Wall strips the math from pro sports


HUBERT Simmons' wall is a sanctuary from the icy arithmetic of modern sports. The morning paper says the football Redskins have been sold for $800 million. The pro basketball players, having found a way to divide a $2 billion pot, reluctantly deign to return to work. In baseball, the Orioles will earn an average of about $3 million a man in 1999, though the word "earn" is used advisedly.

On Gwynn Oak Avenue in Woodlawn, just off Windsor Mill Road, Hubert Simmons' wall removes us from such calculations of athletic value. The past is recalled with more grace here. It feels nice to wallow in it for a while.

Along one wall in his Simmons Inc. logo store, Simmons keeps treasures from the old Negro Baseball Leagues, some of them for sale and some up there simply for the memories: posters, baseballs, trophies, jerseys, photos of the great black baseball players whose skills were confined to a shadowy corner of the American landscape while the country belatedly searched for its conscience.

Here are Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell. There are Josh Gibson and Leon Day. And there's the laminated contract once signed by Hubert Simmons to play baseball for the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Here's some of the language of Simmons' contract, in a time long before Baltimore's Orioles played for $3 million a man, and football teams sold for $800 million, and basketball players found their dignity threatened while dividing millions more:

"All games of the club during the year 1950, including the club's training season, exhibition games, playing season, any All-Star games, and the Negro World Series the club will pay a salary of $200 per mont on the 1st and 15th of each month."

Two hundred dollars.

Per month.

"And happy to have it, too," Simmons says now. He laughs a little ruefully. By 1950, the major leagues had reluctantly begun to integrate. Jackie Robinson was in Brooklyn, and Larry Doby in Cleveland, and scattered elsewhere were the first wave of black players whose skills would elevate the game.

But it was a nervous era. In Washington, the baseball Senators were reluctant to integrate. The football Redskins stubbornly remained all white for another decade. Baseball's Yankees would hold out for another five years The Red Sox for nine.

But the trickle was enough that the old refuge for black players, the Negro Professional Baseball League, was coming apart as its brightest stars were snatched by the wealthier major league clubs.

"It doesn't sound like much, $200 a month," says Simmons, 74. "It's ridiculous by today's standards. But, you know, you played ball, you saw a little bit of the country, you figured you were living a pretty good life."

Out of that $200 a month, Simmons rented a room on Hoffman Street for $7 a week. "Another player lived there," he remembers, "and he recommended the land-lady."

The Elite Giants played at the old Bugle Field, and then Westport Stadium, before integrated crowds. When they hit the road, the club picked up room and meal expenses. Simmons pitched, which meant he needed rest between appearances. His "rest" consisted of playing the outfield. Each team's roster had only 15 players.

He played a couple of seasons here, but knew when it was time to move on. The St. Louis Browns made overtures, but Simmons was 27 by then, "a little old," no more a long-term prospect.

He'd graduated from North Carolina A&T.; Facing bankruptcy, the Elite Giants moved to Memphis, so Simmons found work here at the Social Security Administration.

Then he worked for the U.S. Postal Service, taught elementary school, then headed the business education department at Northwestern High School.

Fifteen years ago, he heard someone mention there were 240,000 Little Leaguers in Maryland. He figured, these kids need caps and uniforms. His Simmons Inc. store specializes not only in such outfits, but in trophies, in specialty items for fraternal organizations, in logo-imprinted sportswear and other custom items.

But it's his baseball wall that's so compelling - because it's a measure of how much money in sports has increased, while satisfaction has decreased - not only among fans who have to pay more but, astonishingly, among players who constantly ask for more.

"Yeah," Simmons says, "my time came, and my time went. I'm not bitter. But these guys today, they make too much money. Kids play on the street for free and have more fun."

Simmons practically played for free. And there's the rub. Between those who made $200 a month, and those who earn thousands for each at-bat, there must be some happy medium, which professional sports of all kinds can't seem to find.

Cynicism rules the day. The joy is removed from the games, replaced by greed of all kinds. Hubert Simmons' wall reminds us of another time, when the game was computed in homers and strikeouts, instead of numbers preceded by dollar signs.

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