Lon Simmons passed away over the weekend at the age of 91, which means he lived a long and full life, but the news was still jarring in a way. While his most famous calls — Jim Marshall running the wrong way, Steve Young’s epic touchdown run, Joe Montana to John Taylor in the Super Bowl, Willie Mays’ 600th home run — are immortal, we’re reminded that even the greatest announcers whose voices filled our cars and living rooms don’t live forever.
I didn’t hear any of Simmons’ most replayed calls when they actually occurred. I’m too young to have heard his first two stints with the Giants, and I watched Super Bowl XXIII and Young’s scamper on television. But as a child I remember how my mom, who was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Peninsula, vouched for Simmons as a great broadcaster who was funny.
When you’re a kid and all you want to do is gain your parents’ approval, your ear is finely tuned to these sorts of instances when they let you know how to impress them. This, of course, is before junior high school — when your peers teach you that anything and everything parents do is dumb and embarrassing.
But my mother’s appreciation for Simmons stuck with me. (And her mother’s as well, as my Nana has watched or listened to just about every Giants game since they moved to San Francisco and will undoubtedly watch Opening Night tonight.) And in 1996, the Giants brought Simmons back to announce games on a part-time basis. By this point he was in his mid-70s, but the booming baritone voice was still there. So was the humor.
One thing I can’t help but notice when traveling to other areas or catching other broadcasters — either local or national — is how many regions accept humorless announcers. How is this possible, especially in baseball, a sport that is literally a way for Americans to pass time? While other regions’ announcers fill time between pitches by reading batting averages and ERAs from game notes, we’ve been blessed with personalities who paint word pictures with a wink. It’s almost like they’re in on this little joke we all share: When you think about it, isn’t it kind of ridiculous that we all worry so much about what these players, coaches and managers do on stretches of green grass when there’s a real world out there with real problems?
It’s not that the Bay Area has a monopoly on sports-related humor, and there are a lot of serious journalists and broadcasters around here. However, there’s a reluctance to take sports too seriously here that not many places can match. It’s evident in our broadcasts, our newspapers, and even our silly regional blogs, and a lot of that can be traced to Simmons.
His wit was drier than California over the last few years, and you had to listen closely to catch all of the jokes. There were many. It didn’t matter if the Giants were winning by one or losing by six, Simmons was going to toss in a zinger or two. If I’m sad about anything, it’s that I didn’t take the time to write down some of Simmons’ funnier quips. It’s not quite the same lament that Tim Kawakami shared so eloquently yesterday, but each person who has a connection to Simmons is left with a different feeling this week, depending on his or her age and the teams he or she follows. He described the action elegantly and accurately, and his voice brought a natural authority that his personality wouldn’t let him promote. Beyond the technical skills, it was Simmons’ personality that truly shined throughout his six decades calling Giants, A’s and 49ers games.
Simmons was larger than life, yet self-deprecating. He was far from a homer, but he captured the best moments of the 49ers, Giants and A’s with thunderous excitement. He was a Hall of Fame broadcaster and a part-time comedian, and that lives on in the Giants broadcasts of today. Jon Miller, Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow and Dave Flemming spend several hours each year laughing on the air — and right there with all of those famous calls, that’s Lon’s legacy.