Simba in Winter: Celebrating Ted Simmons’ career, birthday

Ted Simmons turns 69 today. He should have been celebrating two weeks ago in Cooperstown, joining the inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There isn’t a full-time catcher with more hits than Simba (2472) not named Ivan Rodriguez (2844). Not Yogi Berra, not Johnny Bench. His 50.3 WAR is low but, amongst Hall of Fame catchers, places him in the good company of Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane and Buck Ewing. (Thurman Munson, by the way, is right there in this conversation as well. Another matter for another day.)

While Simmons’ best years were in St. Louis, he remains beloved in Milwaukee, where his leadership on the field was an intangible asset on the Brewers’ 1982 championship push in which they lost, incidentally, to the Cardinals. (The Cards’ backstop was former Brewer Darrell Porter. Porter raked that October. Simmons didn’t. If Simmons hit his weight that October, and with Rollie Fingers healthy, Milwaukee may well have had its second world championship and that much less of an inferiority complex.)

Despite being overshadowed by Bench in the National League in the 1970s, Simmons was an eight-time All-Star and even managed a Silver Slugger in 1980 before Gary Carter became the preeminent 80s National League backstop. Sandwiched in the NL, then in the AL, where he was obscured by Carlton Fisk, Bob Boone and Jim Sundberg, Simmons was overlooked when it came to Hall of Fame voting, only moving the needle to a meager 3.9% in 1994.

The attempt to right the wrong fell one vote short last December, as the 16-member Modern Era committee only yielded 11 tallies for Simba.

Let’s be clear about two things: first, the familiar refrain is that All-Star voters generally don’t know what they’re doing. Whether it’s viral campaigns or the dilution of the vote by allowing scores of ballots per voter, All-Stars are the product of marketing and popularity. The process is skewed to the larger markets and bigger names.

The main Hall of Fame voting bloc, that is, tenured writers with the Base-Ball Writers Association of America, generally has operated along similar lines. (It took a village of sabermetricians, and the revocation of voting rights from those who abused their privilege by omission, to get Tim Raines elected.) The old Veterans Committee voted in their buddies–sometimes justifiably, sometimes not so much–to the point that the Hall had to reform the alternate election process in 2010. The reforms have helped some, but for others like Ted Simmons, the changes may have come too late.

The credentials for induction are there, just not in the sexy counting stats: Simba was one of the most widely-respected catchers of his generation and ended his career with the most hits and doubles of any catcher with seven seasons over .300 and a career .285 average. What he lacked in arm he made up for in strategy, having a reputation for being one of the smartest game-callers of all time. Simmons also, to his defensive credit, caught three different Cy Young Award winners: Pete Vuckovich, Rollie Fingers and Don Sutton. (We could tally Bruce Sutter as well, but neither Simmons nor Sutter really did much for the 1986 Braves.) He was in the top-20 for MVP voting seven times. Moreover, he was in no small part the offensive catching prototype for Pudge Rodriguez, who happened to also have superior baserunning and a Tomahawk missile launcher for an arm.

Further, and secondly, with severe underrepresentation of the position in the Hall, a reevaluation of players who have been left out is desperately needed. In this respect, the reforms toward era-specific committees are welcomed, as they corrected leaving out Joe Gordon and a host of Negro Leaguers, as well as 2018 inductees Alan Trammell and Jack Morris.

There are only 18 catchers in the Hall of Fame, we’re not talking about trivializing the Hall by adding in someone like Mickey Tettleton. There have to be great players that have been overlooked entirely by an institutionally-biased process that celebrates both power positions and personal favorites. The Hall is only as good as the players in it, but what happens when there are 79 pitchers against 18 catchers, and catchers are often instrumental in the success of their batterymates?

No one is going to argue that Ted Simmons is Al Simmons or Ted Williams. Neither Al nor Ted caught, thus the standards have to necessarily shift. To do what the latter two did during their Hall of Fame careers was remarkable. To do what Simmons did, too, warrants a welcome to immortality. Much like the defenseman in hockey or the interior lineman in football, the catcher deserves more credit than he gets. Taking a plain look at Cooperstown, the case makes itself: we’ve neglected the catcher.

Happy birthday, Simba. May your career finally earn the plaque it deserves.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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