Ted Simmons is probably the most surprising player on this year's Modern Era Committee Hall of Fame ballot, but not because he lacks a worthy resume. There's a good argument for him, but he is the only player on the ballot who got almost no support from the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
The other eight players on the Modern Era Committee ballot were all on the BBWAA ballot for the previous maximum of 15 years, and all received at least 20 percent of the vote at some point:
Dale Murphy, 15 years on ballot, 23.2 percent peak
Dave Parker, 15 years on ballot, 24.5 percent peak
Don Mattingly, 15 years on ballot, 28.2 percent peak
Luis Tiant, 15 years on ballot, 30.9 percent peak
Tommy John, 15 years on ballot, 31.7 percent peak
Alan Trammell, 15 years on ballot, 40.9 percent peak
Steve Garvey, 15 years on ballot, 42.6 percent peak
Jack Morris, 15 years on ballot, 67.7 percent peak
Simmons was only on the ballot for one year in 1994, and he got 17 votes -- one more than George Foster and two less than Pete Rose, who was not even eligible. The Modern Era Committee obviously feels that the BBWAA flat missed on Simmons, and it wants to give him a fair look this time. I think they are right to do that.
Until Ivan Rodriguez came along -- for the moment, let's look past Pudge, who was impossibly durable -- Simmons led all catchers in career hits and doubles. He was second in RBIs to Yogi Berra and second in total bases to Carlton Fisk. The only catchers who scored more runs than him were Berra, Fisk and Johnny Bench. Simmons was unquestionably one of the greatest-hitting catchers in baseball history. So when his Hall of Fame turn came up, why didn't anyone notice?
I have a couple of theories:
- Simmons' defensive reputation was not good.
- He happened to play in a golden era for catchers.
Simmons was a competitive guy from Michigan. He was the No. 10 pick in the 1967 Draft, and he got his first call to the big leagues when he was 18 years old. This should give you an idea of how competitive and confident he was: As a 21-year-old in '71, Simmons played his first full season. He hit .304 with 77 RBIs, received some National League Most Valuable Player Award votes and caught a Bob Gibson no-hitter.
And then, Simmons was so unhappy with the Cardinals' contract offer, he did what was unthinkable in those days, when teams had the rights to players in perpetuity: He became the first player to play without a contract. Three other Cards -- Bob Burda, Jerry Reuss and Steve Carlton -- all threatened to also do it. All three were traded away.
The Cardinals held on to Simmons, though. Had he made it to the end of the 1972 season without a contract, he could have been the test case the players' union wanted to blow up baseball's reserve clause. But free agency and breaking up baseball's system were not on his mind.
Simmons had bet on himself. And it worked. He was so good in 1972 -- he hit .303 with 96 RBIs, made the NL All-Star team and finished 10th in NL MVP Award voting -- that the Cards caved in and gave him a two-year deal for more than he had originally wanted.
Simmons played for the Cardinals for 13 seasons, and in those years, he hit .298/.366/.459, drove in 95-plus RBIs five times, made six All-Star teams and finished as high as sixth in the NL MVP Award voting.
But Simmons' time in St. Louis ended in an ugly way in 1980. The clash came over Simmons' defense, particularly his ability to throw out basestealers. In his prime, Simmons had a pretty effective arm. But by the late '70s, he was throwing out less than one-third of potential basestealers, and Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog wanted Simmons to move to first base.
Simmons wasn't interested in moving. And Herzog, in what seemed a fit of anger, traded Simmons to Milwaukee, along with Pete Vuckovich and Rollie Fingers. A columnist in St. Louis called the Cardinals' manager "Santa Herzog," and it did indeed turn out to be an insanely good deal for the Brewers. Fingers won both the American League Cy Young Award and the AL MVP Award in his first season in Milwaukee, while Vuckovich led the AL in wins in his first year and won the AL Cy Young Award in his second.
And Simmons still had something left with the bat. He drove in 97 runs for the 1982 Brewers team that won the AL pennant. The next year, he had a vintage Simmons season, hitting .308 with 39 doubles and 108 RBIs.
Simmons was never viewed as a great defender -- he led the NL in passed balls three times -- but his feud with Herzog probably left the impression that he was worse than the reality. Numerous pitchers have said they liked throwing to Simmons. He came to excel at blocking pitches in the dirt.
A couple of more recent studies suggest that Simmons was probably an average catcher when you put everything together. But that wasn't how he was viewed when he came on -- and quickly fell off -- the Hall of Fame ballot.
But the bigger factor, I think, is that Simmons played in the time of Bench, Fisk and Gary Carter. Timing is so important for the Hall of Fame. It took a decade for Tim Raines to get elected, in large part because he played in the time of Rickey Henderson.
Tiant was hurt because he played in an unprecedented time of 300-game winners. Fred McGriff hit 493 home runs, as many as Lou Gehrig -- and had his career come 10 years earlier, he would have retired 15th on the all-time list and would certainly be in the Hall of Fame now. Instead, because of the huge power surge in baseball, he is 28th on the list and cannot quite gather enough support.
Because of Bench, Fisk and Carter -- three of the greatest catchers in baseball history -- along with Thurman Munson for a time, Simmons was always viewed as more of a minor star. If his prime had been in the 1960s, for instance, he probably would have had a few years as the game's best catcher. In the '90s, he probably would have been thought of in the class of Mike Piazza.
Simmons was a serious man as a player. One year when he was named Missouri Sports Personality of the Year, he gave a sober and surprising speech about the responsibility of athletes to represent what's good about sports. Simmons believed in the power of sports to make a difference. He also got in some high-profile fights -- including with his old teammate John Denny -- when he felt like the game was being disrespected.
So what are Simmons' chances this year? I think it's great that he's on the ballot and his career is being reconsidered. Simmons would fall somewhere in the middle of Hall of Fame catchers; he probably had a better career than a half dozen catchers in Cooperstown, so he certainly has a case.
But there are a handful of other catchers -- Munson, Bill Freehan, Jorge Posada, among others -- who have similar Hall of Fame cases to Simmons. And with a Modern Era Committee ballot this loaded, I don't think that there will be enough votes for Simmons.