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Ted Simmons takes long road to Cooperstown

‘The sabermetrics people brought me back to life’ in eyes of HOF voters, longtime St. Louis Cardinals catcher says
Simmons was among those honored before the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2018 home opener. Photo: Jimmy Simmons/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Simmons was among those honored before the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2018 home opener. Photo: Jimmy Simmons/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Editor’s Note:The COVID-19 pandemic forced the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to postpone the 2020 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies—originally slated for this summer—until July 25, 2021. Sports Collectors Digest will honor the 2020 Hall of Fame class this summer with a series of articles about these baseball legends who sat down with writers earlier this year and talked about their careers. Leading off the series is a story about catcher Ted Simmons.

Ted Simmons has been around baseball for a long time. He has experienced the game as a player, a coach, a scout, a front-office executive, and now he will get a chance to experience it as a Hall of Famer.

Ted Simmons hitting against the New York Mets circa 1973 at Shea Stadium. Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Ted Simmons hitting against the New York Mets circa 1973 at Shea Stadium. Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

More than three decades after Simmons retired from the playing field, he finally has a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, as part of the Hall’s 2020 class. Thirty-plus years is a long wait, but the hard-hitting catcher, now 70 years old, has no complaints. “It all worked out as it was supposed to,” he says.

Simmons, a tough backstop with a great batting eye, was only 18 years old when he made his major league debut in a couple of games down the stretch for the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals. By 1971, he was the Redbirds’ starting catcher on a team that featured Lou Brock, Joe Torre, Bob Gibson, and Steve Carlton. “Being in the clubhouse with them every day had a huge impact on me,” the new Hall of Famer notes.

St. Louis won two consecutive National League pennants—in 1967 and 1968—and won the World Series in 1967. “Of course, this was a team with a great history, and I was working my way through the Cardinals’ minor league system knowing Tim McCarver was the team’s everyday catcher,” Simmons recalls. But the young catcher would not be in the minors for very long; changes behind the plate were about to take place in St. Louis.

A native of Southfield, Mich., a northern suburb of Detroit, Simmons grew up watching the Detroit Tigers claw their way through contests in the Junior Circuit when there were only eight teams in the American League and 16 teams in all of baseball. He was a big fan of Detroit Tigers great Al Kaline (whose career spanned 1953 to 1974), and he still is. Kaline, a Hall of Famer, had the level swing of a line-drive hitter rather than the uppercut of most sluggers. The Tigers legend, who passed away in April 2020, had a lifetime .297 batting average while still hitting 399 homers. “Mr. Tiger” amassed 3,007 hits in his major league career.

Simmons studied his idol’s swing. He was determined to hit like Kaline and get similar results. He had the advantage of being a switch-hitter, even though that wasn’t his idea initially.

A natural left-handed hitter who threw with his right hand, Simmons has his two older brothers to thank for teaching him to switch-hit. “I wasn’t wild about the idea at first, but I wasn’t going to argue with them,” he says. Jim, 14 years older than Ted, and Ned, seven years older, started schooling their younger brother in the art of switch-hitting when he was just 9 years old. Both Jim and Ned were natural right-handed hitters. Ted was the only switch-hitter in his area Little League. He later credited his talent as a switch-hitter for his success with the bat on the major league level.

Simmons was considered one of the best offensive major league catchers ever. Compiling a lifetime .285 batting average while playing a demanding position like catcher is not easy. He batted over .300 seven times in his 21-year big league career (1968–1988). In addition, he ranks second among catchers in hits, behind Iván Rodríguez, with 2,472 (Pudge had 2,844) and doubles with 483 (Rodríguez amassed 572). Hall of Famer Yogi Berra is the only catcher in major league history to better Simmons’s mark of 1,389 RBI. (Berra’s RBI record is 1,430.)

Simmons in action during a game circa 1980. Photo: Focus on Sports/Getty Images

Simmons in action during a game circa 1980. Photo: Focus on Sports/Getty Images

During the era when Simmons played, baseball had an embarrassment of riches when it came to backstops, with Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson, Bob Boone, and Gary Carter, among other standouts. Those catchers were often involved in pennant races or the postseason, and getting way more attention than Simmons.

Simmons’ feats were often overlooked as the team struggled to win through most of his tenure there, even though the 5-foot-11 catcher put up strong numbers. “It’s hard to get noticed when you’re being compared to people like Bench, who was winning the World Series year in and year out, and Fisk in Boston, who was having great, great years,” he notes. Regardless, the St. Louis catcher kept putting up the offensive numbers that made him a vital part of the Cardinals’ lineup.

But Simmons was more than just a baseball player. He was well-read, a free thinker, and a political activist. In the conservative St. Louis area, Simmons spoke out against President Richard Nixon and opposed the Vietnam War, but he played the game of baseball ferociously.

In the psychedelic 1970s, Simmons grew his hair long. Check it out—you must have some of his old baseball cards from back in the day. Those flowing locks gave him the look of a lion and earned him the nickname “Simba.” He still sports a full head of hair, though it is shorter than in his playing days, and a distinguished-looking gray replaces the black mane of yesteryear.

St. Louis and Simmons eventually grew on each other. He still lives there, and the Cardinal faithful love him. He will go into the Hall of Fame with a Cardinals logo on his cap.

A top all-around athlete at Southfield High School, Simmons played football and basketball in addition to baseball. As a senior, the kid who was labeled a can’t-miss baseball prospect hit .490. He was determined to play baseball, and probably football as well, at the University of Michigan, unless he received a better offer. He did, when the St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the first round of the 1967 draft.

At only 17 years old, Simmons got a $50,000 bonus from St. Louis and an agreement that allowed him to attend the University of Michigan in the offseason and arrive late to spring training. George Kissell, the veteran Cardinals coach, took Simmons under his wing and taught him the “Cardinal Way” to play baseball. Simmons met Kissell in the spring of 1967 when he got to rookie camp in Sarasota, Fla. Kissell had been with the Cardinals organization since 1940 as a player, a minor league manager, and a major league coach.

“He [Kissell] had a profound effect on me and just about every other player in the Cardinal system. He helped me grow up,” the Michigan native says. “He was like everyone’s mentor. The thing that was so special about George is that he was a fundamentalist. He broke everything down to step one, step two, step three, etc., and, over time and repetition you got it.” The main thing Kissell taught Simmons is how to really love the game. “Baseball is hard work. I mean it’s lots of hard work and very physically demanding. But he taught us all how to love the game, love what you are doing, and that meant a lot.”

Moving up to the Cedar Rapids Cardinals in the Class-A Midwest League, Simmons hit .269 in the summer of 1967. In 1968 he returned to Class-A ball, this time playing in the California League with the Modesto Reds. There he collected 119 RBI and hit a scorching .331, receiving the league’s Most Valuable Player award. He earned a September call-up to the Cardinals and saw action in a couple of regular-season major league games.

With the Triple-A Tulsa (Oklahoma) Oilers in the American Association in 1969, Simmons had another standout season, hitting .317 with 16 round-trippers and 88 RBI. The catcher’s Triple-A experience focused on more than just offense, though. At Tulsa, Simmons worked very hard on defense, putting in endless hours practicing footwork and how to throw runners out.

Once again, Simmons came up to the St. Louis Cardinals in September. The team was impressed enough to make a bold move in October 1969, when they traded catcher Tim McCarver, along with Curt Flood, Joe Hoerner, and Byron Browne, to the Philadelphia Phillies for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson.

The trade cleared the way for Simmons to take his place behind the plate with the Redbirds, but it was also significant in another way. Flood refused to report to the Phillies, and that action triggered the colossal battle over baseball’s reserve clause. That historic battle was led by Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Miller was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year by the Modern Baseball Era Committee, which also elected Simmons to the shrine.

Simmons was poised to make his move to the big leagues in the 1970 season, but the U.S. Army had other ideas. The catcher, who was in the Army Reserve, was activated for a six-month stint, starting in December 1969. Plans had called for Joe Torre to be the Cards’ regular catcher in 1970, sharing the duties behind the plate with Simmons and mentoring the young backstop. Simmons’ military commitment meant that he would miss spring training and get a late start on the 1970 season and his transition to The Bigs.

The switch-hitting catcher was discharged from the Army Reserve in early May, but he needed to get into playing shape. After spending a short time at Triple-A Tulsa, where he hit .373 in 51 at-bats, Simmons made the jump to the big leagues on May 30.

He was thrust into his major league role faster than he anticipated. Mike Shannon, the Cardinals’ third baseman, was diagnosed with kidney disease during spring training in 1970. The Cards needed Torre to play the hot corner when Shannon couldn’t. A struggling Cardinals team anxiously awaited Simmons’ return to the club, where the 20-year-old essentially became the starting catcher. Torre was increasingly needed at third, as Shannon’s illness worsened and eventually forced him to retire.

But the move from the minor leagues to The Show was a bit tougher for Simmons than he had expected. “In the minor leagues, people who can hit are just tearing it up. Your confidence starts soaring and you feel like you are invincible. I was crushing everything, everywhere I played in the minor leagues. I figured there was no place in the minor leagues I couldn’t play, so I was ready, in my mind to play in the major leagues. I had a rather rude and abrupt awakening awaiting me, and I took my lumps when I first got to St. Louis.”

The rookie had trouble both offensively and defensively. Simba only batted .243 for the 1970 season and his glove work needed some polishing. For defense, the Cardinals brought in former All-Star St. Louis catcher Hal Smith to burnish Simmons’ skills behind the plate. Ken Boyer and Bob Kennedy, both former players and experienced coaches, helped Simmons tweak his batting style, making him more successful offensively.

The tutoring paid off. Simba played full time behind the plate in 1971, batting .304, and he helped the Cardinals make a run for the National League East title. The division was eventually won that year by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Simmons learned a lot about catching as well in 1971, mostly from legendary hurler Bob Gibson, the man the new Hall of Famer credits with teaching him how to call a game.

“When I got to the major leagues, I had no idea how to call a game. I would put fingers down and Gibson would throw what he wanted, right where he wanted. He would consistently get the ball where he wanted and got the batter out,” Simmons says. “He worked quickly and I didn’t want to disrupt his pace. Gibson felt that the more experienced player (member of the battery) should control the game, and he undoubtedly was the more experienced player. Working with me, he showed me how it was done—how you call a game—and I learned a lot from him.” Simba ended up catching 135 of Hall of Famer Gibson’s starts. Only McCarver caught more, with 197.

One of Simmons’ biggest thrills during his career was catching Bob Gibson’s no-hitter on Aug. 14, 1971 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals won the game 11–0. Later in his career, Simmons caught another no-hitter, this one by St. Louis pitcher Bob Forsch, on April 16, 1978, against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Cardinals won that game 5–0.

What’s the catcher’s role in a no-hitter? “Generally, it’s to facilitate. By that I mean, stay out of the way,” Simmons says with a smile. “Generally pitchers who are throwing no-hitters really have good stuff that day. So when you get to the fourth or fifth inning of a game and you see that a pitcher with really good stuff hasn’t given up a hit yet, you can tell by how his stuff is at that point whether he has a shot at it. And if he does, you go with it.”

Simmons adds, “If the pitcher takes the game into the sixth or seventh inning without allowing a hit, now (a no-hitter is) apt to happen. So you make suggestions, keep the flow going, keep the pitcher’s pace intact. Now you’re working to get him through it.”

With Milwaukee Brewers for five seasons, Simmons played in his only World Series in 1982—against his former St. Louis Cardinals team. Photo: Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

With Milwaukee Brewers for five seasons, Simmons played in his only World Series in 1982—against his former St. Louis Cardinals team. Photo: Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Simmons played for the Cardinals for 13 seasons (1968–1980). He batted .298 with 929 RBI and had 172 home runs. As a Cardinal, he also collected 332 doubles, 1,704 hits, and 624 walks, a testament to his patience at the plate and his sharp batting eye.

There is no doubt that Simmons loved being a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, but during his tenure there as an everyday player, he never reached the postseason. “Everybody plays to win and, basically, from the standpoint of winning pennants and World Series it (Simmons’ time with the Cardinals) was unproductive,” the eight-time All-Star says. Though Simmons was called up by the big club late in the 1968 season, he was not on the Cardinals’ World Series roster that year, and did not participate in the 1968 Fall Classic.

St. Louis was going through some changes during and after the 1980 season, and even though Simmons never thought he would be playing for another team, an interesting offer came his way in December 1980. “I had a wonderful career in St. Louis, but circumstances were changing and Whitey Herzog (then the St. Louis general manager) approached me about a trade to the Milwaukee Brewers (then in the American League). I was a 10-and-5 man, and had control,” Simmons says. Players with 10 years of major league service and who were with their current team for the past five consecutive years could veto a trade.

“I wanted to know who was in the deal and Whitey told me I was going to Milwaukee with Pete Vuckovich and Rollie Fingers. I knew Milwaukee had offense, and they needed a catcher and some pitching. Now I thought the Brewers had a chance (to reach the postseason).” Simmons agreed to the deal.

“It changed Milwaukee. It was a wonderful, wonderful time there. Vuckovich won a Cy Young Award (in 1982) and we went to the World Series in 1982,” Simmons recalls. In 1981, Rollie Fingers became the first relief pitcher in the American League to win a Most Valuable Player award. Many sportswriters were saying the now-31-year-old Simmons was the missing piece the Brewers needed to become a contender. Perhaps they were right.

As a team featuring Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Gorman Thomas, they just needed a bit more to get over the hump. The Brewers had some immediate success in 1981. The club finished first in the American League East in the second half of that strike-shortened split season.

In 1981, a dispute over free-agent compensation led to a work stoppage that halted play on June 12. A settlement was reached on July 31 and play resumed on August 10. In order to salvage the season, the owners came up with a split-season format. Those teams leading their divisions when the strike started automatically qualified for the playoffs. The second part of the season started anew and those teams leading their divisions when the second half ended also made the playoffs.

In the Junior Circuit, that meant the Brewers played the Yankees in the best-of-five American League East Division Series. The Brewers lost the first two games of the division series. But Milwaukee came back to win Game 3 by a score of 5–3, thanks to a two-run homer and an RBI double by Simba. The Brewers won Game 4 as well, behind a strong pitching performance from Vuckovich. Ultimately, however, the Yankees won the division series when they captured the fifth and deciding game.

But at least Simmons saw some postseason action in 1981, and there was more to come. The catcher’s 23 round-trippers and 97 RBI helped the Brewers win the American League East in 1982 with 95 wins. They clinched the division on the last day of the season, defeating the Baltimore Orioles 10–2 in Baltimore. The Brew Crew and the Orioles had been tied for first place in the American League East going into that final game.

The Brewers took on the California Angels in a thrilling American League Championship Series. The Brewers lost the first two games in Anaheim but rebounded when the series returned to Milwaukee. After winning Games 3 and 4, the Brewers had to make a comeback to win the fifth and deciding game.

The Brew Crew were down 3–2 in the bottom of the seventh inning when Milwaukee loaded the bases. Brewers first baseman Cecil Cooper got a two-run single and Milwaukee hung on to win the game and get into the World Series. It was a bittersweet moment for Simmons because Milwaukee’s opponent in the 1982 World Series would be none other than the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I waited my whole life to get into the World Series. Why couldn’t it be against Los Angeles or New York?” says Simmons, who still lived in St. Louis in the offseason. It was a hard-fought series. Milwaukee was up three games to two but the Cardinals won the last two games to win the Fall Classic. “Still, I have to say that World Series was the most exciting time in my professional baseball career—no doubt about it,” he says.

Ted Simmons played another three seasons in Milwaukee, where he batted .262 with 394 RBI during his five seasons with the club. He finished his career in Atlanta, playing three seasons (1986–1988) for the Braves.

Clearly, catching had taken a toll on him. But, while with Atlanta, he was still able to log some time in the field and hit. Most importantly, he mentored young Braves players and helped them make the transition from the minors to the big leagues. That turned out to be good training for both Simmons and the young players.

When he retired from the playing field in 1988, Simmons pivoted from the diamond to the front office. He became the Cardinals’ director of player personnel that same year. He stayed in that job until 1992, when he was named the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In June 1993, a heart attack forced Simmons to resign his general manager position and take life a bit easier. He was back to baseball in late 1993, as a special assignment scout with the Cleveland Indians. Other front-office jobs followed, but he returned to the dugout as bench coach with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008 and the San Diego Padres in 2009 and 2010.

Around this time, he thought about managing on the major league level, but that never worked out. Still, Simmons found both his playing days and his non-playing days equally rewarding. “It was much more fun playing and much more lucrative, to say the least. But I can’t tell you what being a general manager in Pittsburgh meant to me,” he says. “That opened the entire industry to me, where I saw how baseball functioned, where it made its money, how it made its money, how it strived to present an acceptable product and put it out on the field for a local fan base.”

Speaking with the enthusiasm of a young rookie, Simmons says, “I’ve seen this industry wide open. There isn’t a thing I haven’t seen. There isn’t a thing I don’t understand. Luckiest baseball man in the world. I don’t have the headaches anymore, thank God, but it (baseball) sure is a beautiful thing to look at and wonder about. It’s just beyond belief what has happened in this game. It’s incredible.”

Even though he was consumed by baseball, Simmons found time to dabble in some non-baseball pursuits, including collecting antiques, a passion he shared with his wife Maryanne. Maryanne broadened his horizons by getting him interested in art and antiques. Simmons became so immersed in the world of antiques and art that he even spent several years as a trustee of the St. Louis Art Museum.

Despite Simmons’ impressive playing career, when he came up on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 1994, he received little support for his Cooperstown candidacy. He got only 3.7 percent of the votes cast in that election. In order to stay on the ballot and get another look in 1995, he would have had to garner at least 5 percent of the vote in 1994.

“Basically, back then for me, it was one and done. I thought my candidacy was done,” Simmons says. “But then things started to change, to evolve. The sabermetrics people brought me back to life.”

Baseball insiders began taking a second look at Simmons’ career. “The comparisons that come from the statistics is part of what makes this game so exciting for so many people. The controversies and the discussions just abound, especially around the numbers,” says Simmons, who played in 2,456 games. “People started seeing things in my body of work that they hadn’t seen before the metrics were considered.”

The last team Simmons played for was the Atlanta Braves, from 1986-88. Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The last team Simmons played for was the Atlanta Braves, from 1986-88. Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

One of the numbers now often discussed is how few times Simmons struck out during his career—just 694 times in 8,680 at-bats over 21 seasons. He never struck out more than 57 times in a season. 

Sabermetrics also focuses on stats like on-base percentage, which gives a new importance to walks. The eight-time All-Star had an on-base percentage greater than .350 during nine different seasons.

Simmons is the first player to drop off the BBWAA ballot after his first year of eligibility and eventually get elected to the Hall of Fame. He says the anxiety over the possibility of getting elected to Cooperstown starts about a month before the election is held and “When you get the phone call that you’re in, it just all releases. It’s very exciting.”

Simmons was honored to get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Modern Baseball Era Committee, along with Marvin Miller, the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Simmons knew Miller well. Miller, who led the union from 1966 to 1982, won free agency and salary arbitration for the players, among many other employee rights.

“I can’t begin to tell you the impact Marvin Miller had on me and my family,” Simmons says. “He had an impact on everybody who played the game then. My family will never forget him. He changed everything. People say, ‘What do you think about the salaries today? The contract Stephen Strasburg signed and those salary numbers?’ I say, ‘Good for him.’

“Marvin had that kind of impact and he is still having that kind of impact. I couldn’t be prouder as a newly elected member of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame to be going in with him. I couldn’t have hand-picked anyone I’d rather go in with.”

Miller passed away in 2012. “The thing I remember most about Marvin was how patient he was. He listened to everything the players had to say.”

Simmons was included on two other Hall of Fame Veterans’ Committee ballots—one in 2011 and then again in 2014—but came up short. Looking back over his own long wait to get into the Hall of Fame, Simmons is just happy to be a member of the hallowed Hall.

“I tell people all the time—I lived a charmed life. When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player, just like millions and millions of other people, little boys and, today, some little girls who want to be Major League Baseball players. I got to do all that. That happened to me.

“So in the past years, when I was not elected to the Hall of Fame, I couldn’t in good conscience walk around with a quote ‘chip on my shoulder’ or be angry at people because I wasn’t put in earlier. Because, as I say, baseball has been so wonderful to me and my entire family. To have been overlooked or passed up or not elected in previous years, I can’t complain. If I had spent one second walking around grieving or angry, I would have been ashamed of myself.”

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