The tenth greatest Cardinal: Ted Simmons
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 10: TED SIMMONS
Johnny Bench had two MVPs with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, one of the best teams in baseball history.
Carlton Fisk had freakish longevity, not to mention that World Series Game 6 walk-off homer, which he famously willed fair with flailing arms as it clipped the foul pole atop Boston’s Green Monster.
Gary Carter had a beaming smile and curly blond locks that played well in the New York sports media, plus a championship ring with the Mets.
But Ted Simmons? The long-haired, serious-minded catcher teammates called “Simba”?
He had a collection of antique furniture, a dealer’s sense for fine art, an appreciation for opera and played on a middling Cardinals club that wouldn’t finish better than second place during his 11 seasons as its staring catcher. Oh yeah ... he also had more career RBIs (1,389), more hits (2,472) and a higher career batting average (.285) than each of the aforementioned three.
A hauty taste for life’s finer things and a conspicuous lack of a signature moment isn’t the only thing that separates Simmons from his catching contemporaries: He’s the only one of the four who has yet to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Statistically, though, Simmons is in their ballpark. According to Jaffe WAR Scoring System (JAWS) — one of those sabermetric formulas that are both impossibly complicated and amazingly accurate — he is the 10th best catcher of all time and better than at least five others already with plaques in Cooperstown.
His power numbers might be even better, some have argued, had Simmons not spent most of his career playing in the cavernous confines of Busch Stadium II.
“If he played in Cincinnati, where the ball really carries, he’d hit from 30 to 35 home runs, the way Bench does,” another catcher, Tim McCarver, told Sports Illustrated in 1978. “He plays in Death Valley and still hits more than 20.”
The Cardinals made Simmons the 10th overall pick of the 1967 MLB Amateur Draft out of Southfield High School in suburban Detroit. He used the signing bonus was used to fund his education at the University of Michigan and Wayne State, which he tended to even as he worked his way through St. Louis’ minor league system.
Simmons made his big-league debut with three at-bats in 1968. By 1970, he had impressed manager Red Schoendienst enough to nudge veteran catcher Joe Torre over to third base. The Cardinals won 90 games the year after. Torre was the National League batting champion and MVP, while the 21-year-old catcher enjoyed a breakout season by hitting .304/.347/.424 with 77 RBIs.
Simmons, who made $17,500 that season, didn’t think a raise to $30,000 was out of line. He was a newly-wed — his wife Maryanne, unsurprisingly, is a St. Louis-area artist and publisher — and wanted something better for his family than the rented apartment his salary afforded.
The Cardinals countered with something barely over $20,000, which Simmons took as an insult.
It had been just two years since Cardinals’ outfielder Curt Flood refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies and, instead, sued Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for his free agency. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled against him and upheld baseball’s reserve clause, thus perpetuating a system in which owners strung players along on year-to-year contracts with little leverage to negotiate.
But Flood’s fight ignited a spark.
Cardinals owner Gussie Busch, whose team boasted baseball’s first million-dollar payroll, felt an earnest betrayal by his players’ demands. Rather than negotiate with them on salary, he ordered pitchers Steve Carlton and Jerry Reuss traded.
Still, Simmons held firm on his asking price and played the 1972 season without a contract, declaring that he would shop other teams for a better deal the following offseason. It was a daring move, but it paid off with a red-hot start and his first selection to the All-Star Game. At the urging of MLB attorney John Geherin — “Get a hold of this,” he told Cardinals’ General Manager Bing Divine. “We don’t want to test (the reserve clause).” — St. Louis had its emerging star inked to a two-year deal worth $75,000 by season’s end.
Simmons ended up batting .304/.336/.465 with 36 doubles, 16 home runs, 96 RBIs and a top 10 finish in the MVP balloting. Other benchmark seasons would follow.
In 1974, Simmons hit 20 home runs and drove in 103. The following year he hit a career best .332/396/.491 with 100 RBIs and 80 runs scored. In 1977, he batted. 318/.408/.500 with 21 home runs and 95 runs driven in. Simmons was the National League’s Silver Slugger at catcher in 1980 and an All Star for the seventh time in nine seasons.
All the while he was so fiercely protective of his influence as a professional athlete and the dignity of the game itself that he fought with teammates he felt were disrespectful of both. Honored by the Missouri Athletic Club as its Sportsman of the Year in 1978, Simmons delivered a sobering speech about the responsibilities of the modern athlete.
Ordinarily a lighthearted, comedic and even irreverent affair, the banquet crowd gave Simmons a standing ovation.
“I want to change the stereotype of the athlete as an imbecilic, money-grubbing muscle machine,” he said in a subsequent interview with Sports Illustrated. “People don’t appreciate the innate intelligence required of a good athlete.”
As a performer and Hall of Fame candidate, the knock on Simmons has always been his defense . Though he did, in fact, lead the National League in past balls in 1972, his skills behind the plate evolved enough that, by 1978, he was the league leader in assists and putouts while also posting a .991 fielding percentage.
But when Whitey Herzog arrived in St. Louis as manager and general manager, he still viewed Simmons’ glove work as a liability, noting his sliding success rate in throwing out would-be base stealers. He brought in free agent Darrell Porter with the idea that he’d shift Simmons to first base.
Concerned that he’d be compared to Gold Glover Keith Hernandez, who would be moved to the outfield, Simmons refused the position change. Herzog bundled him in a lop-sided trade to Milwaukee. Two years later, Simmons was back in St. Louis as a Brewer to face the Cardinals in the 1982 World Series.
He played five more seasons, including three as a starter and one more as an All Star, before retiring from the Atlanta Braves in 1988.
In all, Simmons spent his 13 best seasons wearing the Birds on the Bat. He hit .298/.366/.459 as a member of the Cardinals while topping the .300 batting mark and 90 RBI mark six times. He also held the major-league record for hits (2,472) and doubles (482) be a catcher and had set the NL standard for home runs (248) by a switch hitter. Those records have since been broken.
Simmons, in the meantime, fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after his first year of eligibility, with just 17 votes. The Modern Baseball Era Committee gave him another look in 2017, but he again fell shy of election, just one vote shy of the required 12.
Always a favorite with fans in St. Louis, where he still make his home, Simmons was rightfully inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2015.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1968-1980
.298/.366/.459 in St. Louis | 8x All-Star | 45.0 WAR | Cardinals HoF’15
TOP 100 SCORE: 5.07