When he died in 1956, Al Simmons was regarded as one of the greatest right-handed hitters baseball had ever known and universally acknowledged as the greatest player the city of Milwaukee had ever produced. Simmons was born Aloysius Harry Szymanski to a Polish immigrant family on the city’s South Side in 1902. The Szymanskis lived in a small flat at 722 American Avenue (now 1972 S. 15th Place) and young Aloysius got his first taste of baseball in the sandlots near Kosciusko Park. Al’s father died when he was just nine years old, leaving his mother to raise him and four siblings on very small income. Al would later develop a reputation as a rough and disagreeable man, a condition he traced back to this rough upbringing.
By his teens, Szymanski – soon to be known as “Al Simmons” after he got tired of people from outside his Polish enclave mispronouncing his name – was a sandlot legend in his neighborhood. At 18, he joined Henry Hanson’s Right Laundry team, one of the top company teams in the area. He led the team to an amateur championship, earning the title “The Duke of Mitchell Street,” as a reference to the South Side’s main commercial strip. He left home soon after to attend Stevens’ Point Teacher College and played semi-pro ball for the nearby Juneau team in the Wisconsin State League. Before he could even finish the season, his hometown Milwaukee Brewers of the minor league American Association offered him a contract.
As the property of the Brewers, the 20-year-old Simmons was sent to a farm team in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he destroyed league pitching with his unorthodox “foot-in-the-bucket” batting style, in which he stepped toward third base before his swing. He was recalled to Milwaukee and played 12 games for the Brewers before the season ended, after which Connie Mack, owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, bought the prospect for $35,000.
After one more year in the minors, Simmons debuted with the A’s in 1924 and immediately became one of the American League’s most feared hitters. In just his second Major League season, he batted .387 and led the league in hits and total bases while placing second in the MVP voting, the first of six top-ten finishes for the award. He remained with the A’s for nine years, winning two batting titles and leading the team to three pennants and two World Series wins. He then moved to the White Sox, whom he represented in the three All Star Games ever held. He also later played for the Tigers, Senators, Boston Braves and Reds. Simmons retired in 1944 after 20 major league season, recording over 300 home runs and registered a lifetime .334 batting average – which still ranks as the ninth best all-time for right-handers.
After poor health cut short his coaching career, Simmons returned to Milwaukee. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, gaining the second-highest vote total on a ballot that featured 41 eventual Hall of Famers. On May 26, 1956, a few hours after having taken in a Braves-Reds game at County Stadium, Simmons suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the sidewalk outside the Milwaukee Athletic Club on North Broadway, where he had been living for over a month. He was pronounced dead shortly after. He was just 54 years old.