HE'S SOME PIECE OF WORK

Cardinals Catcher Ted Simmons is a collector of antiques and an art museum trustee. But none of his old treasures is as masterfully wrought as his game
June 04, 1978

The St. Louis Art Museum's new trustee had hit two doubles and a single off Pirate pitching that afternoon and now, dressed in khaki trousers, tennis shoes and a PROPERTY OF PHILADELPHIA EAGLES T shirt, he was ready to go home for dinner. "I wear the Eagle shirt because I like underdogs," Ted Simmons said. "Let everybody else wear Dallas Cowboy T shirts. The Eagles need all the help they can get." He slipped behind the wheel of his Dodge van and immediately apologized for its lack of pretension, for its being a Philadelphia Eagle, so to speak, of the automotive world. "You'll notice I don't drive a Rolls or anything like that. This is it, I'm afraid. If you collect antique furniture you need something big, and you sure can't afford a second car."

Simmons, the antique collector, the museum trustee, is also a .300-hitting catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, and he looks the part: 6 feet, 200 pounds, hooded blue eyes peering out from strands of unruly black hair, an almost truculent mien, the sort of try-me posture that supposedly sets successful professional athletes apart from the run of humankind. But earlier, in the clubhouse, he had been talking not of fastballs, high and tight, but about the courage of Thomas More. "Now that's what I call sticking with your convictions, no matter what the consequences," Simmons had said of More's fatal stand against the wishes of Henry VIII. And here in the van, on his way home to suburban Creve Coeur, he was authoritatively discussing the evolution of the fireplace in American households. "Early in the 18th century and before that, everything was done before the open-hearth fireplace. People cooked there, ate there, socialized there in its warmth. In the Middle Atlantic colonies the average temperature in those houses in winter was about 34°, so they had huge fireplaces, five to six feet high, 10 to 12 feet wide. The utensils they used were incredibly inventive. But during the latter part of the 18th century and in the Industrial Revolution, as technology advanced and people got more affluent, the fireplaces got smaller, less important. The tools got smaller and fewer. Some were no longer necessary. People's tastes changed. Craftsmanship became less important. The fireplace was no longer the center of activity. Separate rooms—kitchens—were used for cooking. That's why fireplace utensils from early-to-mid-18th century are so valuable and beautiful."

Simmons parked the van in front of a modest three-level town house in a quiet tree-shadowed neighborhood. He was greeted at the door by a slim, tanned young woman with fine facial bones. "My wife Maryanne," he said. The house is a modern structure, but inside it the Simmonses have re-created the 18th century. Their guest was invited to sit in any of five William and Mary chairs, made between 1710 and 1720, or on a Hepplewhite sofa, circa 1790. A Chippendale chest, circa 1770, held an assortment of pottery and cooking utensils used by the colonists. A candlestick dated to 1680, a set of pipe tongs to 1779, brass andirons to 1806. Simmons picked up a heavy heart-shaped metal object and invited a visitor to guess what it was. After some wild guesses, he announced that it was an 18th-century waffle iron.

The Simmonses are serious collectors, and as if to confirm this, Ted disparaged a chair next to the Hepplewhite. He identified it as a hybrid of two periods—a delicate William and Mary-type back surmounting heavy Queen Anne legs. He said that because of its bastard design the chair was not especially valuable.

It was Simmons' impressive knowledge of antiques that got him elected to the art museum's board of trustees in February, although the board certainly did not fail to take into account his potential as a fund raiser for an institution undergoing a $6.6 million renovation. "I had gotten to know some of the people on the board," Simmons said. "They knew that this was no passing thing with me; that I would get involved. It doesn't matter to them, and it doesn't matter to me that I'm a ballplayer." The trustees also duly noted Simmons' donation of $500 to the Decorative Art Society's Roland and Margaret Jester Endowment Fund. He had received that sum from the Missouri Athletic Club for being named the state's Sports Personality of the Year. His acceptance speech fairly stunned the 740 members and guests at the club's banquet on Feb. 6. The dinner usually turns out to be a roast, insult humor supplanting conventional oratory. Simmons cut the comedy with a sober talk that was accorded a standing ovation.

"There are a number of things I want to talk about tonight," he began. "I've been accused of being too serious before, but I think these things need to be said." Then he examined the role of athletics in society, deploring the emphasis on money, litigation, and internecine quarreling that have characterized sports in recent years. "All of this has detracted from the essential beauty of the games," he said. "Fans go to see their favorite teams, to compare them, dream about them.... These feelings about sports are in jeopardy. I want people to think about the good of the game...and what it offers. I grew up in Detroit. At nine years of age I played baseball, football, basketball, anything to keep me off the streets and out of trouble, though it didn't always work. By 17 I received a bonus contract with the Cardinals, which allowed me to attend the University of Michigan and Wayne State in the off-season. Without athletics, I couldn't have accomplished my education.... I don't know what would have become of me.... What I've gained through sports, I don't want to lose...."

"My timing at that dinner was right," Simmons said, sitting cross-legged on the floor. "The other speakers were jocular and off-the-cuff. Then I hit 'em with something serious. I think it was a good thing to do because I'm serious about the image the athlete now has. I want to change the stereotype of the athlete as an imbecilic, money-grubbing muscle machine. People don't appreciate the innate intelligence required of a good athlete. I hate that term 'dumb jock.' I've never met a really dumb good athlete, although I do recall an All-America football player getting up in a class at Michigan to ask what the CIA happened to be.

"It doesn't help our reputations much when people turn on their TV and find one of us up there making an idiot of himself on a commercial. I mean the kind of commercials in which some half-naked athlete is up there singing and holding a can of deodorant under his arm. The worst of it is, the ones who are doing it the most are the ones who need it the least. There's nothing wrong with an athlete being used to sell a product. The one in which Carlton Fisk endorses snuff is O.K., but how'd you like to be Larry Csonka doing that deodorant number? If an athlete is going to do this kind of thing, he ought to exercise a little discretion, preserve his dignity. I remember some time ago I turned on the set and there was Jimmy Connors, singing some ridiculous song. He was terrible, of course, and when it was over, he threw his arms up in a kind of triumphant gesture. The half-moons of sweat on his shirt reached almost to his waist. I said to myself, 'Oh man, why are you doing this? What kind of money can they pay you to make such a fool of yourself?' Whatever it was, it wasn't worth it. An athlete should have a sense of responsibility. Things like that leave everyone with the misconception that we'll do anything for money."

Simmons has a keen perception of his own dignity. He is also aware of certain misconceptions about himself. One of these is that while he is certainly one of baseball's finest hitters, he is no more than a mediocre catcher. To be sure, early in his career Simmons was no Johnny Bench. In 1974 and '75 he had a total of 42 passed balls, and his 28 in '75 were one shy of the league record set in 1900. But although his improvement in recent seasons has been dramatic—he had only nine passed balls in '76 and eight last year—the criticism of his fielding continues.

"Teddy has really worked on his catching the last few years," says Cardinal Pitcher John Denny. "I no longer worry about pitches thrown in the dirt because I know he'll block them. His arm has always been strong, but his throwing is more consistent now. A couple of seasons ago there might have been some question about his catching, but he has completely erased that now. Trouble is, he hits the ball so well that you overlook his defense; you forget he's an all-round player. He has taken the time to study his pitchers. He understands what we can and can't do, and he uses what we have. He wants to win so badly that his intensity out there picks you up. He has a command. He says things so forcefully that you come away believing. I think his problem a few years ago was concentration. He was just a little absentminded. He's a very intelligent man with a lot on his mind."

"I think he was concentrating on his hitting while he was catching," says fellow Catcher Tim McCarver of the Phillies, who was Simmons' teammate in 1973 and '74. "An outfielder can afford to do that. A catcher can't. It takes a long time for a catcher to get established. We're a different breed. But Teddy is thinking like a catcher now, and that's what it takes. He has everything else. He's the toughest guy behind the plate since John Roseboro, and he has terrific stamina. Sometimes I think the Cardinals are trying to kill him, catching him in all those games in that St. Louis heat. If they caught him 130 games instead of 150, he'd hit .360. What can you say about a man who switch-hits and has no weaknesses at the plate? He can wait on the curveball, and he's quick enough to get around on the fastball. If he played in Cincinnati, where the ball really carries, he'd hit from 30 to 35 home runs, the way Bench does. He plays in Death Valley and still hits more than 20."

"He's the most underrated catcher in baseball," says Pittsburgh Manager Chuck Tanner. "You talk about Bench, Fisk and Munson. Well, he belongs with them. And he is one of the best switch hitters ever."

Simmons' toughness and his new confidence behind the plate were amply demonstrated in a game earlier this season against Philadelphia. With the Phillies' speedy Jerry Martin on first base in a tie game, Garry Maddox stroked a single to center that St. Louis' Tony Scott bobbled for an error. Martin, running with the pitch, rounded third and raced for home. Scott recovered in time to hit cutoff man Garry Templeton, who threw high to the plate. Simmons made a leaping one-hand catch and landed on his feet facing third with the plate blocked. Martin slid directly into him, but Simmons held fast to make the tag. It was an amazing display of agility and physical strength, and Simmons was demonstrably proud of the play. "He never got there, did he!" he said.

Still, his prowess with the bat tends to overshadow such defensive gems. In his seven full seasons in St. Louis, Simmons has batted better than .300 five times, driven in more than 100 runs twice and more than 90 five times. In 1975 he hit .332 with 18 homers and 100 RBIs. After a "sub-par" .291 season in '76, he hit .318 last year with 21 homers and 95 RBIs. And the Cards can hardly blame their slow start this season on Simmons. Although his team was in the National League East cellar at the end of last week, he was batting a stinging .325.

A somewhat better hitter lefthanded than righthanded early in his career, Simmons has worked hard to correct the imbalance. Now he is equally effective from both sides of the plate; last season he batted .325 lefty and .307 righty. McCarver's assessment of Simmons' indestructibility seems almost an understatement. He caught 144 games in '77, two fewer than league leader Gary Carter of Montreal and nine more than Bench. That was a truly remarkable demonstration of durability when it is considered that half of Simmons' games were played in steamy Busch Stadium, a ball park that in the words of Casey Stengel "holds the heat well." Since 1971 he has played an average of 151 games a year, counting occasional duty at first and third and in the outfield. In any other time, in any other league, he might well be considered the premier player at his position. Alas, he is a contemporary of Bench, who catches for a team that almost annually makes the playoffs. The Cardinals have not been in postseason competition since Simmons joined them full-time.

"I suppose there was a time when I didn't feel properly recognized," Simmons concedes. "All I heard was Bench, Fisk and Munson. But I have rationalized that rather conveniently, I think. If you find yourself playing in front of millions of people on television for a couple of weeks in the playoffs and the World Series, then you are going to be noticed a lot more. People in Montana who never see a major league game in person are going to know who you are. That's easy for me to understand, and I'm not bitter in the least. If I were to play under those circumstances, I think I'd be pretty well known, too. That's the important thing about winning. Look, by now you know what I'm going to do in a season, and so do I. I've been pretty consistent. I've achieved my personal goals three or four times, so I no longer worry about them. There's one thing I haven't done—win. If your team wins, good things happen to everybody on it. I know full well that you can hit .330 and still feel very empty."

In recent years emptiness has become intolerable to Simmons, who has matured into a multifaceted individual. His cultural awakening was a fairly recent phenomenon, and it left him with serious questions about the course his life was taking. "I was wild and carefree when I started going to school at Michigan," he recalls. "I was the jock stereotype, interested in only one thing—playing baseball. You could have showed me a Cezanne then, and I would have said, 'That's nice.' Maryanne changed all that." The Simmonses had known each other in high school, but it was not until they were students together at Michigan that he realized Maryanne was "the girl I wanted to marry." She was a fine arts major, whose concerns obviously extended beyond the baseball diamond. "Her interests rubbed off on me," Simmons says. "I guess you could say I opened the door for him," she agrees, "but now I seem to be riding on his coattails."

Their mutual involvement in antiques began in Tulsa, during Ted's last season as a minor league player, and was enhanced upon their arrival in St. Louis by Roland Jester, a longtime dealer and connoisseur, and his wife Margaret, who died last December. "They opened up a whole new world to me," says Simmons. The bearded, white-haired Jester praises his protègè as "a very discerning man, an excellent collector with a hell of a memory." Simmons has also attacked his subject with predictable single-mindedness, poring over innumerable back copies of Antiques magazine and such volumes as The Furniture Treasury, The Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture and American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods.

Simmons' doggedness was evident from the moment he joined the Cardinals for good in 1970. Like many youngsters of the period, the 20-year-old soon rebelled against traditional values. And he was unyielding even when it became evident that his views did not sit well in a community as conservative as St. Louis. He denounced the Vietnam war and was outspoken in his contempt for the Nixon Administration. He allowed his hair to grow to his shoulders; that gave him a leonine look and earned him the nickname Simba, which he retains, though he is comparatively well-groomed today. At that time, he was a lion roaring his defiance. "I guess I was experiencing a kind of identity crisis," he says. "I was trying to make a statement." His remarks to the newspapers on political matters, coupled with his fielding lapses, made him a ready target for Busch Stadium boo birds. Simmons responded with angry assertions that St. Louis' reputation as a "great baseball town" was much inflated.

That history vindicated him is small comfort to Simmons. But he has achieved both peace of mind and peace with the fans. "For a while there, the louder the fans got, the louder I got," he says. "I made my statement too loud and too long. My crusades are over now. I'm completely at peace with the world. It was nice to be right about some things, but I didn't really pay much of a price for my convictions, not like Jane Fonda or Tom Hayden or lots of others. All I got was a few boos. Talk about paying the price—Thomas More was right, and they cut off his head. He is one of my alltime heroes, a man of principle, willing to stick with what he believed to the end, right or wrong. 'Look, Tom,' they'd say to him, 'sure you're right about the Church and everything, but you don't have to take it this far.' He would have none of that. I didn't have to go that far, and I think in the end I gained better understanding of this city by what I did. And the people learned that if I said something, I was sincere about it. I don't want to sound too philosophical, but the one thing I've learned in my 28 years is that the only security anybody can have is in knowing himself. I'm young and I'm changing all the time, but I do know something about myself. That's a kind of happiness."

It is no small thing that Simmons should take as his hero the Man for All Seasons, who opposed Henry VIII's assumption of religious authority. "I am the king's good servant," More said on the scaffold, "but God's first." And off went his head.

Simmons is also a resolute man, and like More, he has compassion for his enemies. He made formal peace with the people of St. Louis in his speech to the Missouri Athletic Club in February. "When I first came from Detroit," he said that night, "I was disappointed in the size of this city. I didn't care for the conservative approach of the town. I've matured to some extent since then, and I've fallen in love with the intimacy of this city. I've come to understand its conservative approach. I intend to stay in St. Louis, regardless of whether I'm traded. My wife and I were transients when we came here, and I don't want that for my sons, Jon and Matthew. I want my kids to be able to go down to the Checker-dome, the stadium and anywhere else to enjoy sports as I have. I thank you very much for the honor tonight."

The deafening applause that night, followed by his appointment to the board of one of the city's most prestigious institutions, was evidence enough that St. Louis, in turn, had made its peace with him.

PHOTOLANE STEWARTBob Forsch's April no-hitter evoked Simmons' usual all-out enthusiasm. PHOTOLANE STEWARTSimmons, who specializes in 18th-century American antiques, takes his stance before his favorite display in his favorite museum, the St. Louis Art Museum.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)