The Cardinals and the Counterculture Catcher

Ted Simmons

Ted Simmons

Should the St. Louis Cardinals catcher of the 1970s, Ted Simmons, be in the Hall of Fame?I think it would be great, but it won’t happen unless the Veteran’s Committee acts. “Simba,” as Simmons liked being called, became an all-star catcher soon after he took over as the Cardinals starter in 1970. A true product of the 1960s counterculture, Simmons featured long locks and a stridently leftist political philosophy. He often played hurt and always played hard.

Only average defensively, Simmons wreaked havoc on pitchers. Seven times he batted above .300, six times reached twenty homers, and eight times exceeded ninety RBIs. He switch-hit home runs in a game three times and established the National League career record for home runs by a switch-hitter (182). Although not a threat to steal, Simmons had enough speed to amass 477 doubles.

Simmons had just turned nineteen when he played his first games for the Cardinals in 1968. He went on to play in the major leagues for twenty-one seasons and thereafter entered a front office career.

As Simmons made his way through the minor leagues in the latter 1960s he continued to take classes at the University of Michigan, and his experience in Ann Arbor had a catalytic influence on the rest of his life. The University of Michigan campus was one of the nation’s most radical, with the leftist Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) founded and based there. They  were against the war in Vietnam, in favor of civil rights for African Americans, and in opposition to the status quo in the America of President Richard Nixon.

Most important, and this disturbed the button-down corporate nature of the Cardinals, Simmons flaunted his individuality from the time of his appearance in St. Louis until his departure. He became a rebel in shinguards. Most of Simmons’ teammates enjoyed what they thought of as his extravagant flakiness. Joe Torre called him “a flower child” with a broad grin.

Almost immediately, Simmons ran afoul of the Cardinals over his contract. After batting .304 in 1971 and emerging as a star for the Cardinals—but still making only $14,000 for the season—Simmons wanted a big raise in 1972. He did not make enough as a major leaguer to buy a house for his family and had to live with his wife’s parents during the off season. Simmons believed he deserved $30,000 in 1972, but General Manager Bing Devine offered him a contract for the next season that was in the low twenties. He refused to give Simmons a big contract too soon for fear of raising the mark for future negotiations.

When Simmons could not reach a contract price with the Cardinals, he met with Marvin Miller of the Major League Players Association to discuss options. Simmons decided to challenge the reserve clause by playing without a contract in 1972 and announcing his intention of becoming a free agent in 1973. He became the first major league player to work without a valid contract when the 1972 season began.

As the season progressed and Simmons had a banner year behind the plate while playing without a contract, the owners got worried. Major League general counsel John Gaherin told Bing Devine, “Get a hold of this. We don’t want to test it [the reserve clause]. Sign him. Don’t let him go through this year without a contract.” August Busch put incredible pressure on Simmons to sign. One night he cornered Simmons in Red Schoendienst’s office before a game and lectured him on duty, responsibility, and loyalty before offering him a contract in the high twenties. Simmons countered with a lecture of his own on duty, responsibility, and loyalty and suggested that Busch should have some toward his players, before telling the owner what he could do with his new offer.

Simmons refused to budge in his demand for $30,000, and as the season wore into late June his well-publicized campaign gained adherents. He helped his cause by excellent play on the field. Many fans publicly announced that Simmons deserved his $30,000, and that Busch should give it to him. When he gained an invitation to the All-Star game in July, the dispute reached a new level. Gaherin asserted that major league baseball had to settle this problem with Simmons, that a test of the reserve clause would only bring defeat to the owners and thereby allow players to move at will. “Fellas, this is the twentieth century,” Gaherin explained. “You can’t get anybody, drunk or sober, to agree that once a fella goes to work for the A&P [store], he has to work for the A&P the rest of his life.”

simmonsThe confrontation reached a climax the morning of the All-Star game in Atlanta. While preparing for the game, Simmons received a phone call from Bing Devine who asked to meet with him about the contract dispute. When they met Devine offer him a two-year deal too good to pass up: $30,000 for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973. Before agreeing Simmons went back to his room and called his wife, “Maryanne…here’s what’s happened. I’ve got to do this.” He signed the contract on August 9, 1972. The Cardinals bought off a young and hungry player who needed the money to support his family. Seemingly, Miller and Simmons both recognized, the major league owners would do almost anything to prevent a test of the reserve clause.

Simmons did not regret making the decision to sign this contract. It was the largest salary he had ever known, although he would later make more money per season than any other catcher, except Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench and Boston’s Carlton Fisk.

Like a lot of Cardinals players who had their own perspective on the world, however, manager Whitey Herzog sent him to the Milwaukee Brewers for the 1981 season. The clubhouse was not big enough for both of them. There Simmons helped the Brewers win the second-half American League East title in the strike-split season and hit a crucial two-run homer in game three of the division playoff as the Brewers staved off elimination. In 1982 he led Milwaukee all the way to the World Series.

Simmons closed out his career during 1986-1988 as a member of the Braves’ self-dubbed “Bomb Squad” of utility specialists, playing first base, catcher, and third base, and serving as a valued pinch hitter. In October 1988, Simmons became director of player development for St. Louis.

So what about the Hall of Fame? With the entry of Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez into the Hall, why not Simba?

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