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HE'S SOME PIECE OF WORK
Ron Fimrite
June 05, 1978
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
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June 05, 1978

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

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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."

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