Ted Simmons’ journey to Cooperstown was not without some surprising twists and turns along the way.
But on Thursday, Simmons sat in the Hall of Fame’s renowned Plaque Gallery -- amazed and honored -- as he was surrounded by the other members of the national pastime’s most exclusive club.
“[Al] Kaline’s right over there, [Mickey] Mantle’s right over there. These people are part of my DNA,” said Simmons, sitting in a director’s chair and pointing at the game’s legends before a media contingent, referring to both his childhood hero and fellow switch-hitter. “This place is … [Ty] Cobb … [Lou] Gehrig … [Willie] Stargell … [Tom] Seaver. It really is overwhelming. You feel incredible being a part of this.”
Simmons spoke moments after autographing the spot where his Hall of Fame plaque will reside following the July 26 induction ceremony. It was around this time that he was able to check out the plaques belonging to teammates such as Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Rollie Fingers, Steve Carlton, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Joe Torre.
“You’re asking yourself every five seconds, 'What on Earth makes you feel as though you belong in this place?' Thank God there were other people who were responsible for that,” Simmons said.
“I’m asked if I feel like I belong here. I don’t see how anybody can come in here, with the names and faces that this place is filled with, and feel like they belong in here. I was lucky that I was able to play a long time, didn’t get hurt and did some things. But what I did is dwarfed by comparison to what this place is filled with.”
The longtime catcher played on three teams, but his fourth is a Cooperstown squad that is decidedly star-studded.
Simmons, who played 21 seasons with the Cardinals, Brewers and Braves, made his first trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum since his election -- along with pioneering labor leader Marvin Miller -- by the Modern Baseball Era Committee in December.
The orientation visit, in which he was accompanied by his wife Maryanne, is afforded to all recent electees in order to prepare for the upcoming induction ceremony.
Surprisingly, Simmons lasted only one year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, receiving 3.7 percent in 1994. He is the first Hall of Famer to earn election after falling off the BBWAA ballot after just one appearance.
Simmons and Miller, along with BBWAA electees Derek Jeter and Larry Walker, will be inducted during a Hall of Fame ceremony on Sunday, July 26.
Simmons explained that despite the length of time if took for his eventual Hall of Fame election, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s a reason, specifically, that I feel that way. It’s because over my lifetime and my career in baseball, many of the people in here only had a career as an active player. I, in theory, could have gone in here five years after my playing career was over,” he said. “But in the context of my post-playing life, it has exposed me to so much more and so many other people that I have grown to know professionally and love individually. It’s now given me a whole reservoir of others, due to that length of time that it’s taken for me to eventually get here.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t trade a thing. If somehow Miss Clark [Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark] could say, ‘We’ll take you back and we’ll redo everything,’ I genuinely would not opt for that opportunity because so much more has happened and so many more people have been included. I’ve heard from them all and they’ve made this a real joy. I wouldn’t change anything.”
A sturdy backstop with an imposing wallop, Simmons was a unicorn on a baseball diamond as the rare switch-hitting catcher who could hit for average and power. During a 21-year career -- the first 13 spent with the Cardinals before stints with the Brewers and Braves -- Simmons compiled a .285 batting average, 483 doubles, 248 home runs and 1,389 RBIs.
An eight-time All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner, his 1,771 games caught at the time of his retirement ranked eighth all time. With a batting eye that prevented him from striking out more than 57 times in any season, he collected at least 90 RBIs eight times and batted at least .300 on seven occasions. Among big leaguers who played at least 50 percent of their games as a catcher, Simmons ranks second all time in hits, doubles and RBIs.
Simmons began the morning of his tour with a two-hour walk through the museum, taking in the game’s long history over three floors.
“I’m looking very much forward to this,” Simmons said of the July 24-27 induction weekend. “It’s going to be extraordinary. I can’t wait.”
As for his induction speech, to be delivered in front of a live television audience, Simmons admitted to working on it, but jokingly said he was not willing to share any details yet.
Simmons has another big event approaching in the coming months, as he and his wife will be celebrating their milestone 50th anniversary in May.
“You talk about a good year,” he said. “Lots to celebrate.”
The tour of the Museum, guided by Hall of Fame vice president of exhibitions and collections Erik Strohl, saw an inquisitive Simmons asking questions and sharing stories from his fabled career.
When told protective equipment wasn’t used for parts of the 19th century game, he said, “I’m glad I caught when I did.”
After seeing the baseball shoes of Hall of Famer Kiki Cuyler, a star in the 1920s and ‘30s, Simmons said: “I played when they looked like these.” And when checking out an exhibit that referenced George Sisler’s then-record 257 hits in '20, Simmons recalled Cards teammate Joe Torre’s 230 hits in 1971.
Often seeing references to the Cardinals, Simmons remains amazed he was only 19 when he made his big league debut with the franchise in 1968 and caught legends like Gibson and Carlton.
“I was too young to be doing what I was being asked to do,” Simmons recalled. “I had to learn really quick. I knew I had to buckle up.”
Whether it was sharing stories of interacting with Hall of Famers Joe Medwick and Warren Spahn in his early professional days or recalling his longstanding friendship with former teammate Bruce Sutter, the walk through the Museum was also a trip though Simmons’ baseball life.
“It’s been an incredible walk. It’s the kind of thing you should take three days to do. The historical artifacts alone are overwhelming,” Simmons said. “And it’s also nice to put Gehrig’s bat in your hand, and Babe Ruth’s, and the others. What I saw in two hours is like a blink in terms of what they can show you here. It’s a real joy to take a trip through this place.”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.