When Lon Simmons died at 91, none of the stories seemed to capture the most important element in his life: He was able to do something he loved and be very well paid for it. Lon regarded himself as a very lucky man, but he also earned it with an impressive body of work.
It wasnít the career he envisioned. He wanted to be a big league pitcher but it soon became evident that wouldnít happen. So, he turned to broadcasting and became the classic example of being in the right place at the right time when the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958. But he made the most of it by becoming a very good announcer. I canít say the same for the senior member of that crew, Russ Hodges, who had an inflated reputation because he came from New York and broadcast the game where Bobby Thomson hit his historic home run.
Simmons was also an excellent football announcer but I heard very little of that because I was either at a game or watching on television because the game televises so well. One example: I was at the game where Steve Young made that incredible 50-plus yards touchdown run to beat the Minnesota Vikings but I hadnít heard Lonís call until I saw it on television Sunday night.
Radio, though, is the best medium for baseball because you can listen to it wherever you are and whatever else you may doing. So, I heard a lot of Lon on Giants games in the first part of his career.
Then, when Walter Haas bought the Oakland Aís in 1980, club president Roy Eisenhardt hired the all-star team of Lon and Bill King to do the broadcasts because he knew the importance of radio for a baseball team. Though King had started his career doing baseball, he had gotten away from it with the much faster sports of basketball and football, so it took him some time to learn the slower cadence of baseball. He did, though, and he and Lon made a great team.
Lon was very approachable and, though I was hardly a close friend, we were generally friendly Ė with one huge exception. In June, 1971, when I wrote a scathing column about Willie Mays, he blasted me on his radio show and said he was canceling his Chronicle subscription because of that column. He didnít; I checked with the subscription people
That storm blew over and we had a much different conversation about Mays when I was working on a 40-year history of the San Francisco Giants in 1996. Lon was living in Alameda at the time and when I went over there, he told me of the many times Mays had given gifts that he got for being on shows to teammates who were not so fortunate. Sets of golf clubs were among them. Mays never talked publicly of his generosity but I was happy to put that in the book.
Despite the time he spent with King on Aís broadcasts, the Giants were always Lonís first love. Even when he retired to a home in Hawaii Ė I believe it was on Maui, where they have many golf courses Ė he would make periodic trips back to San Francisco and Giants games. He would invariably make deprecating remarks about himself or his golf game when he talked to me.
The last thing that Lon ever wanted was for people to feel sorry for him, so he never complained about his health, even when he had problems. I think thatís a great way to handle the problems of age but too many people of my generation complain about their ailments. Lon never made that mistake.
His last couple of years were not good ones. He moved back to the Bay Area to get better health care. As Iím sure he would have said, he had a great life Ė and he deserved it.
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