Mercifully, an experiment by the Cardinals to play Ted Simmons at third base lasted just two games. Still, plenty of damage was done. Simmons made three errors that contributed to two defeats, got booed by Cardinals fans and then lashed out at them, saying they lacked perspective and that St. Louis didn’t deserve its reputation for being a good sports town.
Fortunately for Simmons, the controversy quickly faded. Simmons continued to be one of St. Louis’ best and most respected athletes, culminating his achievements with his 2015 election by the fans to the Cardinals Hall of Fame.
Forty years ago, in July 1976, the prospects for such a happy ending, though, appeared rocky.
The 1976 Cardinals were a deeply flawed team. In June, they traded one of their top players, outfielder Reggie Smith, to the Dodgers for a catcher, Joe Ferguson, even though the Cardinals had a standout at that position in Simmons.
One of the many problem spots for the 1976 Cardinals was third base. Their 1975 third baseman, Ken Reitz, had earned a Gold Glove Award for his fielding. The Cardinals traded Reitz to the Giants in December 1975 because St. Louis had a prospect, Hector Cruz, who had impressed as a slugger in the minor leagues.
As an everyday third baseman with the 1976 Cardinals, Cruz was a flop. His batting average by July 20 of that season was .194.
Without Smith and with Cruz struggling, Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst sought a run producer to join Simmons in the batting order. Ferguson was his choice. Schoendienst shifted Simmons to third base and put Ferguson at catcher.
On July 21, 1976, a Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Simmons appeared at third base in a major-league game for the first time.
“Simmons had played a little third base in the minors, a little in spring training and the Florida Instructional League, too,” wrote Neal Russo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But never in the majors.”
In the 10th, with the score tied at 6-6 and reliever Al Hrabosky in his third inning of work, Bill Russell hit a routine grounder to Simmons at third. Simmons fielded the ball cleanly but threw it over the head of first baseman Keith Hernandez, enabling Russell to reach second.
“The last thing I was worried about was throwing the ball away,” Simmons said. “I’ve never had any trouble throwing the ball and I’m not worried about ground balls.”
Ted Sizemore, the former Cardinals infielder, singled to center, scoring Russell and giving the Dodgers a 7-6 victory. Boxscore
“I imagine Simmons will make another error before it’s all over,” Schoendienst said. “At least he didn’t miss the ball. He just made the throw too strong.”
The next night, July 22, 1976, Simmons was back at third base as the Cardinals faced the Cubs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
The Cardinals committed five errors _ two by Simmons, two by second baseman Vic Harris and one by Ferguson. The Cubs prevailed, 8-4. Five of their runs were unearned.
Simmons miscues again led to runs for the opposition.
In the seventh, with two outs and Joe Wallis on third, former Cardinals infielder Mick Kelleher grounded to third. Simmons booted the ball and Wallis scored.
An inning later, with Manny Trillo on third, Larry Biittner on second and two outs, Wallis grounded to deep third. Trillo scored on the infield single. When Simmons threw wildly to first in a futile bid to get Wallis, Biittner scored on the misplay. Boxscore
“The Cardinals have had many low points … but last night’s game was right down there among the cockroaches,” wrote Rick Hummel in the Post-Dispatch.
Said Schoendienst: “It was bad, I’ll say that.”
Fans reacted with boos. Most were directed at Harris and Simmons.
A combative Simmons offered Hummel an exclusive response. His remarks were published in an article in the July 25, 1976, Sunday edition of the Post-Dispatch.
“I think the natives have been like this all along,” Simmons said. “I’ve been here seven years and they haven’t shown me anything in their reactions …
“They’ve got a right to boo. But there are things they have to take into account. They don’t understand what’s happening out there. What they have to understand is … we had a reserve at second base and we had a catcher playing third. If they can’t see past that, then they’re not showing much perspective.
“I don’t want to hear about this being a good sports town … I expect more than what I’ve seen in seven years. I’ve felt this way for a long time.”
Simmons said he didn’t want to leave the Cardinals _ “The ballclub has treated me super.” _ but felt underappreciated by fans.
“I hear people say, ‘Where are they going to hide Simmons? He can hit but he can’t field.’ So I made two errors. Maybe I’m the goat. But I didn’t ask to play third base. They asked me.”
Knowing the consequences of his comments, Simmons concluded, “I suspect I’ll get it when this comes out. I’ve never been quite what the doctor ordered for this town.”
On the day the article appeared, Simmons was held out of the lineup for the Cardinals’ game that afternoon at Busch Stadium.
The next night, a Monday, July 26, 1976, the Cardinals played at home against the Pirates. With a left-hander, former teammate Jerry Reuss, starting for the Pirates, Schoendienst benched Hernandez and started Simmons at first base.
When Simmons came to bat for the first time, “the cheers almost drowned out the boos,” Dick Kaegel of the Post-Dispatch reported.
“Not nearly as bad as I thought it might be,” Simmons said. “I was really surprised. I was really happy. I expected the worst and was prepared for the worst.”
The game was called off in the fourth inning because of rain.
In 1976, Simmons went on to make 108 starts at catcher, 26 starts at first base, seven starts in left field and two starts at third base.
Simmons never appeared at third base again for the Cardinals, though he would play 16 games at third for the Brewers and 11 games there for the Braves after he was traded by the Cardinals in December 1980.