Ted Simmons’ upcoming induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame has robust support from the record book. He has the most hits in Major League history among switch-hitting catchers. His career OPS+ is higher than that of fellow Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, and Iván Rodríguez.
But to fully measure Simmons’ legacy requires a different sort of story, one that unfolded subtly over the 15,000-plus innings he caught for the Cardinals, Brewers, and Braves.
While plenty of statistics classify Simmons as an all-time great, his peers rarely allude to them. Instead, they speak about his passion, his intellect, and his unwavering focus. He never coasted through a ballgame. And by all accounts, he’s riding a lifelong streak of 72 years without a perfunctory conversation.
“He got the most out of his ability because of his mental approach,” said Bill Schroeder, a teammate in Milwaukee during the early 1980s. “He out-thought everyone.”
Simmons is a scholar of baseball, art, history — and life. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in 1996, nearly three decades after attending his first college class. He completed his coursework in Ann Arbor on trips to Detroit while scouting for the Cleveland Indians, because, as he said, there are certain things in life that a person is supposed to finish.
And he is willing to share his wisdom, provided the interlocutor is prepared with the right questions.
“You’d better be thinking it out for yourself,” Simmons told me earlier this year. “If you’re not taking this game real seriously and examining everything you see — incorporating it into some form, like an essay, a notebook, or a booklet — then you’re never going to understand baseball the way a professional should.
“If someone who is really serious about the game asks you a thoughtful question, I’m inclined to say, ‘Come here and sit down, and I’ll tell about what you’re seeing.’ If they have thought about the game, you can help to illuminate it for them.
“What I tell people, in the simplest form, is this: Anytime you see something happen on the field that strikes you as unusual, go there. Tear that situation apart, inside-out, upside-down and backwards. There’s going to be insight in there.”
To think deeply while playing freely is baseball’s essential riddle. Over 21 Major League seasons, Simmons came closer to solving it than most mortals have, before or since. He found a way for painstaking contemplation to enhance, rather than compromise, his natural athleticism.
And he did it all with magnetism that was evident while growing up in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich. His older brothers encouraged him to switch-hit. His mother, Bonnie Sue Webb-Simmons, modeled the determined work ethic that became the backbone of Ted’s career. He drew attention as a Big Ten football recruit while starring for the A&B Brokers amateur baseball team.
Oh, and have you heard the story about the time Ted and his wife, Maryanne Ellison Simmons, hitchhiked in Michigan with an aspiring rock star named Bob Seger?
Sources confirm: It’s true.
Simmons’ long, flowing hair earned him a memorable nickname: Simba. He planned to play baseball at the University of Michigan, until the St. Louis Cardinals selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 1967 Draft. He was 17 when he signed his first professional contract.
One year later, the Cardinals met his hometown Tigers in the World Series. The Cardinals arranged for Ted and Maryanne — then his girlfriend, now his wife of 51 years — to attend the games at Tiger Stadium. More than a half-century later, Simmons remembers the “horrible” internal conflict he felt. The Tigers were his boyhood team. Al Kaline was his favorite player. But now he was a professional. Baseball remained the game he loved — but now it was his livelihood, too.
“I was sitting in the upper deck, watching the game with all of the Cardinals’ front-office people,” Simmons recalled. “They knew I was from Detroit. I’d played that season in Modesto. At one point, Al Kaline got a big base hit to put the Tigers ahead. I did everything I could to prevent myself from cheering along with the rest of the crowd. I realized quickly enough where I was sitting and who was responsible for my tickets. I kept in my seat.”
Simmons spent 14 years in the Cardinals organization, absorbing the traditions and teachings of St. Louis baseball oracle George Kissell. Simmons made six All-Star appearances by the time he was dealt to Milwaukee after the 1980 season. He earned two more selections as a Brewer.
At first, Brewers players weren’t sure how to approach their new, serious-minded teammate. Simmons would read books in the clubhouse. He also enjoyed playing bridge, which evolved into a point of connection — and instruction — for his teammates.