Henning: Southfield product Ted Simmons has always been more than a baseball player

Detroit News

On a March day in 1981, at a baseball clubhouse in Sun City, Arizona, a young sports writer approached a player he needed to speak with for a Detroit News story.

Moreover, this was a man the scribe wanted to talk with because he knew from all testimony that Ted Simmons was a definitively interesting person — an eclectic gent of endless facets.

Simmons was from the Detroit area, born in Highland Park, raised in Southfield, and for 13 seasons had been a distinguished catcher for the Cardinals and now for the Brewers.

So, we talked some essential baseball and some authentic Detroit before another question was asked, one that to the writer was more than intriguing:

How did he develop his interest in antiques?

Simmons, who is serious without being officious or abrasive, said he would not discuss antiques.

“It’s not that the question is wrong, or that you asked it in a wrong way,” he said, politely, “but that’s not a subject I’m willing to talk about.”

There was one moment’s window into the extraordinary player and even more fascinating man who is Ted Simmons.

Serious about baseball. Earnest and studied about life. Public to a point he finds permissible and even celebratory. Private in a manner that satisfies Simmons’ convictions and comportment.

More: Henning: Hall of Famer Derek Jeter’s greatness shined early in Kalamazoo

Second chance at Hall

On Wednesday, he will watch as his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque is uncovered before it finds a permanent home in professional baseball’s shrine at Cooperstown, New York.

He is 72 years old. He has been retired since 1988. Somewhat in the manner of Tigers wizard Lou Whitaker, Simmons missed in his first crack (1993) on the Hall of Fame writers’ ballot, which requires getting at least 5% of the vote to remain a following-year candidate.

Simmons instead won in December of 2019 when the Modern Era Committee, which is designed to consider earlier oversights, voted him into the Hall, as well as game-changing labor head, Marvin Miller. It was not missed by Tigers fans that Whitaker failed to persuade the same 2019 committee that he, too, belonged.

Simmons was asked about all of this last week, during a Zoom interview with baseball media. He was speaking from his home, in what appeared to be his office quarters, and was wearing a blue shirt with light gray pinstripes.

His hair, bespeaking a man who long ago was nicknamed “Simba,” retains that celebrated elegance if not some of that former length. It was thick, brown in color, and tinged with a touch of silver.

He spoke last week in a fluent, deliberate fashion people long have known as being particular to Simmons. Cerebral minus any tinge of pomposity or stuffiness, he spoke with a formal, conversational grace — and cordiality.

“You know, they’ve always said, the Hall of Fame is a very difficult place to get into,” said Simmons, a switch-batter who during his 21 big-league years had 2,472 hits, 248 home runs, with a .348 on-base percentage and .785 OPS. He had a career WAR of 50.3. “Guys have always been on the cusp.

“So, one on one was fairly Draconian,” he said, later amending his words to “one and done” in explaining his single shot on the writers’ ballot. “And I think people eventually wanted to recognize that and rectify that. And luckily for me, and gratefully from me, they did alter and change things.

“One on one was rough,” he said, again, before agreeing that “one and done” was the better verbiage.

Simmons’ roots are deeper than Highland Park, more extensive than Southfield and Southfield High, where he played before the Cardinals drafted him in the first round in 1967, signing him for a then-handsome sum of $50,000.

Had he decided against signing then, Simmons was headed to the University of Michigan and to what would have been a baseball tenure under then-coach Moby Benedict.

He did not play for Michigan. But he did enroll there, taking classes later in ’67, and again in Ann Arbor after the Cardinals called him to the big-league club in 1968, a month before the Tigers beat the Cardinals in that autumn’s World Series.

Baseball, life intersect

Simmons’ distinctions are not concisely summarized. Attending classes at UM while playing for the Cardinals was a feat few would have imagined, let alone achieved, in the pre-internet era. But he did it, and then continued his studies during offseasons and at other times through the year, even as he began work as a big-league scout, which later gave way to him becoming Pittsburgh Pirates general manager in 1992. He graduated in 1996 with a degree in sports management and communication.

He also balanced another commitment, all at a time of chaos, destruction, and what would become gradual, grinding renewal that still is being carried out in Detroit — on the edge of the suburb in which he spent most of his youth, Southfield.

More: Ted Simmons humbled by Hall-of-Fame election, even after all these years

The summer he joined the Cardinals, days after graduating from Southfield High, was the summer of the Detroit riot that at the time was the worst urban tumult in American history.

It happened that another American trial also was being experienced and, in many corners, decried: the Vietnam War.

Simmons was at a point where baseball, college, and the potential to be drafted all intersected. He signed on with the Army Reserve, a six-year service commitment.

That, too, he juggled, all as he became aware, during the summer of ’67 and during a Single-A stint at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that what stood as his at-large hometown was being ravaged by flames and bullets.

Simmons knew Detroit. Knew its star baseball players, including a home-run hitter for the Tigers named Willie Horton, who preceded Simmons’ sandlot days by only a few years. He knew very well another Detroit Northwestern star named John Mayberry.

He knew these streets and neighborhoods that were now the scenes of apocalyptic strife.

He was, in a human manner, as devastated as was a city that, in so many places, became a symbol of America’s plight and shame.

“What everyone knew in the Detroit area in 1967-68, on top of Vietnam and everything else that was raging at the time — people knew that the city of Detroit was in stress,” Simmons said last week, recalling not only his memories, but his experiences in the 1960s when de facto segregation in housing, and a disproportionately White police force overseeing a largely Black city, helped dry the tinder for what would be an urban conflagration.

“The place was in a volatile state, complicated, as I say, by Vietnam, where, you know, the Black male was headed to one place — Fort Lewis — and then Vietnam. So, the place was in a lot of stress.”

Athletics had become not only his window into the harsh facts of daily life within inner Detroit. It enabled a teen from Southfield to see realities of the human condition, with athletics and their lessons part of a young man’s consciousness.

Any sense that he was a star, maybe the best player in Metro Detroit, met an abrupt re-set when he played against the likes of Mayberry, who, like Horton, was a Detroit Northwestern star. Mayberry hit 255 home runs during a 15-year big-league career that stretched from 1968-82.

“I considered myself lucky,” Simmons said last week, “because I came face-to-face with racial reality, real quick. It’s what impacted any kid in that area, in that volatile time, with so many stresses affecting people.”

He played on for 21 big-league seasons, with three teams, hitting more than .300 seven times, taking turns at first base, third base, and left field, and also at designated hitter when he wasn’t catching in 1,771 games.

Why wasn’t he a more serious Hall of Fame contestant from the get-go?

Probably for the same reason Whitaker has never gotten his due. The pre-cable TV, pre-internet era made it tough for Midwest players to get exposure and appreciation that seep into Hall of Fame conversation.

Numbers-crunching, aided by the internet’s ability to throw bright light on careers, became Simmons’ ally as the oversight committees have convened to do justice to baseball’s side-stepped stars.

Today, he gets his plaque. Today, people will hear his speech.

Listen to words that will explain why this man, this Hall of Famer, is so much more than baseball.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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