September 24th, 2013

When the Hot Springs Historical Baseball Trail was opened in 2012, it was planned that more plaques would be added as research continued and additional qualified honorees were identified. So, it is with great pride that the City of Hot Springs announces its two newest inclusions in “The Trail.” They are Hall of Fame sluggers Al Simmons and Stan Musial.

These two legendary figures from baseball’s rich history both compare and contrast with one another. Both men began life with poor immigrant backgrounds, and had to work at an early age to help support their large families. Each grew up near large industrial complexes where soot and pollution were everyday issues. Both were Polish-American and devout Roman Catholics. Simmons and Musial both loved baseball, and worked tirelessly to reach their potential…in both cases, setting lasting records on their way to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Oddly, each man achieved his athletic goals while using batting techniques that defied traditional methodology. Yet, there were also differences.

Although open and engaging, Simmons was a brash, swaggering fellow who was not opposed to self-promotion or occasional confrontation. Conversely, Musial was friendly, temperate and modest: more inclined to move folks with a warm smile than with a direct challenge.

Alois Szymanski was born to Polish immigrant parents on the south side of Milwaukee on May 22, 1902. His father died when he was only eight years old, which meant that young Al had to help his mother feed his five younger siblings. Happily, there was still time for baseball, and Simmons developed into a powerful and promising all-around diamond talent. Like many other ethnic ballplayers, Szymanski decided to “Anglicize” his name, whereupon he became Al Simmons. By age twenty-two in 1924, he joined the legendary Connie Mack and his Philadelphia Athletics. He was an instant success at the Major League level.

Batting right-handed, the six-foot, 200-pound Simmons stepped toward third base as he swung, thereby inviting the peculiar nickname, “Bucketfoot Al.” Despite the unorthodox batting style, Simmons consistently pounded the ball to all fields. In his rookie year with the A’s, Al batted .308 and drove in 102 runs. Yet, it was only a prequel to what followed. In his second season, in 1925, the burly Simmons hit .387, belted twenty-four home runs, and knocked in 129 runs. Al was also an excellent defensive outfielder as well as a fine base runner.

Simmons added another star-caliber campaign in 1926 (.341 batting average) as the Athletics came closer to dethroning Babe Ruth and the lordly New Yankees as kingpins of the American League. Yet, as the A’s continued to improve in 1927, Al Simmons took a step backward, playing in only 109 games due to a serious groin injury. So, when he arrived for spring training at Fort Myers in 1928, Simmons was determined to make amends. By all accounts, he worked extra-hard to avoid a recurrence of the strained groin.

What happened next is difficult to explain by way of 21st Century medical hindsight. All we know with certainty is that Al Simmons missed the first twenty-seven games of the 1928 season due to rheumatoid arthritis in both ankles. It was a condition which threatened to prematurely end his career at age twenty-six. As he did in 1927, Al played very well when he was in the lineup (batting .392 and .351 respectively), but, also as in 1927, he missed many games, ultimately playing in 119 contests that year. That is when Al Simmons discovered Hot Springs.

Shortly after the conclusion of the 1928 season, when the Yankees barely withstood a determined assault by the Athletics, Simmons journeyed to the Valley of the Vapors to save his career. The connection is unclear, but it may have been at the suggestion of Tris Speaker who played his final season with Simmons in Philadelphia that year. It is a fact that the legendary “Grey Eagle” had trained and played in Hot Springs many times throughout his career, and looked very favorably on his experiences there. Either way, Al Simmons arrived in the Spa City in the fall of 1928, and kept returning for the remainder of his life.

Simmons took the thermal baths, and hiked the mountain trails until traveling home to his native Milwaukee for Christmas. Obviously, he saw some significant benefits, because he headed back to Arkansas on January 30, this time in the company of six teammates. Al continued to train for the 1929 season for about a month before joining the rest of the pennant hungry A’s in Florida. And what were the final results? Al Simmons played in 143 games, leading the Philadelphia Athletics to victory in the World Series. Along the way, he batted .365, slugged thirty-four home runs, and drove in 157 runs…all by a guy who thought that he may have been “washed up” the preceding year. That was it; Simmons was hooked on Hot Springs.

With Connie Mack’s blessing, Al came to The Valley in early February, 1930, and actually played his entire spring training schedule with the Minneapolis Millers (American Association) who were also in town. This time, Simmons brought good friend and future Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane with him. In fact, before their respective careers were over, almost every prominent member of those dynastic Athletic teams journeyed to Hot Springs for conditioning. That included pitchers Jack Quinn, George Earnshaw, Howard Ehmke and Lefty Grove as well as position players Cochrane, Jimmy Dykes, Bing Miller and Jimmie Foxx.

Al’s Hot Springs highlight that spring was a four-hit, two-homer game versus Little Rock on March 17. Simmons eventually rejoined the A’s back in Philadelphia on April 12 in time to blast a long home run off Grover Cleveland Alexander in the annual City Series against the Phillies. It turned out to be another fabulous year for Al Simmons who batted .381, belted thirty-six homers and knocked in 165 runs, helping the A’s repeat as World Champions.

Unquestionably, Simmons was drawn to Hot Springs for a variety of reasons, including his natural affinity for its history and culture. Yet, there were some practical baseball-only factors as well. For example, Al felt that the fields in Arkansas were better maintained than their counterparts in Florida. Plus, he believed that the turf was softer around Hot Springs than in Fort Myers, thereby making life easier for his weak ankles. Furthermore, Simmons preferred the Arkansas weather over that in Florida. In this regard, Al was a little like Goldilocks and her porridge. Simmons felt that the temperatures in the Valley were not too hot…not too cold…but just right. According to Al, the temps were ideal for hiking and training from February through early March. Then, in late March and early April, the climate was perfect for playing baseball.

Finding great success in this format, Simmons followed the same spring schedule in 1931, again arriving in February and playing for Minneapolis. On March 14, 1931 at Whittington Park, Al went 4 for 4 against his hometown Milwaukee Brewers while clubbing an impressive home run over the center field fence. The next day, he did even better…much better. Simmons recorded four more hits, including three homers versus the Brewers. For the season, Al Simmons repeated as American League batting champion (.390), and the A’s won their third straight pennant. This time, however, they lost a hard-fought seven game World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Returning to Hot Springs on February 10, 1932, Al Simmons engaged in his annual ritual of taking the baths, hiking the mountains and playing golf. Participating in an intra-squad game with the Milwaukee Brewers on March 28, Al launched two more home runs at Whittington Park. Sadly for the Philadelphia Athletics, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led the Yankees back to the World Series in ’32, signaling the end of the Athletics’ supremacy.  Yet, no one faulted the “Duke of Milwaukee.” For the only time in his career, Simmons played in all 154 games, while posting a .322 batting average as well as clubbing thirty-five home runs and driving home 151 runs.

Due to Pennsylvania’s restrictive “Blue Laws” of that era, which banned Sabbath baseball, Connie Mack was never a wealthy man. Mack was forced to “sell off” his star players in those hard Depression times, and Al Simmons, his personal favorite, was the first to go. Sold to the Chicago White Sox at the conclusion of the 1932 season, Al still came back to Hot Springs to prepare for each baseball season.  Yet, he was no longer given the same latitude that Mack had provided. Accordingly, after spending over a month in The Valley bathing, hiking and taking batting practice, Simmons joined the White Sox for their spring schedule in Pasadena on March 7, 1933.

Baseball was never quite the same for Al Simmons after his glory days in Philadelphia. He remained a productive player for many years, but his greatness (both individually and collectively as a team member) would not return. For example, he compiled a .331 batting average for the Sox that first season, and hit fourteen home runs while adding 119 RBI’s, as Chicago finished sixth in the American League.

But, by then, Al Simmons’ love for Hot Springs was a staple in his life. He returned for more golf and conditioning in the fall of 1933, and came yet again in late January 1934. It is believed that Al normally stayed at the historic Majestic Hotel on his frequent visits to town. During a brief lull late in that ’34 season resulting from a hand injury, Al married a young beauty from Racine, Wisconsin. Almost predictably, when the couple left for their actual honeymoon to Hawaii at the conclusion of the Sox schedule, Simmons first brought his bride to Hot Springs.

And so it went for the remainder of Al Simmons’ baseball life. As he aged, his skills slowly diminished, and he moved from team to team. Yet, the one constant was his annual visits to the Valley of the Vapors. Even when Simmons returned to the Athletics in the 1940s as a coach for Connie Mack, he would still start each season with a visit to Hot Springs. In his quest to stay fit, it was reported that Al jogged the steep trails outside of town while wearing heavy logger’s boots. That insight should be a factor in any discussion of Al Simmons.

Despite enjoying an immensely successful career, Simmons fell seventy-three hits short of making it to the celebrated 3,000 Hit Club, and it troubled him deeply. After retiring, Simmons often publicly berated himself for missing so many games due to injury. He felt, probably with good cause, that he sometimes stayed out of action too long as he recovered from his various ailments. Taking their cue from the player himself, many modern fans now look upon Al Simmons as somewhat of a wastrel…a vastly talented player who never lived up to his potential. Yet, when reviewing his baseball life in detail, that seems unfair.

Al Simmons was one tough dude. Certainly, Connie Mack admired him and his work ethic. Why else, in his twilight years, would Mack have stated that a lineup of nine Al Simmonses would have been his dream team? Although Simmons’ medical profile is not definitive after the fact, it is certain that he suffered from chronic arthritis pain from 1928 onward. His history is replete with accounts of pain not only in his ankles but in his hips, arms and shoulders. When you combine those facts with his known record for strenuous conditioning at Hot Springs, it seems plausible that posterity has been unkind to Alois Szymanski.

Yes, Al liked to party, and he was known as a heavy drinker later in life. But, as in the case of Babe Ruth, partying hard and working hard were not mutually exclusive. Both men left a verifiable trail of prodigiously hard work. When all the facts are considered, it seems likely that Al Simmons, in keeping with his strict Catholic background, was overly judgmental about himself. Sure, he missed some games when he could have played, but he kept himself in Major League Baseball for over two decades as a player due to his dogged determination and arduous physical labor.

This is where Stan Musial enters the story. When young Stan joined the St. Louis Cardinals late in the 1941 season, Al was still hanging around as a part time player. In 1945, Simmons took over as the third base coach and de facto manager for the aging Connie Mack who remained as the nominal skipper in Philly.  Of course, during this same time, Musial’s fortunes skyrocketed in St. Louis. It was around this time that Al Simmons bonded with Stan, encouraging him to stay in the lineup and play every game to the hilt.  This was the nexus of their careers.

Al Simmons died of a heart attack in Milwaukee on May 26, 1956 at the age of fifty-four. Fortunately, he lived long enough to celebrate his induction into the Hall of Fame three years earlier. Baseball fans across the country mourned his passing, including superstar Stan Musial.

Stanislaw Franciszek Musial was born in Donora, Pennsylvania (on the banks of the Monongahela River just south of Pittsburgh) on November 21, 1920. His father, Lukasz, was a Polish immigrant, and his mother, Mary, traced her roots to the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe.

Donora was a typical, working-class town where folks earned their livelihoods by laboring long hours in one of the three steel-related foundries. That was the case with the Musial family where young “Stashu” was expected to do his part in helping to make ends meet. Fortunately, athletic activity was also encouraged, and Stanislaw was enrolled in a Polish gymnastics club (The Falcons) for four years as a child. His innate coordination was exceptional. By the time he was a teenager, Stanley (yes, he also adjusted his name to his local culture) was recognized as a rising star in both baseball and basketball. Eschewing a hoops scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, Musial agreed to a modest contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1937 before graduating from high school.

Despite being a good hitter, Stan was signed as a left-handed pitcher with the Cards. Although never regarded as the next Lefty Grove, Musial did well in the St. Louis farm system until falling on his left shoulder late in the 1940 season. When he reported to Florida the following spring, his velocity was gone, and his prospects were virtually non-existent. Yet, Stan Musial always seemed to have a guardian angel. In this case, it was Ollie Vanek who was the scout who had helped to sign the seventeen-year-old-pitcher back in ’37. At that pivotal moment, Vanek was the manager of the Cards’ Class-C team in Springfield, Missouri.

With essentially no other options, twenty-year-old Stanley Musial was reborn as a novice outfielder for the Springfield Cardinals in 1941. It proved to be one of the most miraculous transformations in the history of American sports. In eighty-seven games at Springfield, Musial tore apart Western Association pitching at a torrid .379 clip, whereupon he was promoted to Class-AA Rochester in the International League. There, in fifty-four contests, Stan batted .326 before returning home to Donora.

Settling in for the off-season, Musial was suddenly and unexpectedly summoned by the Cardinals who were making a late run for the National League pennant. Joining the big club in mid-September, the shy kid from the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania batted .426 over the final twelve games in that seemingly fictional series of events. In April 1941, Stan Musial had been a sore-armed pitcher who almost nobody wanted, and, by September of that same year, he was a slugging outfielder who was the envy of every franchise in Major League Baseball.

With Musial as their everyday left fielder in 1942, the St. Louis Cardinals accomplished something that had eluded them the preceding year. They won the National League pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers as Stan batted .315. In fact, that was the start of a decade-long Cardinal dynasty. For the remainder of the 1940s, St. Louis finished in either first or second place, winning the World Series three times along the way (1942, 1944 & 1946). Their biggest rival in that time was those Brooklyn Dodgers.

As for Stan Musial, his personal ascendency was extraordinary. In 1943, he won the first of his seven National League batting championships, hitting .357. When he missed the entire 1945 campaign due to his wartime service in the Navy, Stan won his second batting crown (.365) upon his return in 1946. It was in that same year that Musial acquired his famous nickname. Playing in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field versus the rival Dodgers, the hometown fans began chanting “Here comes the man” whenever Stan came to the plate. That refrain quickly morphed into one of baseball’s legendary sobriquets:  Stan the Man.

It was an amazing event when considered in its full context. In general, the folks in Brooklyn hated the St. Louis Cardinals. Plus, when Musial came to town, he was particularly effective in blasting baseballs over the nearby right field wall onto Bedford Avenue. Yet, even though Stan competitively tormented the Dodgers, their fans just could not dislike him. Stan Musial was simply too kind, too friendly and too classy for anyone not to like and admire.

When Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, thereby breaking MLB’s Color Barrier, there were rumors that the somewhat Southern St. Louis franchise would not take the field with him. Musial would have none of that.  Coming from Donora where all races worked and played together in relative harmony, Stan couldn’t see it any other way (Ken Griffey, Jr.’s grandfather, Buddy, had been a high school teammate).  Although he was always reluctant to talk about it afterward, Stan the Man helped to defuse a potentially ugly incident by quietly leading his teammates into competition with Robinson.

By 1950, the Cardinals were no longer a National League power, but the baseball life of Stan Musial was still soaring. That was also the first year in which we know for sure that Al Simmons interacted with Musial. In his 1964 autobiography (The Man’s Own Story as told to Bob Broeg, Doubleday), Stan had this to say:

Although I still thought of 3,000 hits as only a hazy summit somewhere in the distance, I’d had encouraging advice from an old campaigner who had just missed–Al Simmons. In my boyhood, Aloysius Szymanski of the champion Philadelphia Athletics had been one of baseball’s greatest hitters. He was also a particular hero to kids of Polish ancestry. I had met Simmons in the spring and he said:  “Go after the 3,000 hits, kid. When I look back on games I missed that I might have played, times at bat I wasted carelessly, it was too late. I didn’t have enough left to make it, and just missed by 73. So stay in there and bear down all the way.”

By that time, Stan Musial (along with Ted Williams) was regarded as the best hitter in baseball.  Although not a large man, standing six-feet tall and weighing 180 pounds, Stan packed a mighty wallop from his unusual, coiled crouch from the left side of the plate. Back in 1948, Musial had reached his career high with thirty-nine home runs, and finished his time in the Big Leagues with an impressive total of 475 four-baggers. Apparently, he listened to Al Simmons as well.

Stan played as often and as intensely as he could, finishing his career with the Cardinals in 1963 at the age of nearly forty-three. In that time, he amassed a lifetime batting average of .331 and accrued the astonishing total of 3,630 hits (exactly 1,815 both at home and away), including 725 doubles and 177 triples.  Stan drove in 1,951 runs, and scored 1,949 times. He was also a speedy runner and dependable defender in either left field or at first base (where he often played according to team need).

Since Stan Musial came along after the glory days of Hot Springs baseball, he has no record of playing there (unlike his buddy, Al Simmons, who could easily find his way into the line-ups of teams playing actual games in the Spa City as part of their spring training).  Yet, there were other reasons for athletes to travel to Hot Springs.

After the 1950 season, Stan and good friend, Yogi Berra (a St. Louis native), came to the Valley for some winter conditioning and relaxation. Then, there was Musial’s close personal relationship with Arkansas native, Lon Warneke. “The Arkansas Humming Bird” had been a highly successful Big League pitcher (193 wins and 3.18 E.R.A.) and, later, a respected Major League umpire. In November 1951, both men spoke at a Lions Club meeting in Hot Springs, and Musial was known to have returned many times throughout his life to fish and hunt with Warneke in central Arkansas.

Stan also visited the Spa City with Cards owner Gussie Busch on numerous occasions (usually staying at the Arlington Hotel) where he took the baths, bet the ponies at Oaklawn Park, bowled, and hiked the mountain trails to stay in shape. It can reasonably be assumed that Simmons recommended such activity to Musial when giving him counsel for reaching his athletic potential. It should also be recalled that Stanley was no stranger to competition in the Natural State, having played many exhibition games in Little Rock.

Stan the Man Musial had a passion for living along with his love of baseball. He was an amateur magician as well as a devoted harmonica player, the latter activity being an annual ritual when Stan attended the Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown. Everywhere he went, people were drawn to him for his natural warmth and smiling countenance. When wearing his trademark Cardinals uniform, Musial played with a childlike joy which was infectious. After winning three Most Valuable Player Awards (1943, 1946 & 1948), appearing in twenty-four All-Star Games and setting countless records, Musial still had that gift. The day after the birth of his first grandchild on September 9, 1963, Stan walloped a home run and laughed all the way around the bases. Despite playing in over 3,000 Major League games, he was never ejected from any of them. There was only one Stan the Man.

As further testament to his lifetime of hard work and conditioning (much of it performed in the Valley of the Vapors), Stan Musial set the Major League record for home runs after the age of forty; that total stands at forty-six. He is still the oldest Big Leaguer to record three home runs in a single game which he did on July 8, 1962 at New York’s Polo Grounds, several months after his forty-first birthday. For the record, that made it four in a row since Musial had clubbed a homer in his final at-bat the preceding day. What a guy!

Stan was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, and lived a long and happy life after retirement. He won too many honors to mention, but, of particular note, “The Man” was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2011. Stan Musial died peacefully in the company of his beloved family on January 19, 2013. After ninety-two years of productive and dignified life, Stan finally joined Al Simmons in death.

Hopefully, some kind-hearted local resident will light a candle for Al and Stan at St. Mary’s Church in the Spa City where, undoubtedly, they attended mass on numerous occasions. The two men shared many common bonds, including their love for Hot Springs. The city is honored to recognize these great sluggers by dedicating plaques in their names along the Hot Springs Historical Baseball Trail.


Written by Bill Jenkinson (2013)

Research assistance for this article provided by baseball historians Marl Blaeuer, Don Duren, Mike Dugan, and Tim Reid.