It turns out it was a Simpson after all: Dennis Simpson. He owned Simpson’s Restaurant at 1406 North Capitol St. NW.
As a boy, Guy Harris lived on P Street NW, around the corner from the eatery.
“It was fun growing up in the neighborhood because of people like Mr. Simpson,” said Harris, 73. “I wish you could have met him. He was wonderful man.”
And, yes, he was a numbers runner, part of the vast underground mechanism that kept the illegal lottery humming. Simpson was a “book,” Harris said.
“The book was like a mid-level numbers man,” said Harris. “You had numbers runners, the people who walked around and took numbers from people. They would turn their numbers into the book. The books would turn their numbers into the bank. That was like Mr. ‘Whitetop’ Simkins. They ran the bank.”
Harris said he wasn’t sure to whom Simpson turned in his numbers. It could have been Simkins.
Simpson’s Restaurant was in a block that included a bakery (which is still there), a laundry and a taxidermist. The restaurant was a step above a carryout, Harris said, with a counter, some chairs and a menu of chicken and steak.
On the walls were photographs of uniformed athletes. Some of the photographs were of Dennis Simpson himself.
“He was a sports fanatic,” Harris said.
And he was more than that. Born in Illinois in 1904, Simpson came to D.C. to attend Howard University, where he was an end on the football team. He was a starter on the celebrated squad that went 7-0 in 1926.
After Howard, Simpson played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. He was a first baseman with the Baltimore Black Sox.
In 1973, he told the Evening Star’s Russ White that he had faced Satchel Paige.
“Satchel was young then, steaming fast and never, never in anything but low scoring games,” Simpson said. “I’d hit a few long balls but against Satchel I just tried to hit line drives. I got a few off him but I never hit one away. Few guys did off Satchel.”
Simpson’s Restaurant — with neon signs promising “Good Food” and “Air Conditioning” — was a haven for the sporting set.
Many neighborhood teams — baseball, basketball and football — were sponsored by Simpson and wore uniforms he paid for. One of his basketball teams was organized via Fides House, a Catholic-run rec center on Eighth Street NW.
“Guys were on ball teams that played together,” Harris said. “You had the Stonewall Athletic Club in Southeast. You had Fides House in Northwest. All over the city you had those types of things. They would create little sports leagues and just play ball. They kept a lot of us out of trouble for a while.”
And they attracted some top-flight talent. Basketball great Elgin “Rabbit” Baylor played for Stonewall A.C. The Simpson’s Restaurant team had one of the most accomplished — and most distinctive — athletes to play in Washington: Gary Mays.
Said Harris: “I wish you could have seen Gary play ball — baseball or basketball. Or swimming. He was phenomenal.”
Mays lost his left arm at age 5 in an accident involving a shotgun. He went on to captain Armstrong Technical High School’s division-winning basketball team and excel in baseball, where he was a catcher capable of throwing out runners from the plate — and hitting homers from it, as well.
“This guy, he never let that one arm bother him,” Harris said. “He could really play — and play well.”
Mays was friends with Harris’s uncle, Delaware S. Barbour.
“Gary taught me how to swim,” Harris said. “In fact, Gary at one time was a lifeguard. Only one-armed lifeguard I ever knew. Mr. Simpson doted over him.”
Dennis Simpson — the man who bought John Thompson his first uniform — died in 1977.
“He gave to the community, he really did,” said Harris. “He was very generous and he was always looking out for the kids.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly