I learned my baseball from three men: my Dad, Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons. My Dad had done a pretty good job in introducing me to the game by the time the Giants arrived in San Francisco in 1958. He then turned me over to Russ and Lon, the radio voices of the Giants, for further schooling. The combination of their baseball knowledge, precise descriptions of the action and exciting calls increased my passion for the game. I remembered how sad I felt when I heard that Russ had died in 1971, shortly after retiring. The sadness returned today when I heard that Lon had passed away in Daly City at the age of 91.
Radio is how those in my generation followed the game in our early years, since there was very little televised baseball. On Sundays, the Giants game was always blaring down in the garage where my Dad would work fixing or building things while kids and neighbors popped in and out. On school nights, my bedtime meant I could only listen to about the first six innings. My Dad worked out a solution, setting the radio next to his reel-to-reel tape recorder. If the game had a good ending, he’d play it back in the morning and I’d go off to school with Russ and Lon’s colorful accounts making my day before it even began.
I had a baseball board game called APBA, and when the Giants were one of the teams playing, I’d announce the game to myself, imitating either Russ or Lon. I’d have to keep track of who was doing the play-by-play since Russ usually did innings one through three and seven through nine, and Lon did the middle three. This was important because if a Giant hit a homer, I had to make sure I delivered the right call (“Bye-bye-baby” if it was Russ, and “Tell it goodbye” if it was Lon).
Lon Simmons is a broadcasting legend. He was given the Ford C. Frick Award in 2004. Named after the former baseball commissioner, it is granted to broadcasters for “major contributions to baseball.”
Simmons announced for the Giants from 1958 to 1973, from 1976 to 1978 and from 1996 to 2002. He worked A’s games from 1981 to 1995, partnering with another broadcast legend, Bill King. One thing that might separate Simmons from some other “team” broadcasters is that he wouldn’t hesitate to criticize the home team if it was deserved. He took some heat for this from former Giants owner Horace Stoneham, but he strongly defended his words: “I just went to him, and said, ‘Look, Horace, I wasn’t hired to be your P.R. agent. My first responsibility is to the station that pays my salary. Then it’s to the people listening and sponsors. Only then comes the team. … If we’re getting our brains beat out, that’s when I’m going to start having a good time, tell jokes, do anything to keep the people listening.’ ”
Those familiar with Lon understand the joke part. I recall getting a taste of his dry wit, and embracing of puns during a Giants-Indians exhibition broadcast in the early 1970s when he sized up young pitcher Randy Moffett: “They know he can pitch, but the question is can Moffett field?” (referring to a Bay Area military airfield). Dumb? Yes, but he knew that. Same way when he was visiting the Giants broadcast booth in later years, and when someone mentioned a computer terminal, he’d quickly respond, “Don’t say ‘terminal’ to an old person.” Or when a fellow broadcaster would say to him “go ahead,” and Lon, feigning confused old person, would respond, “Don’t call me goat head.”
While so much of my memories of Lon are about baseball, I have equal admiration for his football play-by-play with the 49ers. Listen to football on the radio these days, and try to figure out where the ball is and other important details as a play unfolds. Lon provided all the details. I still think Vin Scully’s ninth-inning call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 is the best ever baseball broadcast moment in how he so eloquently set the stage, built up the drama and then delivered the exclamation point after the final strike. Lon had an equally brilliant call when he described the zany 66-yard wrong-way run by Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jim Marshall on Oct. 25, 1964. An announcer could never prepare for such a play, but go find it on the Internet. He uses just 86 words, each one perfectly chosen, and then builds the play to a crescendo when Marshall crosses the 49ers goal still oblivious to his blunder.
In the year 2000, while I was all alone looking through old belongings in the garage of my parents’ home after they had both passed away, I turned on the radio. The Giants were playing, and Lon was at the mic. His booming baritone was soothing music to me. Forty years had passed since those busy, wonderful days in that garage on a Sunday afternoon, but for a few innings, all those sweet memories had returned.
Thanks for that moment Lon, and thanks for helping a kid develop a love for a game that still burns on today.