Scott Simkus brings Negro Leagues to life
by Michael Beller
March 27, 2010
“I’m gonna lead off with Ty Cobb. He’s not happy to be on the field today playing against all these black guys.”
In the real world, Ty Cobb, infamous for his virulent racism, didn’t have to play with African-Americans. In Scott Simkus’ world, however, Cobb has to suck it up and step in the box against Satchel Paige, with Josh Gibson calling the pitches. Too bad he can’t put down the finger that means “beanball.”
Sitting in Simkus’ living room in his home in Chicago’s western suburbs, he brings his creation to life, which finally gives legendary Negro League players a miniscule measure of their due. The two of us are playing a game he created – at least partially – a Negro League version of the legendary Strat-O-Matic baseball game.
“A lot of books have been written, but you can’t put them on the field the way you can in the game,” said Hal Richman, inventor of the original Strat-O-Matic. “This really gives you the feel of the leagues and the comparison. When you put the top black against the top Hall of Famers, it’s very close.”
Sitting at his table, a stack of baseball books piled neatly off to the side, we put that to the test. I fielded a team of Negro League greats while he built a squad of all white MLB Hall of Famers in what would prove to be an epic battle.
TOP OF THE FIRST
“Buck O’Neil, the black Mark Grace. That’s a 6-3. Walter Johnson is unhittable today.”
Simkus is a baseball junkie. So much so that he channels his inner-Vin Scully and gives play-by-play for the entire game.
His love for baseball was passed down from his grandfather who played semipro ball on Chicago’s West Side in the 1920s. Simkus’ desire to better understand his grandfather’s playing days sent him to local libraries in Oak Park and Berwyn looking for box scores. But he soon found something beyond his family history.
“Every once in a while you’d see the Chicago American Giants or some of the other black teams had come out to the suburbs to play an exhibition game,” he explained. “I started pulling those box scores as well because it was something that I was interested in.”
It was those box scores, along with the heartbreak of the 2003-04 Cubs, which led to him diving into the Negro Leagues headfirst.
“After 2003 [when they lost the NLCS in seven games to the Florida Marlins after being up three games to one] and 2004 [when they blew a game-and-a-half lead in the Wild Card with one week left in the season], the Cubs are really gonna have to do something special to bring me back. The Negro Leagues became my thing.”
And his thing involved getting box score after box score and poring over them in great detail.
“Some of the box scores didn’t have at-bats, so we had to develop an algorithm to approximate them,” Simkus said. “We went through a ton before coming out with something we’re really happy with.”
Invented in 1961 by Hal Richman, Strat-O-Matic is a baseball nerd’s dream. It simulates an entire real-life season, using stats ranging from basic (home runs) to advanced (batting average against left handed pitchers) mirroring the real thing right in your living room.
After five years and more than 3,000 box scores, Simkus developed a Negro League version of Strat-O-Matic baseball, which could possibly give the baseball world its best opportunity to compare Josh Gibson with Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige with Cy Young, Cool Papa Bell with Tris Speaker.
BOTTOM OF THE FIRST
“Gehrig swings late, hits a groundball to Bankhead, he muffs it. Hornsby goes to third, Gehrig’s safe at first.”
“Bases loaded, one out and Ted Williams is up. He singles, the runners advance two bases. Williams has two RBIs.”
MAJOR LEAGUERS 2, NEGRO LEAGUERS 0
The game is as close to real life as it gets. In 1934, one of the MLB seasons analyzed for Strat-O-Matic, Lou Gehrig hit 49 homers and drove in 165 runs in 579 at-bats. If the Iron Horse got 579 Strat-O-Matic ABs against the 1934 season, he’d hit between 47 and 52 home runs and pile up 155 to 175 RBI.
Through a series of dice rolls, those of us not named Joe Torre or Lou Piniella can become managers ourselves, filling out the lineup card and deciding when to bunt, when to pull a pitcher, when to hit and run.
It’s an armchair manager’s dream.
The game has been popular with baseball fans since its creation 50 years ago. It was the precursor to fantasy baseball, with guys setting up Strat-O-Matic leagues across the country. It’s the feeling of being a manager that keeps them playing into advanced age.
TOP OF THE SECOND
“Cannady hits a hot smash to Gehrig. He takes it to the bag three unassisted, but a run scores. Cannady gets a ribbie.”
“Gibson could fly. Athletically, he was like an NFL running back. Big, strong, massive and fast as hell.”
MAJOR LEAGUERS 2, NEGRO LEAGUERS 1
For Hal Richman, Strat-O-Matic’s inventor, a Negro League set was a long time coming. “I always wanted to do it. There just wasn’t enough data to make sense of it,” Richman said. “The data was skimpy for the basic, and no way to do the advanced. Scott came to me with 3,000 box scores and was willing to go through them and find the data.”
There’s a certain mystique with the Negro Leagues that draws a baseball fan closer. There isn’t a lot of information about them today, and a lot of it is seemingly bogus. For example, Shades of Glory was written by Lawrence Hogan and financed by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Published in 2006, it ostensibly gives an in-depth history of the Negro Leagues, with a vast library of stats at the end of the book. One look at those stats tells you something is wrong. For one player in the 1922 season, the book contends he played in 52 games, had 210 at-bats, and drove in a measly five runs. Even Jason Kendall would drive in more than five runs in 210 at-bats.
Those inaccuracies fueled Simkus’ passion.
“Most people who follow the Negro Leagues, like Scott, are strongly in their camp,” Richman said in his New York accent. “I had to be objective. That’s where our conflict was and we talked it out.”
Most people know the myths centering on Zeus and Poseidon, lionizing them in the pantheon of gods. The same sort of mythology exists surrounding the Negro Leagues, making Richman and Simkus’ job that much harder.
“We heard a lot of wonderful stories,” Richman said of the Negro Leagues. “My favorite was that Willie Wells was so fast he’d flip the light switch to go to sleep and be in bed before the lights turned off. We had to bring them down and make them real people.”
BOTTOM OF THE THIRD
“Two outs, Satch is starting to feel it. Babe Ruth’s up, he’s gonna change his attitude real quickly. YES, IT’S GONE!”
MAJOR LEAGUERS 3, NEGRO LEAGUERS 1
Simkus let out a thunderous clap after Ruth’s homer, mimicking the sound of Ruth’s bat smacking ball. There’s a joy and excitement in seeing his product come to life. The man has come full circle, back to his childhood.
“In the eighties I used to write to all these guys. Carl Hubbell, Charlie Gehringer. I’d write to all these guys who were on their last legs and ask them weird questions. Cool Papa Bell was a guy who sent me a bunch of stuff back when I was like 15. It was in an envelope and he had trading cards and all this crap and it was really cool. I’ve just always been interested in baseball history.”
TOP OF THE SIXTH
“Gibson is up, your guy. That’s a bomb…THAT’S GONE!”
MAJOR LEAGUERS 3, NEGRO LEAGUERS 2
After satisfying Richman’s need for completeness, Simkus got the go-ahead to develop the Negro League version of Strat-O-Matic. It’s a good thing he’s just as meticulous as Richman, because Richman does not take accuracy lightly. To simulate the 1911 MLB season, he spent 1,500 hours poring over stats.
“We found out in 1911 that Ty Cobb beat out Shoeless Joe Jackson for the batting title because he hit lefties better. Cobb hit .420 and Jackson hit .408, but Cobb hit close to .400 against lefties. Jackson hit down by .300.”
Simkus and Richman worked together on the Negro League adaptation. “I knew nothing about the Negro Leagues before this,” Richman said. “Through Scott, I received an education.”
The two spent hours debating the value of the players, with Simkus playing the role of the heart and Richman, the head. They’d throw a player out there, say Oscar Charleston, a center fielder who was most famously a member of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The two would go back and forth, breaking down his stats, such as his career .348 batting average. Richman has been valuing players for a lifetime, but he wasn’t the be all end all. Sometimes he’d agree with Simkus, sometimes he wouldn’t.
And just like Simkus, Richman is very happy with the work they did.
“I’m 73 years old and this was my last major project. And it might be the finest thing I’ve ever done.”
TOP OF THE EIGHTH
“Buck flies out to center. Tough game for Buck 0-for-4, a lot of pressure hitting third. Here’s Gibson, let’s see what he can do.
Did he do it again? It’s to the track…TIE GAME!”
“Three to three going into the bottom of the eighth inning. You couldn’t have scripted this any better.”
MAJOR LEAGUERS 3, NEGRO LEAGUERS 3
By trade, Simkus is a limousine dispatcher. He works nights, which gives him all day to work on his baseball research. That’s probably a good thing, considering his wife and two children aren’t exactly baseball nuts.
When asked if she’s a fan of America’s Pastime, Scott’s wife Joyce can’t answer, “No” fast enough. When asked if her husband is crazy for spending five years combing through Negro League box scores, she takes a bit more time to answer. “Probably. But it’s what he loves to do.”
Yes, Scott Simkus is all alone in his own house. With apologies to John Donne, sometimes a man is an island.
“Nobody likes baseball in this house,” he says as he and his wife burst into laughter. “I know, I can’t talk much about it,” Joyce says. “He just sits at his computer and does his stuff.”
Baseball is often described as a game of fathers and sons. Sometimes, father takes that dedication overboard when son doesn’t want to play the sport. Such is not the case with Scott and his 14-year-old son, Joe, who played little league for five years.
“It just reached a point where it wasn’t fun,” Scott said. “So I could’ve been a jerk dad and said, ‘You gotta keep playing,’ but I just said, ‘You know what? It’s not your thing.’”
TOP OF THE NINTH
“Pop Lloyd is up, left handed. He hits a screaming line drive down the left field line. It goes for a double and the sac pays off. Lloyd gets an RBI.
“Wright’s up. Oh shit, get the bullpen going. Double, run scores. Look at Wild Bill Wright, this guy’s coming on strong. I’m gonna go to the ‘pen.”
NEGRO LEAGUERS 5, MAJOR LEAGUERS 3
At this point, the suspense builds. Simkus has seen the lead built by Big Train and the Babe disappear right before his eyes. He can’t wait to get to the bottom half of the inning, with Satchel Paige now out of the game, as I pinch-hit for him in the midst of our two-run rally.
BOTTOM OF THE NINTH
“Gehrig is up. One six? GONE, HOME RUN! OH MY GOSH! 5-4, nobody out, Ruth is up. Strikes him out. Alright, one out, nobody on, Ted Williams is up. Base hit, it’s a single. Man on first, one out, Foxx is up. Strikes him out. Wow. Two outs, the fans are on their feet. I got Gabby the Cub up in his home park. POPOUT! GAME OVER! THE REPORTER WINS! GOD, THIS SUCKS!”
FINAL SCORE: NEGRO LEAGUERS 5, MAJOR LEAGUERS 4
The loss seems to sting Simkus just a little bit. He looks disappointed in his veritable murderer’s row as he fills out the final box score, but also proud that, at least in our simulation, his invention validated its existence
His love for the game, and the Negro Leagues, takes over. Even after the game, he can’t get enough.
“God, who’s your MVP, Paige or Gibson,” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “The battery carried us all game.”
“Paige retired 16 in a row at one point. Gibson hit two homers…”
His voice trails off as his son Joe gets home from school, and we let the MVP debate rest at that. Maybe they were co-MVPs. Hal Richman’s notion that the Negro League stars weren’t too far off from the MLB Hall of Famers proved true.
What is true every day is that there isn’t a better man for this job than Simkus. He has a deal with Baseball-Reference.com, a clearinghouse for professional baseball stats going back to the 1800s, to finally get Negro League stats on the site.
“We’re gonna finally put numbers up that are accurate,” he says, and he thinks about the next thing carefully. “And I’m excited about it.”