Rarely are we able to go to bat for a hero. But that’s what I’m doing today. On December 6th, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee will consider 12 candidates for the highest honor in the sport. One of these candidates happens to be Ted Simmons, the great St. Louis Cardinal catcher of the 1970s. He belongs in the Hall, and I’m here to make his case.
Gaining Hall of Fame recognition by having donned a catcher’s tools of ignorance has proven to be a Herculean challenge. Only three catchers have played the game since 1966 and made it to Cooperstown: Johnny Bench (1967-83), Carlton Fisk (1969-93), and Gary Carter (1974-92). Among the 16 backstops in the Hall of Fame, Bench is the only first-ballot inductee. (No other position has so few honorees elected in their first year of eligibility.) Catchers have an inherent penalty against their Hall candidacy, in that the rigors of their defensive role tend to diminish the offensive numbers that attract the eyes of Hall of Fame voters. Simmons, it should be noted, was penalized further by spending the prime of his career in the considerable shadow of that one first-ballot catching legend, Bench.
When Simmons first became eligible for election to the Hall, he received only 3.7 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America (75 percent being the standard for induction). The paltry figure knocked Simmons from the ballot for any future consideration ... until now, when the Veterans Committee (16 voters) will reconsider the egregious slight. Here’s hoping 12 of those voters read this column.
Ted Simmons was a switch-hitting doubles machine for the Cardinals in the Seventies, an era that saw Lou Brock and Bob Gibson wind down their Hall of Fame careers with clubs unable to reach the postseason (where players invariably boost their Hall of Fame stock). Over the course of his career (including five seasons with Milwaukee and three as a pinch-hitter with Atlanta), Simmons finished in his league’s top 10 in batting six times, RBIs six times, and doubles eight times. Despite the drab teams for which he toiled, Simmons finished in the top 10 for National League MVP three times (1972, ’75, and ’77). He was an eight-time All-Star and is 14th all-time in games played at catcher.
Simmons had more career hits (2,472) than Hall of Fame catchers Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk. He scored more runs (1,074) than Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter. And get this: Ted Simmons had more RBIs (1,389) than Johnny Bench. Mike Piazza — the former Dodger and Met All-Star — was fearsome at the plate (not so much behind it) and will surely be elected to the Hall when he becomes eligible in 2013. Simmons had more hits, runs, and RBIs than Piazza.
The standard complaint about Simmons was his shortcomings as a defensive catcher. This is akin to griping about Elizabeth Hurley’s posture. And Simmons wasn’t that bad. The man caught two no-hitters (one by Bob Gibson in 1971, another by Bob Forsch in 1978). He led National League catchers in assists twice (granted, opposing base runners were ready and willing to test him). Factor in the heat of St. Louis summers (magnified by the artificial turf of Busch Stadium at the time), and Simmons — donning those tools of ignorance day in, day out — battled elements in ways your average (or Hall of Fame) leftfielder did not.
I was introduced to Ted Simmons in 1978, when I opened a pack of baseball cards to find him smiling at me, kneeling in his catcher's gear (minus the mask). He may as well have had Superman’s logo on his chest protector. Later that summer, my dad bought me a slurpee at a nearby convenience store. The plastic cup had Simmons’ face on it. It was just as good as a Batman mug. Simmons and Roger Staubach were my first sports heroes. Staubach has been a Hall of Famer for 25 years now. Here’s hoping in a few days Simmons gets his due from baseball’s hallowed shrine.