Febuary 21, 2004

Remembering baseball's Elite Giants
Frederick N. Rasmussen

February 21, 2004

Hubert Van Wyke Simmons has plenty of stories about his days as a talented pitcher and outfielder from North Carolina who was invited to Baltimore to play for the famed Elite Giants baseball team of the Negro Leagues.

However, the last few weeks have been difficult for Simmons, a Woodlawn resident known to family and friends as Bert.

He lost two close friends from his playing days with the Elite Giants. Ernest Burke, a pitcher and outfielder, died Jan. 31, and Richard Dennis Powell, who was responsible for bringing the team to Baltimore in 1938 and was later its business and general manager, died four days later.

"They were both good friends of mine," Simmons, 79, recalled. "Of course, our association goes way back to our time together with the baseball club. Powell was awfully good to me through the years."

Simmons grew up in Tarboro, N.C., where he learned to play baseball and watched games at Bryan Park, which had separate seating for blacks.

"If you caught a foul ball outside the gate, they would let you in, but I wasn't allowed to play in it," Simmons told the Daily Southerner newspaper in Tarboro several years ago.

A sympathetic groundskeeper, who liked Simmons, gave the teen-ager a job.

"I didn't live far from the park and was always hanging around. It was a white park, with only white ball teams playing there. Black teams weren't welcome. ... I was given a job shining baseball shoes, cleaning the park and doing a whole lot of sweeping which allowed me to watch a whole lot of Class D ball," he said.

Since his high school didn't have a baseball team, he played with teams around Tarboro. After graduation in 1941, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and was sent to Raleigh, where he played for the Raleigh Tigers, a semi-pro team managed by William "Bill" Foster, a baseball Hall of Famer.

"Early on, I learned to play most positions. I had good hands and wherever I was needed, I was capable of playing," he said.

In 1943, Simmons enlisted in the Army, and served in Europe with the Quartermaster Corps, attaining the rank of sergeant. He landed at Normandy 12 days after the June 6, 1944, invasion.

"We went from Normandy across France to Belgium. While I was there some soldiers were playing ball one day. I wished I could have played. But the Army was segregated in those days, so I ... didn't ask to play," he recalled. "The thing is, those would have been my peak years, too."

After the war, Simmons took advantage of the G.I. Bill and attended North Carolina A & T State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1950. He was the first member of his family to attend college.

"I played college ball and did well there. I played on three championship teams and twice made All Conference," he said.

During the summer months and after college, he played with the Greensboro Redwings and the Asheville Blues in the Negro Southern League.

"Playing with those teams meant I got to see a lot of places. We played up and down the East Coast," Simmons said.

In 1949, Simmons was playing for Farley's Stars in Atlantic City, managed by Hall of Famer John Henry "Pop" Lloyd.

"It's amazing I had played on two teams that had been managed by Hall of Famers. Lenny Pearson, who had given me a tryout for the Elite Giants, said, 'You're going to hear from Dick Powell,'" Simmons said.

"He called and told me to take the bus to Baltimore. I wasn't married then, and it was the first time I'd been to Baltimore. He told me to walk up Madison Street from the bus station to his house and that's where I signed a contract for $200 a month. He was a man of his word," he said.

Simmons played for the Elite Giants in 1950. The team played at Westport Stadium near Old Annapolis Road.

"I played one season with them, and we traveled quite a lot. We went to Richmond, Charlotte, Birmingham, and lots of stops in between. The bus was very comfortable. We'd sleep and eat on the bus because sometimes hotels weren't available and those that were wouldn't take us," he said.

"The games we played were often regular league games and other times they were games arranged by promoters. Because we took on all comers, we had very few off days," he said.

When the Elites moved to Nashville, Tenn., Simmons stayed in Baltimore and played for the all-black Yokeley's All-Stars.

"Laymon Yokeley had played with the Black Sox. He was a legend. Anyone who had played ball in Baltimore would always come back to see Yokeley. I was there one day when Roy Campanella, who had played for him, dropped in for a visit," Simmons said.

After retiring from baseball, Simmons worked briefly for the Social Security Administration. He later taught in city schools and coached baseball at Dunbar and Northwestern high schools, retiring in 1984. He also owned a sportswear store and an advertising specialties company, but sold both.

Simmons still follows baseball but says the game has changed.

"As a pitcher, if I could have had all the relief, I would've been a better pitcher," he said. "Today, they have specialties for everything in baseball. In my day, they gave you the ball and expected you to stay in until the finish."

Simmons voice drops when he thinks of the recent loss of his two friends.

"I think I may be the last Elite Giant left in Baltimore," Simmons said. "I may be the last Elite Giant anywhere."

Copyright (c) 2004, The Baltimore Sun