Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Duke Simsby Bruce Markusen
May 25, 2012
Now this is what a major league catcher should look like. Eyebrows as big and bushy as a mustache. A face as thick as a fire hydrant. Jowls as wide as those of a bulldog. It was as if Duke Sims, who looked a bit like Hoss of “Bonanza” fame, came straight out of central casting to play an old school, big league catcher. Hollywood, or Dan Blocker himself, could not have done any better.
As a left-handed hitting catcher with power—a commodity that remains in short supply in today’s game—Sims became a valued prospect with the Indians in the early 1960s. Sims made his major league debut with the Tribe in 1964, a cup of coffee that consisted of a handful of games at the end of the season. He then split the 1965 and ’66 seasons between Cleveland and Triple-A Portland, putting up huge numbers in the Pacific Coast League but struggling in the American League. He and a young left-handed flamethrower named Sam McDowell came up together through the Indians’ system, allowing them to develop a special rapport as a pitcher/catcher battery.
Sims became entrusted with the responsibility of handling McDowell, Cleveland’s bullet-throwing ace. In addition to McDowell, Sims had the pleasurable task of handling several capable starting pitchers, including Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan and a young right-handed twirler named Luis Tiant. Sims handled the staff well and consistently threw out 30 to 35 per cent of would-be base stealers, but the Indians had concerns about his lack of agility behind the plate. In both 1967 and ‘68, Sims reached double figures in passed balls, leading the league in that unwanted category during the latter season.
From 1967 to 1969, Sims reached double figures in home runs, culminating in an .801 OPS in ‘69. The Indians liked Sims’ power and patience so much that they found ways to put him in the lineup at other positions, playing him in left and right field, and at first base.
During spring training in 1970, Indians manager Alvin Dark promised Sims he would be the starting catcher. By the end of the spring, Dark had changed his mind, deciding to hand the reins to heralded rookie Ray Fosse, a superior defensive catcher, while using Sims mostly as a first baseman/outfielder. In making the change, the Indians drastically reduced Sims’ workload behind the plate. Unburdened from the physical wear and tear of catching, Sims blossomed, hitting a career-high 23 home runs, slugging nearly .500, and posting an OPS of .859.
Still only 29, Sims seemed ready to assume a role as one of the Indians’ most dangerous left-handed power hitters. Unfortunately, the team felt that Sims lacked a regular position, limiting his value. Sims also blasted Dark and Indians management, questioning their competence and ethics. With the Indians in search of some young pitching, they dealt Sims to the Dodgers for two young right-handers who would not develop, Alan Foster and Ray Lamb.
As a member of the Dodgers, Sims enhanced his reputation as one of the game’s tougher catchers. He became especially noted for his ability to block the plate, flattening runners with his 6-fvoot-2, 200-pound frame of burly muscle. As time progressed, fewer and fewer runners dared to challenge Sims. Pete Rose was one of the exceptions. On one occasion, Sims endured a collision with a hard-charging Rose. Sims ended up missing a few games, but he managed to win a split-decision, knocking Rose to the ground. Sims later bragged that he “stuffed” Rose.
Off the field, the Los Angeles nightlife allowed Sims to enhance his reputation as one of the game’s most eligible bachelors. “I don’t object to the word ‘swinger.' I’m single and the thought of living in a monastery isn’t appealing,” Sims told The Sporting News. “With Sandy Koufax having retired and Bill Sudakis now married, the Dodgers needed someone to cover Hollywood.” Sims became a regular on the Southern California singles scene.
On the field, Sims found himself in an unusual situation in Los Angeles. With plenty of outfielders and a slick first baseman in Wes Parker, the Dodgers viewed Sims as a catcher, and catcher only. Yet, the Dodgers already had a left-handed hitting catcher in Tom Haller.
With both catchers hitting from the left side, a normal platoon was not possible, resulting in an awkward time-sharing arrangement between Sims and Haller. Sims hit reasonably well, reaching base 35 per cent of the time, but he played in only 90 games and accumulated fewer than 300 plate appearances.
A trade seemed like an inevitable solution. With Sims being four years younger, the Dodgers logically chose to keep him and instead traded Haller to the Tigers for a minor league player and cash. The Dodgers door seemed open widely for Sims, but Los Angeles pulled a surprise, adding three catchers to the roster in 1972: veterans Chris Cannizzaro and Dick Dietz and a young defensive stud in Steve Yeager.
When Sims slumped, he lost the starting catcher’s job to Cannizzaro and became expendable by late summer. The Dodgers placed him on waivers in early August; the Tigers put in a claim, reuniting him with Haller, this time as a fellow backup to veteran Bill Freehan.
Tigers skipper Billy Martin turned to Sims as a backup catcher, pinch-hitter, and fill-in outfielder. Sims responded to the call by putting up an OPS of over .900 and helping the Tigers sneak past the Red Sox by a half game in a strike-altered season. Without the midseason acquisitions of Sims and left-hander Woodie Fryman (who came over on waivers from the Phillies), the Tigers would not have won the East.
Sims hit so well for the Tigers, batting .318 over the final two months of the season, that Martin started him at catcher and also batted him third in the first two games of the American League Championship Series against the A’s. That gave Sims a prime view of one of the nastiest on-field incidents in postseason history when Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris angrily flung his bat toward Tigers reliever Lerrin LaGrow in response to being hit by a pitch.
Then came a controversial decision by Martin in Game Four. Martin decided to start Freehan behind the plate, but wanted to keep Sims in the lineup against Oakland’s ace right-hander Catfish Hunter. So Martin put Sims in left field, benching a longtime Tiger favorite, the slumping Willie Horton. Sims picked up a double in three at-bats as the Tigers evened the best-of-five at two games apiece.
Martin decided to continue using the hot hand in Game Five, again starting Sims in left field. But this time Sims went hitless in three at-bats and committed an error (though it did not figure in the scoring), as the Tigers lost an excruciating final game, 2-1.
It would prove to be the final postseason game of Sims’ career. He remained in Detroit for most of the 1973 season, but as the aging Tigers faded, they sold him on waivers to the Yankees in September. Sims became Thurman Munson’s backup, but became far better remembered for hitting the final home run in the history of the original Yankee Stadium. The monumental home run came in the seventh inning, a leadoff shot against Sims’ former Tigers team.
Even at 33, the Yankees felt that Sims could help them as an occasional catcher, DH, and pinch-hitter. So he remained with the Yankees through early May of 1974, but a slow start convinced New York that he was done. But Billy Martin, by now the manager in Texas, did not agree with that assessment. For much of the spring and early season, Martin tried to swing a trade for Sims, finally prying him away in exchange for young left-hander Larry Gura.
Sims did not hit any better for the Rangers than he did the Yankees. But he did hit three home runs for Texas, putting him at an even 100 for his career. That milestone home run, which came against a tough southpaw in Darold Knowles, took on more significance the following January, when the Rangers (against Martin’s wishes) released Sims and essentially ended his career. After 11 seasons in the major leagues, the 33-year-old Sims was done.
Sims did not pout about the end of his playing days. Instead he prepared himself for Chapter Two. Beginning in 1975, and continuing every year until 2008, he attended self-improvement seminars. He trained himself in communications, economics, and politics. Except for a brief stint as a manager in the White Sox system, Sims has become an enterprising and successful businessman. Now a resident of Las Vegas, he is vice-president of investor relations at Vital Stem, Inc., a company that specializes in medical devices.
So don’t let that picture of Sims fool you. This is no dumb Hoss. Duke Sims is a self-made businessman who has found a way, 35 years after he was forced to leave the game. The Duke is still living strong.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.