Simmons' 'excruciating' wait ends with Hall call

December 10th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- Early in his 21-year Major League career, played for the St. Louis Cardinals, was a full-time college student at the University of Michigan and served in the Army Reserve -- all at the same time.

He rose to the big leagues for a brief stint in 1968 at 18 years of age and was there for good by the time he was 20. It wasn’t until Simmons was 44, when heart trouble forced a pause in his long career as a player, coach, scout, farm director and general manager, that he completed his degree in Ann Arbor.

“I have a thing about finishing what I started,” Simmons said. “Someone said, ‘It’s been 20 years!’ I told them, ‘Well, I’ve been busy.’”

This week, Simmons found closure to another decades-long quest. Twenty-five years after his first and only appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, he has attained baseball’s highest honor with election to Cooperstown via the Hall’s Modern Baseball Era Committee. The release of anxiety after getting the phone call on Monday evening, Simmons said, “was like Niagara Falls.”

“I was one and done a long time ago, and at that time, I pretty much thought my candidacy was over,” he said. “Then things changed and evolved, and I was brought back to life, so to speak. [On Monday], I finally made that final leap. I can only tell you how excited that has made me feel.

“Everything that’s in the past is all part of it. It’s all a good part of it. It was supposed to happen just like this, and I couldn’t be happier. I wouldn’t change one thing.”

The switch-hitting Simmons was an offensive force, compiling a .285/.348/.437 slash line with 248 career home runs for the Cardinals, Brewers and Braves. He made eight All-Star teams, and at the time of his retirement, Simmons led all catchers in career hits (2,472) and doubles (483). He also happened to play in an era alongside Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, and , which helps explain how he garnered only 3.7 percent of the vote in his lone year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot in 1994. The introduction of the Hall’s Modern Baseball Era committee offered another path, but in 2017 Simmons missed induction by one vote.

Now he’s in, thanks to the 16-member committee, including former Brewers teammate , that took a fresh look at Simmons’ body of work, which looks better today with the benefit of such advanced metrics as wins above replacement. Again on Tuesday, Simmons thanked the sabermetric community, “who really revived my candidacy,” he said.

That Simmons had to wait “was a travesty, really,” said Pete Vuckovich, another former teammate from Milwaukee. “I can’t tell you how many times I prayed for him for this to happen. … He’s been hoping for years. He knows he belonged there. He belonged, in my mind, and in the mind of anyone who played with him or against him."

Like so many baseball stories, Simmons’ begins with older brothers. He had two: Jim, who was 14 years older, and Ned, seven years older. They took significant interest in Teddy’s athletic ability and encouraged him from a very young age to embrace his ambidexterity. At 9 years old, Simmons was switch-hitting in Little League games in the Detroit suburbs. At age 13, at his brothers’ urging, he was playing American Legion ball against 19-year-olds.

By high school, Simmons was a serious prospect in baseball as a catcher -- “My brothers could see my best path to the big leagues was [as] a catcher,” he said -- and football as a blocking back. The University of Michigan offered him a scholarship to play both sports, and had Simmons not been drafted by the Cardinals in the first round in 1967, that may have been his path.

As it turned out, Simmons did go to college. The Cardinals included money for college tuition in his contract. Simmons, who even then was extremely thoughtful and curious, took advantage of that. The Cardinals let him miss all of Spring Training so he could begin his education.

They were wise to be flexible. In 1971, Simmons’ first full season, he hit .304 as a 21-year-old. He posted a .298/.366/.459 slash line in 13 years in St. Louis before going to Milwaukee with pitchers and Vuckovich in a blockbuster trade at the 1980 Winter Meetings that provided the final pieces to the only pennant winner in Brewers history to date. Simmons made two All-Star Game appearances during his five years in a Milwaukee uniform and helped the Brewers push the Cardinals to Game 7 of the 1982 World Series. Then he finished his playing career with the Braves, for whom he works as a scout today.

The rise of analytics coincided with Simmons’ momentum toward the Hall of Fame. Simmons’ 50.3 career WAR, per Baseball Reference, makes him one of just nine catchers with 50 or more. The other eight -- Bench, Carter, , Fisk, , , and -- are already in Cooperstown.

Simmons will join them in July in upstate New York.

“I can only tell you, when you wait it out, it’s just plain excruciating until the call comes,” Simmons said. “It’s just painful. You keep saying to yourself, ‘Well, I can’t really want this that bad. I just can’t, can I?’ You keep asking that question, and you know what? Yes, I can want it that bad.

“Waiting it out is horrible, but when it comes, it’s Niagara Falls. The weight is lifted. It’s complete and total relief.”