Simmons' HOF speech long time in making

September 8th, 2021

Once a Hall of Fame inductee beats the extraordinary odds to earn a place in Cooperstown, the next daunting task awaits.

The speech.

For Ted Simmons, Wednesday’s induction ceremony would appear to present a unique challenge -- and not because of any reticence to speak before a large crowd. On the contrary, Simmons is one of the most eloquent and detailed orators in recent baseball memory.

Plus, Simmons has had plenty of time to take measure of his baseball career. He retired after the 1988 season and he lasted only one year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, failing to reach the 5% threshold in 1994. A quarter-century later, the Veterans Committee rightly recognized the former Cardinals, Brewers, and Braves catcher as an all-time great -- only to have his day in Cooperstown delayed nearly 14 months by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thus, after so much reflection, the question is not what Simmons wants to say, but rather what is necessary to leave out due to time constraints.

But if you assume Simmons is agonizing over what still must be trimmed from the script, you’d be mistaken.

“I don’t think it was difficult at all,” Simmons said Thursday, less than one week before he officially joins the Class of 2020 at the Clark Sports Center. “After I was elected, I said, ‘I’m not going to let this sit out there and angst over this for the next however long. I’m going to get right after it.’”

With the Hall of Fame’s guidance of eight to 12 minutes for his speech, Simmons said he’s been able to condense his thoughts “into the most essential things” he feels compelled to say.

“I’m glad I’m reading it, because I don’t trust myself with that kind of memory -- especially at my age,” said Simmons, 72. “I’ve got it to the point now where I shouldn’t mess this up. I feel confident that I’m going to be able to do this thing right, and it’s at a place where I don’t feel like I’m going to be putting people to sleep.

“I’ve got a few things I want to say. I’m going to get them out there. It should be over and done, so that people won’t end up staring back at me with giant yawns. I don’t want that to happen. Matter of fact, I won’t make that happen.”

There’s little worry about that.

Simmons, a connoisseur of contemporary art, can be described in any number of ways. Boring is not one of them.

Consider, for example, Simmons’ answer on Thursday to a question from longtime Detroit News reporter Lynn Henning about the Detroit riot of 1967, the year Simmons graduated from nearby Southfield (Mich.) High School.

“People in Detroit knew and understood that the City of Detroit was in stress,” Simmons replied. “The Black community there was having difficulty with housing. They were having difficulty with their interactions with the police. The place was in a volatile state, complicated by Vietnam -- where the Black male in the Detroit community was headed to one place: Fort Lewis, and then Vietnam.

“If you were an athlete in the Detroit area at that point in time, you almost had an insight or an advantage, because as an athlete, you were in a position to interact with minorities. You had to come face to face with that reality. You may have thought out in Northwest Detroit that you were the best athlete out there, and everybody ought to come and have a look at you. Then you’d go and play in the inner city of Detroit in the summertime, and you’d see athletes like John Mayberry and Willie Horton, and you’d say, ‘You know, maybe I’m not the best thing that ever came out of the Detroit metropolitan area.’”

In a competitive environment, at a complex time, Simmons stood out on the field. The Cardinals selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 1967 MLB Draft. He debuted with St. Louis one year later at the age of 19.

In 1970, the year Simmons established himself in the Cardinals’ lineup, he caught Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. In Simmons’ final Major League season, with the 1988 Braves, he was behind the plate for two future Hall of Famers just beginning their ascent: Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

“I was so very lucky,” Simmons said. “I also caught [Hall of Famer Don] Sutton, when he came to help in Milwaukee in ’82. The thing that’s noteworthy about these types is that they literally stand out so dramatically from the others. They do it in various ways. Certainly, Gibson did it one way. Glavine did it in another.

“The one keynote about all of them is their skillset is just superior. When you’re a catcher like I was for all those years, and catch people like that, and see how dramatic the falloff is -- even at the Major League level -- people really have no idea how special those pitchers really are when they’re at their peak.”

Simmons’ teammates often speak of him in the same context. After all, among all players to catch at least 1,700 games since World War II, he ranks second only to Johnny Bench in OPS+.

Left-hander Jerry Augustine spent 10 seasons pitching for the Brewers in his native Wisconsin; Simmons was there for five of them. Sutton, who played alongside Simmons and Augustine from 1982-84, loved Milwaukee so much that he was fond of saying every Major Leaguer should have the experience of playing there.

“The way I look at Ted Simmons is that every player in the big leagues should have the opportunity to play with Ted Simmons,” Augustine said in an interview earlier this year. “When he walks into the clubhouse, his stature is not that big, but he’s one of those guys who has an air about him. He’s a leader. He’s so confident. He’s all about the team. ... He made us understand that all 25 guys, along with the coaches, needed to do something special that day in order for us to win. He was always willing to educate you about the game.

“Honestly, it was pretty special to be around him.”

After his final season playing in Atlanta, Simmons spent most of the next three decades as a baseball executive and scout. While his last year working in a baseball front office was with the Braves in 2019, echoes of his influence continue to reverberate throughout the Majors.

Augustine and Bill Schroeder, Milwaukee teammates who learned so much from Simmons in those clubhouse conversations, work as analysts on Brewers telecasts with Bally Sports Wisconsin. Schroeder will reference on the air that 2-1 is a good running count for a skilled basestealer, since a pitchout -- which would move the count to 3-1 -- is unlikely.

That insight came from Simmons.

Augustine still remembers the one pregame conversation when Simmons told him, “Augie, no signs today.”

No signs?

Simmons was serious: All fastballs. Two-seamers away. Four-seamers in. And it worked, all the way into the sixth inning.

Augustine trusted him, because Simmons has a reason for everything he does. And Augustine smiles when he sees one current division rival inspire the same sort of confidence.

“I watch Yadi now,” Augustine said, referencing Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. “When a pitcher makes a big pitch to get out of a jam, if [Adam] Wainwright gets through a tough inning, Yadi will look at the mound and give him a little nod. That reminds me so much of Ted Simmons. He’d give you that little look, that laugh, and always have something to say between innings.”

Decades later, the baseball world will hear what Ted Simmons has to say -- in a grand speech he earned the right to make.