NEW ORLEANS — The trip was a whirlwind for Bob Simeone. The president of the Mariners RBI Club flew to New Orleans on a moment’s notice to attend the funeral of Herb Simpson, the last surviving member of the 1946 Seattle Steelheads Negro Leagues baseball team before he died Jan. 7 at 94.
Simeone prepared a short speech for Simpson’s memorial service at the First Free Mission Baptist Church in the Algiers section, a speech that was received with warm applause from the hundreds of family, friends and well-wishers of Simpson who congregated at the church for the service Thursday.
Almost immediately after the services were over, Simeone dashed to the New Orleans airport to catch a flight back to the Northwest. But Simeone wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Simpson became a bit of a Seattle baseball legend and one of Simeone’s friends during Simpson’s RBI Club-sponsored trips to Seattle. Simeone wasn’t the only one back home who was mourning the loss of an ambassador of history.
“The Mariners were sad to hear of the loss of Herb,” Simeone said. “The individuals who worked with him on his visits and organized and hosted events centered around him at Safeco were the ones who were the saddest.
“RBI felt the loss more deeply. We have had club members visit Herb in Algiers, attend ball games with him in New Orleans, visit his induction site at the Hall of Fame at Zephyr Field, keep in touch with him and his family by phone and email.”
Simpson had been the guest of the Mariners and RBI several times over the last two decades, including for the team’s annual African-American Heritage Day in 2013-14, when he was honored along with other influential black figures in the Northwest. Each time Simpson’s name was announced as he stood on the field during the ceremony, he received a rousing ovation from the Safeco crowd.
“We’re feeling very sad here in Seattle, but also happy to have had the chance to meet [Simpson] and get to know him over the last couple of years,” Mariners spokeswoman Rebecca Hale told WWL TV in New Orleans. “He was an important part of Seattle baseball history and a very dear man.”
Hale added that the Mariners would hold a moment of silence on opening day in April to recognize Simpson’s influence and character.
On Simpson’s final trip to the Northwest in July, he was also recognized at a game of the Everett AquaSox, the Mariners’ short-season Single-A affiliate in the Northwest League. During Simpson’s day jaunt from Seattle to Everett, he and his grand-nephew, Felton Glapion, were hosted by AquaSox fans Dave and Kathy Hope, who were instantly struck by Simpson’s humility and warmth.
The former Steelhead and African-American baseball trailblazer reminded Kathy Hope of her father, especially when an exhausted Simpson dozed off for a nap.
“We rested quietly at our home before the afternoon game, and it was sweet how Herb napped in Dave’s chair just as my Dad would have,” Kathy Hope said. “Both men about the same age, served voluntarily in World War II in the Army Air Corps, and both men were kind and gentle human beings. The only difference was of the color of their skin, but the color of their hearts the same. I believe they are having good conversation together in heaven.”
Hope added that she was amazed at how many people lined up at Simpson’s table at the game to talk to him and get his autograph. She was particularly moved by one young boy’s excitement at meeting a living legend.
“It was very touching, and you could see how pleased Herb was as well,” she said. “After an hour of autographing, Herb stood on the baseball field and waited for the opportunity to throw out the first pitch, which he did with thought and style. After returning to his seat, he graciously shook hands and greeted everyone who came up to say hello.
“It is not often we get to meet a true hero, but Dave and I did that day,” she added.
Back in New Orleans, the service for Simpson began with the playing of the legend’s favorite hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and was marked by a room full of flowers, photos and other memorials, including several from Seattle.
Perhaps the two most emotional highlights of the proceedings came when Simpson’s young grand nephew, Logan Broussard, clad in a baseball shirt and cap, read a brief but powerful self-penned poem about his great-uncle, and when another of the Negro Leaguer’s grand nephews, Jordan Murray, rendered a moving hymn. Jordan was also clad in baseball garb that would have made his great uncle proud.
A poignant moment came when the congregation stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer led by head deacon Willie Williams. Right up until his death, it was Simpson himself who filled that role.
Simpson spent his later years in Algiers at the house he lived in for 60 years, many of them with his late wife, Sophie. He was known to mow his own lawn on occasion, and one of his favorite pastimes was sitting on his porch, watching the world go by, and waving to just about every car, bicyclist or walker who passed.
As several speakers at the funeral service stressed, Simpson was in many ways not only the patriarch and “anchor” of his family, but also of his church and community in Algiers and greater New Orleans. In a written tribute to Simpson that was included in the funeral service’s program, his god-daughter, Linda McGinnis, called the baseball great “a very meek, humble and soft-spoken man. I never remember hearing him raise his voice, and I never saw him angry.
“He was everything that I could wish for a godfather to be,” McGinnis concluded, adding that Simpson became like a second father. “He truly was one in a million, a man I greatly admired. So as I prepare to say ‘so long for now,’ I will always be thankful to God for allowing him to be a part of my life. His memories I will cherish forever.”
The service had a strong impact on the Simeone. It reminded him that despite the possible historical blinders that many in the Mariners leadership and community can sometimes wear, Herb Simpson’s impact on local sports culture can never be dimmed.
“To me, more than anything Herb means that there is a lot more to baseball history than you ever know at first or second thought or glance,” he said.
Simpson realized how much he meant, even with his humble nature. Said Simeone: “He took on his ambassadorial role with tremendous energy, and he was well aware he was the last Steelhead standing.”