Hubert Van Wyke "Bert" Simmons, who pitched and played outfield for the old Negro Leagues' Elite Giants and later became a Baltimore public school educator and mentor, died Wednesday after cancer surgery at Seasons Hospice at Northwest Hospital Center. The Woodlawn resident was 85.
"I believe that Bert was the last surviving Elite Giant living in Maryland, and that was because he played in the team's later years," said Shawn M. Herne, chief curator of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum and the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.
"His death is a sad milestone for Maryland. When we lost Bert, we lost a Maryland sports icon," Mr. Herne said yesterday.
Mr. Simmons was born and raised 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," Mr. Simmons related in an interview some years ago with the Daily Southerner, his hometown newspaper.
A sympathetic groundskeeper encouraged the young boy's interest in baseball.
"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," he said in the interview. "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."
Because his high school didn't have a baseball team, he played with several teams around his hometown. After graduating from high school in 1941, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Mr. Simmons was sent to Raleigh, N.C., where he joined the Raleigh Tigers, a semipro team managed by William "Bill" Foster, a baseball Hall of Famer.
Mastering all positions, he said in the newspaper interview that he had "good hands" and "wherever I was needed, I was capable of playing."
In 1943, he enlisted in the Army and served in Europe with the Quartermaster Corps, landing at Normandy 12 days after the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion.
Discharged with the rank of sergeant at the end of the war, Mr. Simmons attended North Carolina A&T; University on the G.I. Bill of Rights, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1950.
While at college, he resumed playing baseball and was a member of three championship teams and twice made the all-conference team.
During the summer months, he played for 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," he said.
While playing for Farley's Stars in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1949, Mr. Simmons was signed by the Elite Giants for $200 a month. He then moved to Baltimore, a city he had never visited, and found a $7-a-week room in a Hoffman Street boardinghouse.
"And happy to have it, too," he told The Baltimore Sun in 1999. "It doesn't sound like much, $200 a month. 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."
He played for the team during the 1950 season at the old Bugle Field and then 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," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 2004 interview.
"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."
When the Elites moved to Nashville, Tenn., Mr. Simmons stayed in Baltimore and played for the all-black Yokeley's All-Stars, whose coach was Laymon Yokeley.
Mr. Simmons remained sanguine about being denied an opportunity to play in the majors.
"My time came, my time went," he said in the 1999 interview. "I'm not bitter. But these guys today, they make too much money. Kids play on the street for free and have more fun."
His wife, the former Audrey Malone, whom he married in 1955, said, "I don't think Bert was ever bitter about the racism. It was part of his nature to deal and cope with things. The most important thing to him was to play the game and play it well."
After retiring from baseball in 1952, Mr. Simmons worked for the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Post Office before becoming a city school teacher in 1954.
He taught business at Northwestern High School and was appointed department chairman in 1975.
Mr. Simmons and his wife owned SimmonsInk, The Logo Specialists, an advertising specialties business, and a sportswear store, which they later sold.
He never lost his interest in baseball and through the years coached teams at Dunbar High School, Coppin State and the James Mosher Little League in West Baltimore.
"Bert was a stand-up, classy guy, who did many programs for us. He loved talking to adults as well as kids, both African-Americans and white, about his experiences," Mr. Herne said. "He was always very proud of his time with the Negro Leagues."
For years, he participated in the Orioles' FanFest, and was honored in 2004 by throwing out the first pitch at an Orioles home game.
Last year, Mr. Simmons was selected by the Orioles to represent the team at Major League Baseball's draft. Each club selected a surviving Negro Leagues player who had been unable to play for a major or minor league team.
"He's done so much for our organization through the years," Bill Stetka, Orioles public relations director, said yesterday. "He's been a great ambassador for the game of baseball."
Mr. Simmons donated his baseball memorabilia to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum of Maryland Inc., of which he is a founder. It is located at his church, Lochearn Presbyterian Church in Gwynn Oak. The museum's grand opening is scheduled for September, family members said.
Mr. Simmons was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and the board of the Negro League Baseball Players Association.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at his church, 3800 Patterson Ave.
Also surviving are a son, Gilbert Grey of Elkridge; a granddaughter; and two great-grandchildren.