St. Louis Cardinals: Ted Simmons picked the wrong time to shine
By Bill Dawson
Former St. Louis Cardinals star Ted Simmons would be a Hall of Famer right now if he’d spent his peak years on a different team in a different era.
It doesn’t always matter what you do in baseball. It matters when and where you do it. Long-time St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons enjoyed a splendid 21-year career from 1968 to 1988. He batted .285 with a .348 on-base average and accumulated nearly 2,500 hits. His WAR score is the 11th-best among catchers, trailing nine Hall of Famers and Joe Mauer, a future Cooperstown inductee. Simmons has a higher WAR than six other Hall of Fame catchers.
Slice the numbers any way you like, the man they called Simba for his lion-like hair had a Hall of Fame-caliber career. But he played his peak years with the wrong team at the worst possible time.
The Red Birds had great success in the ’60s and ’80s but were numbingly mediocre from 1970 — Simmons’ official rookie year — to 1980, his last year as a Cardinal. St. Louis posted an 874-901 record for a .492 winning percentage over those 11 years and never made the playoffs.
“If you find yourself playing in front of millions of people on television for a couple of weeks in the playoffs and the World Series, then you are going to be noticed a lot more,” Simmons told Sports Illustrated’s Ron Fimrite in 1978. “People in Montana who never see a major league game in person are going to know who you are.”
It would have been rough if Simmons had spent his peak years with the Montreal Expos or Texas Rangers; it was worse playing on a once-proud franchise during a dark, dreary era. “The Cardinals weren’t a very good team in those years,” wrote the author of 2001’s The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract; “they spent most of the time fighting about something and criticizing one another for their failures.”
While a far better player, Simmons may have suffered from the Horace Clarke syndrome. Clarke was a so-so second baseman who played for the Yankees from 1965 to 1974 and became a byword for that oppressive pinstripe era. Former Yankee pitcher Fritz Peterson refers to that span as “The Horace Clarke Era.” Rory Costello of sabr.org says the .256-hitting infielder was “the undeserving scapegoat for the Roman Empire-like dry rot of the Yankees after 1964.”
Like Simmons, Clarke played in front of fans who were used to lots of winning. Poor Clarke would have been better off playing for the Cleveland Indians. He might be forgotten today, but he wouldn’t be seen as a symbol of failure.
For Simmons, it was bad enough being on a string of lackluster Cardinals teams without the inevitable and unfavorable comparisons to Johnny Bench. In the late ’60s and ’70s, the Reds backstop “set an impossible standard for a young catcher,” James wrote. Bench won 10 straight Gold Gloves from 1968 to ’77, a pair of MVPs, and appeared in 45 postseason games through 1979.
Simmons averaged an even .300 and 90 RBI a year from 1971 to 1980, outstanding numbers for anyone and phenomenal for a guy in an unfavorable hitter’s park catching 150 games a year, many while frying on Astroturf beneath a scorching St. Louis sun. “If they caught him 130 games instead of 150, he’d hit .360,” Tim McCarver told Sports Illustrated in 1978.
If Simmons had put up numbers like that in the 1960s, he would’ve been lauded as the best-hitting catcher of that era. In the 1980s, he’d have outshined Gary Carter, who hit more homers but never topped .294 as a full-time player.
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It can be argued that Simmons was a better hitter than Bench. The Cardinal had a higher OPS than Bench in seven of the 10 seasons from 1971 to 1980, and he accomplished this despite lackluster production behind him in the lineup. From 1975 to 1979, Simmons was the recipient of 99 intentional walks, by far the most of anyone over that stretch — Rod Carew was second with 73 IBBs. Bench had just 44 IBBs from ’75 to ’79.
But Bench was sensational in 1970, hitting 45 homers with 148 RBI, and nearly as good in 1972, slugging 40 homers with 125 RBI. And he played all those postseason games, winning the World Series MVP in 1976.
And he was great with the glove. Simmons, on the other hand, had a bad-glove reputation. He led the league in passed balls three times and four times in stolen bases allowed.
Truth is, Simba was “an OK catcher his first five years in the league” — James again. But he wasn’t Johnny Bench, and his arm had lost its zip. In his last two St. Louis seasons, Simmons threw out just 29 and 31 percent of enemy base-stealers.
New manager Whitey Herzog wanted a stronger defensive catcher and signed Darrell Porter on Dec. 7, 1980. He planned to move Simmons to first base and Keith Hernandez to left field, but Simmons’ agent told the skipper that his client wouldn’t like that arrangement. Five days after signing Porter, Herzog shipped Simba to the Milwaukee Brewers.
That move “was not popular in St. Louis because Porter was replacing a longtime fan favorite in catcher Ted Simmons,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 2002. St. Louis fans booed Porter but came to love him when the catcher won MVP awards in the 1982 NLCS — by hitting .556! — and in the World Series, where he hit .286 with two doubles, a homer, and five RBI.
In that same Series Simmons, playing for the Brewers, hit .174 (although he did smack a pair of homers).
Simmon’s exit from the Cardinals damaged his reputation among many fans and, presumably, baseball writers. It was easy to see him as a diva who refused to move to first for the good of his team. When the Cards got better without Simmons the critics could only conclude that he’d lacked a team-first attitude. Sure, he put up nice numbers, but was he a winner?
In his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Simmons received just 3.7 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers of America Association — it takes 75 percent to win election.
The good news for Simmons is he’s getting close to a Cooperstown plaque. He received eleven votes from the Modern Era Committee for the Hall of Fame Class of 2018 — one more vote and he would’ve been elected!
Simmons is 69 now. Who knows if he’ll live long enough to get his Hall of Fame due. But it’s trending in the right direction. The farther away a player gets from the biases of his era, the more he’s judged strictly on the weight of his accomplishments.
Richie Ashburn is one player who had to hurl preconceptions of what a Hall of Famer should look like. Ashburn played in the era of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider, and suffered by comparison. Those guys batted third or fourth in the lineup and hit tons of homers for pennant-winning teams and Ashburn batted leadoff, hit just 29 career HRs, and played in one World Series, hitting .176.
Decades after his retirement, removed from the Willie-Mickey-Duke comparisons and the Phillies’ failures, Ashburn was seen in a new light. Yeah, he didn’t knock ’em out of the park much, but he was a fantastic leadoff hitter. Ashburn led the league four times in walks, and four times in on-base percentage — stats that didn’t get their due 60 years ago. He had a .308 lifetime average and an astonishing .396 on-base percentage over 15 seasons.
Ashburn was 68 when he got the Cooperstown call in 1995. He died two years later. Let’s hope the Hall doesn’t take too long to honor the singular career of Ted “Simba” Simmons.