EDITOR'S NOTE: Frequent BCB readers may recall that a few months ago I reviewed one of my favorite new baseball books, Chris Jensen's Baseball State by State. After reading the book I've asked Chris to join us for a 12-part series in 2013 on the best players born in Wisconsin. What follows is part five of that series. - KL
Al Simmons is Wisconsin's all-time leader in hits, batting average, RBI, home runs, runs, doubles, slugging and OPS, so the Hall of Famer is an easy selection for the state's best May-born player. In fact, a strong case could be made for the Milwaukee native as the state's all-time best player, although I give Kid Nichols that designation in Baseball State by State.
Simmons, who was named Alois Szymanski upon his birth on May 22, 1902, played parts of two seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers' minor league franchise before quickly becoming a star after debuting for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1924. He batted .308 with 102 RBI his rookie season, then led the American League with 253 hits the next season while finishing third with a .387 average. Despite vastly superior numbers, the 23-year-old Simmons lost a close MVP race that year to Washington's Roger Peckinpaugh.
He was nicknamed "Bucketfoot Al" because of his peculiar tendency to stride toward third when swinging, but his batting style definitely worked for him. Simmons would bat over .300 with at least 100 RBI each of his first 11 seasons in the big leagues, winning batting crowns in 1930 and 1931 as he established himself as one of the greatest sluggers of the Lively Ball Era. He combined with Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Cochrane to form a powerful lineup that helped lead the Athletics to the World Series each year from 1929 to 1931. Simmons batted over .300 in each Series as the A's won back-to-back championships in 1929 and 1930.
Simmons was a good fielder with a strong throwing arm and the righty hit for power and average. He finished in the top five in slugging in the American League each year from 1925 to 1932 and posted five straight seasons with more than 200 hits. His 253 hits in 1925 were the second-most at the time and the total now ranks as the fifth-highest. Simmons recorded 165 RBI in 1930, which is tied for the 13th highest total ever.
After another sterling season in 1932, a 30-year-old Simmons was traded along with Jimmy Dykes and Mule Haas to the White Sox in exchange for $100,000. A's owner/manager Connie Mack needed the money more than he needed Simmons' still potent bat, even though he was one of Mack's favorite players. "I wish I had nine players named Al Simmons" Mack once said. Simmons would go on to play for six more teams over a career that lasted until 1944, winding up with 307 career homers, 539 doubles and a .334 average (23rd best all-time). His 2,927 hits rank 36th all-time as he trails Rogers Hornsby by three, while his 1,828 RBI rank 19th. Simmons was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, three years before he died at the age of 54.
Other May birthdays include Lave Cross, who is Wisconsin's all-time leader in games played with 2,275 and earns the distinction as the state's all-time best third baseman. Cross is the only major leaguer to play for four different teams (representing different leagues) in the same city. He played for the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League and the Philadelphia A's in the American League, American Association and Players League. He was an excellent fielder who led the league in fielding percentage four times and managed to drive in 108 runs in 1902 without hitting any home runs. Cross finished with 2,651 career hits (second-best among Wisconsin players), which is surpassed by only four third basemen in the Hall of Fame: George Brett, Wade Boggs, Brooks Robinson and Paul Molitor.
Chris Jensen is the author of Baseball State by State: Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites, which was published in July 2012 by McFarland. It features a chapter on each state covering state baseball history, an all-time team, stats leaders, historic baseball places to see, future stars, player nicknames and the state's all-time best player.