Monday, April 6, 2015

Lon Simmons 1923-2015

Barely had the ink dried-- er, the digital images loaded, that is-- on our Opening Day Giants salvo, before the news came in that Lon Simmons, The Voice of San Francisco sports for many of us, had passed away yesterday at age 91, after leading a long, colorful, and beloved life.  Our best wishes go out to his family.

It was the "Golden West Radio Network" on "KSFO-560, in San Francisco," back in April of 1965, and that's where and when we heard our first major-league baseball radio broadcast. Russ Hodges, the legendary play-by-play man from New York who had come West with the team, the man who called the Bobby Thomson home run, was the lead announcer, but our childlike attention was captured by the rich, easy baritone of the man whose friendly asides and pithy comments punctuated Hodges' genial chatter. Lon Simmons, we understood right away, was a Westerner-- and as new arrivals in that beautiful, unusual land, we were drawn to all things Western and Californian. 

Lon was all that. He did the 49er games, too, and the 1965 49ers were one of the most exciting teams ever to play professional football. Lon's voice accompanied us as we cheered John Brodie shredding defenses with deep passes to Dave Parks, and as we stared in disbelief at eleven guys wearing scarlet and gold who couldn't tackle Gale Sayers if their lives depended on it. Perhaps clearest of all, we recall Lon's patient-but-quietly-exasperated tone as he covered the stumbling, bumbling 49ers of the late 1970s, the pre-Walsh days, like a doting but put-upon father shaking his head at the misadventures of his wayward children. It is a great irony that Lon, who carried the flag for so many awful Niner teams over two decades, lost his broadcasting job on the eve of the team's first Super Bowl season-- and not because of anything he did or didn't do, but simply because of a corporate decision to switch radio stations. It is a further irony that just two years earlier Lon had lost his Giants job for the same reason. In both cases it was KNBR-680 taking over for the old standby KSFO, and you youngsters who've grown up with KNBR as your sports station can't possibly remember what a shock to the system it was to hear our teams' games broadcast on a new frequency by a bunch of newcomers.

Of course, Lon's class act was followed by others-- Hank Greenwald with the Giants, Don Heinrich and Don Klein and Joe Starkey with the 49ers-- who were unique and wonderful commentators themselves. What an amazing run of quality voices and personalities we fans had to enjoy as both our teams reached unprecedented heights of achievement in the 1980s!

And of course Lon came back to the 49ers in the turbulent year of 1988-- a season that was a lot like those crazy 1960s campaigns, filled with highs and lows and controversies. And that one, unlike those, had a most happy ending, with Lon's signature football call: "TOUCHDOWN, FORTY-NINERS!" roaring across the airwaves as time ran out in Super Bowl XXIII.   He returned to the Giants broadcasts, too, eventually; mostly part-time, as an honored guest alongside Jon Miller, Mike Krukow, and Duane Kuiper, all of whom were clearly thrilled to share the booth with The Voice.  He called Opening Day at the inauguration of Pacific Bell Park in 2000, which had to be a personal highlight-- he had already called Opening Day 1958 at Seals Stadium, the Giants' first game in San Francisco, and Opening Day 1960 at brand-new Candlestick Park.  And of course for years in between Lon smoothly made the switch to the American League, Oakland, and the A's, working alongside yet another legend, the late Bill King. Yes, truly an amazing run of quality voices and personalities...

"TOUCHDOWN, 49ERS!"  That's the one we heard the most and remember the best. But there were others. The cool, reserved humor of Lon's usual delivery could, and did, give way to fevered, almost hysterical excitement when the occasion called for it. It was as though he instinctively knew when to turn up the juice even as we fans were doing the same thing, listening along. Here are a few we remember:

"MARSHALL... THINKS HE HAS SCORED A TOUCHDOWN! HE HAS SCORED A SAFETY!" You can get that one on YouTube. It's from a loss to the Vikings in 1964 with a bizarre highlight provided by Minnesota lineman Jim Marshall.

How about May 28, 1978, at Candlestick, Dodgers in town, Don Sutton on the mound, bases loaded, a full house, pinch-hitter Mike Ivie standing in?  At the crack, it's Lon: "HIT DEEP TO LEFT! WAY BACK, WAY BACK, WAY BACK.... A GRAND SLAM!!!"

And of course Steve Young,  against the Vikings again, November 30 1988 at the 'Stick, one of NFL Films' most popular highlight videos... "GETS AWAY!... GETS AWAY AGAIN!... TOUCHDOWN, 49ERS!"  

Finally, the inevitable home-run call, "TELL IT GOODBYE!"

Goodbye, Lon.  We'll miss you.