Sports columnist Jim Murray was eulogized by broadcaster Jack Whitaker as “one hell of a writer, but even a better person”; similar snippets were said of Lon Simmons, who passed away on the eve of 2015’s Opening Day at his home in Daly City.
Lon Simmons, the 91-year-old voice of the Bay Area by way of Elko, Nev., was not just the nicest guy in baseball but maybe the whole of the Western Hemisphere—if morning-after soundbites are to be believed:
- “Just a nice man. He was always there for me in all kinds of situations. I’m really going to miss him.” — Willie Mays
- “I can’t imagine a life more fulfilled than his.” — Duane Kuiper
- “We got closer and closer over the years.” — Willie McCovey
- “There wasn’t a pretentious bone in his body. He was a humble man. He was a gentleman.” — Mike Krukow
- “He was a special guy.” — Dennis Eckersley
We become all the great things we only should have been the minute we stop breathing. And the people who bickered with us, disagreed with us, tolerated us sing the torch songs. Suddenly they’re the lucky ones, not just to be breathing, but to have known us.
It’s how it works.
You fudge a little on this side of the ground for the recently departed, because someday that’s you coughing up worms in the pine box. And that’s someone else clutching the edges of the dais trying to choke back laughter or tears; trying to give the best, cleanest, most mending version of you they can.
Simmons, the recipient of the Hall of Fame’s 2004 Ford C. Frick Award for contributions to broadcasting, was in on all the important Bay Area sporting events—both sides of the Bay Bridge—for the last five decades.
He joined the 49ers on-air team in 1957 and, before moving to the Giants, called A’s games from ‘81-’95 with the legendary Bill King. In 1989, he enjoyed broadcasting both the World Series and the Super Bowl: the A’s took the Giants down in four after a big quake nine months after the 49ers’ last-minute win over the Bengals.
His signature home run call, “Tell it Good-bye” is immortalized by John Forgerty in Put Me in Coach, a snippet of which will be heard in all 15 Major League stadiums today and on every game day until a comet hits us.
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But there was something more there, an actual good guy behind the microphone—a man emulated.
To me, Lon Simmons was a bit sandpaper-dry coming through the radio. I much prefer the sub-tropical breezes of Hall-of-Famer Jon Miller’s floral-print Aloha tales and spicy Adios pelota! home run call in broken Spanish.
But it doesn’t stop with Miller. Giants fans have been blessed with the sounds of Kruk and Kuip, two of the most seamless and melodic friends who ever donned headsets. The pair has become the most effortless and endearing broadcast couple in all of sport.
Dave Flemming, the kid who looks like he’s going to water your lawn and get your mail for a week, is starting his second decade in the booth as Miller’s play-by-play partner. Once the cherub-faced Stanford grad fully ripens, say in another season or two, there will be no better voice upstairs than the man who has already made this call:
Lee pitches…Rentería hits a high drive, deep left-center field, David Murphy going back, he’s on the warning track, IT IS…GOOONNNNE! Edgar Rentería…has hit a three-run homer…against Cliff Lee! And the Giants lead here in the World Series, 3-0!
…and this one:
Romo shakes off Posey. Now has the one he likes. Romo’s 2-2 pitch on the way… Cabrera TAKES STRIKE THREE CALLED! And the Giants have won the World Series in Detroit! And the celebration begins as the Giants mob the mound!
Flemming’s timing, ease and acute sense of humor is the direct result of Simmons’ tutelage. It’s a West Coast brand of dropping the rigidity in favor of flavor and a little bit of self-deprecation.
Along with Vin Scully, there was nobody better at chasing a bit of coastal fog into the storm drain to reveal the California Saturday afternoon sun with a clanging Welcome to the ballpark. I remember Lon’s languid summers well. My father, after a morning spent weed wacking, deck stripping or lawn fertilizing with that little red monkey grinder of his, would cast a sun dial’s shadow in his folding chair with Lon and his faithful pooch by his side. Sometimes, my mother would have to go roust him to start up the barbecue.
Beyond the thousands of Bay Area dads catching a quick snooze to his dulcet and drawn-out resonance, Simmons left behind two generations of the best broadcasters in the land. Friends on the air and soulmates, brothers and caretakers off it. Connected to the community and letting us join them, every pitch, every pause to take in the stadium murmur—every explosion off the bat and inside-joke laugh spilling over from the break.
If leaving that legacy doesn’t make you a good person, I don’t know what does.