al Michaels, a rising star in the broadcast biz, and today considered to be the best TV play-by-play man around, was Simmons’s No. 2 for several years in the mid-’70s
If being paired with a young buck bothered Simmons, you’d never have known it. Simmons’s warm voice and smooth delivery, mixed with Michaels’ handle on stats and the opposing team, made for a natural pairing. One got the impression listening that Simmons welcomed a two- or three inning break from the heavylifting of play-by-play. Between Michaels’ balls and strikes calls, I could easily imagine Simmons sitting back in his chair in the booth spinning a funny baseball yarn about Willie McCovey on his first road trip as a rookie.
That selflessness has always been a Simmons hallmark. In the past two years, as Barry Bonds has re-written the offensive record books, Giants announcer Jon Miller, another great, has tried getting Simmons to take to the microphone at a point when Bonds was poised to pass another landmark: his 500th home run, his 600th dinger, his record-breaking 73rd single-season shot. Miller wanted Simmons to have a moment, but Simmons declined. He’d had plenty of calls in his time. Better that the younger announcers had memorable calls too, he reasoned.
For many years, Simmons’s voice was a constant year-round presence. You’d hear him doing the Giants, then on Sundays it was the 49ers, then spring training and the Giants once again. Back then, given those two teams, you wanted, no needed, to hear a friendly voice.
For the Niners, John Brodie was aging, soon to be replaced by, among others, a weak-armed “ball tosser” named Spurrier. And the team had a coaching carousel that made fans’ head spin. Meanwhile, the Giants, too, were a terribly mismanaged team, always out of the race by July after yet-another “June Swoon,” and looking to unload yet another promising, homegrown talent for a washed up has-been.
Both of these teams were painful to watch, but not to listen to, thanks to Simmons. While others may differ, I don’t think Simmons was ever a homer the way Harry Caray was for the Cubs or White Sox. Simmons called the games straight, but with a nod to the fans. He got excited at moments when a fan would get excited, but he never sugar-coated the awfulness of a Giants game (and there were many we wish he had). He was frank, but always with an entertaining edge. He’s famous for a line, when the Giants were being drubbed: “As we go to the bottom of the fifth, and I wish I was …”
I can only recall one time that Simmons allowed the fan inside him to get out. It was in the early ’70s, perhaps John Brodie’s last year, when the 49ers were in a must-win game. Simmons, knowing that many fans inside The Stick were listening on transistor radios, asked them to quiet down so the offensive line and receivers could hear Brodie call an audible.
Simmons’s timing, though, wasn’t always perfect. He left the Niners’ booth before the 1981-82 season. That would be the year of Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, and “The Catch.” I always thought it was an injustice that Simmons never got a shot at that magical, championship season. You just know his call of Montana, backing up, lofting that ball to the back of the end zone, and Clark coming from no where to pull it in, would be one for the ages.
There is still hope for that. While Simmons has said his last game will be this week in the Giants’ regular season finale. Perhaps if the Giants do their job the radio powers that be will let Simmons make the call fans of his have always wanted to hear: Game 7 of the World Series. The series knotted 3 games apiece. Bonds up in the bottom of the 9th of a tie game with the bases loaded. Simmons calling the shot, “Way back, way back …”
What a way that would be for Lon Simmons to tell us, “Good-bye.”
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