Much-traveled Duke Sims was a game-winner for Tigers in 1972

The 1973 Topps baseball card for Duke Sims shows the catcher in his Detroit Tigers road uniform at Yankee Stadium.

While 1972 Topps remains my favorite baseball card set of all-time, the 1973 set ranks close behind. It has a simple design that represents a throwback to earlier years of cards; the extent of the design work is a thin black line that serves as a frame, the player’s name in colored lettering, the team name in black, and that oh-so iconic silhouette that indicates the player’s position. That black silhouette, set against a colored circle, remains a permanent indicator of 1973 Topps.

The 1973 Topps set featured a lot of memorable action photography, but the close-up portraits also provide some nice imagery. With clear photography and good lighting, the portraits give us a good look at the players from the era. Few players from the early 1970s had as distinctive a look as Detroit Tigers catcher Duke Sims.

A partially cleft chin. Thick jowls. A large mouth. Piercing eyes. Bushy, wild hair. As photographed on this overcast day at Yankee Stadium, which can be clearly seen in the background, Duke Sims looks like a cross between the great John Wayne and talented actor Dan Blocker, who played the character of Hoss on the long-running TV show, Bonanza. I suppose that if someone submitted to central casting for a burly, old school catcher, or for someone to play a tough cowboy in the old west, Duke Sims would have filled either bill. Sims looked like he could have handled himself on the open range, but he was born to block the plate.

Not only did Sims appear on his own card in 1973, but he also made a guest appearance on another card. A gander at Glenn Beckert’s card reveals Sims’ presence behind the plate in a game at Wrigley Field. In this case, Sims is pictured wearing the uniform of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and not the Tigers. Sims started the 1972 season with the Dodgers before eventually being traded to the Tigers, allowing him to be photographed two different times in two different uniforms.

Long before he played for the Dodgers and Tigers, Sims made his major league debut for the Cleveland Indians. A left-handed hitting catcher with power will always draw interest, and it certainly did in the early 1960s, when Sims came up through the Indians’ minor league system. He dominated Triple-A ball, but struggled in his early trials in Cleveland. He finally began to establish himself in 1967, when he emerged as the left-handed half of a platoon with the defensively skilled Joe Azcue.

Sims developed a strong rapport with a talented Indians staff that included Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, and Steve Hargan. In particular, Sims became the designated catcher for McDowell, catching him on a regular basis. The two had come through the Indians’ system at virtually the same time and they got along well, both on and off the field. Sims’ ability to handle pitchers, be it McDowell or the others, became a strength of his game. So too did his throwing; he generally threw out 30 to 35 per cent of opposing basestealers, a solid rate of success.

Sims did have one problem defensively—an inability to keep pitches in front of him. In 1967 and ’68, he reached double figures in passed balls, leading the league in that statistic the latter season.

While his catching needed refining, his offensive game had already arrived. By 1968, he had become something of an offensive force, hitting 11 home runs, drawing 62 walks, and posting an OPS of .765. In the Year of the Pitcher, those ranked as impressive numbers. He hit even better in 1969, when he lifted his OPS to .801 and clubbed 18 home runs. Sims’ combination of power and patience made him attractive to the Indians, who found ways to put him in the lineup even when he did not catch. Appearing at first base and in the outfield corners, Sims usually played somewhere when the Indians faced a right-handed starting pitcher.

In the spring of 1970, manager Alvin Dark hoped to end Sims’ days as a part-time first baseman and outfielder, promising his young slugger that he would be the team’s No. 1 catcher. 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. Once again, Sims moved to first base and the outfield. While Sims liked to catch, he responded well to the new role. No longer worn down from the burden of catching day to day, Sims emerged as a borderline star. He hit 23 home runs (a career high), slugged nearly .500, and lifted his OPS to .859.

Still only 29 years old, Sims seemed like a good fit for the Indians. But Dark and his staff felt that Sims lacked a regular position that he could play, thereby limiting his playing time. Sims wanted to play every day. He ripped into Dark, citing him for a lack of ethics. Indians management did not appreciate the insult. After the 1970 season, the Indians traded Sims, sending him to the Dodgers for a pair of young right-handers, Alan Foster and Ray Lamb.

The trade turned into a steal for the Dodgers, who wanted a catcher capable of hitting while supplying competent defense. With the Dodgers, Sims became known as one of the game’s toughest catchers, a block of granite who could flatten runners with his 200-pound frame. Sims took special pride in colliding with baserunners who tried to score against him. As Sims’ reputation grew, fewer runners challenged him directly.

Sims found himself in a different situation in Los Angeles than he had encountered in Cleveland. With a logjam of outfielders and capable first baseman, the Dodgers viewed Sims as a catcher first and foremost, but they already had another left-handed hitting catcher in veteran Tom Haller. With two left lefty catchers, manager Walter Alston could not arrange a normal platoon; instead he came up with an awkward arrangement in which the two veterans shared playing time. In 1971, Sims appeared in 90 games and came to bat fewer than 300 times, but he did compile an on-base percentage in the range of .350.

Over the long haul, a platoon of two left-handed hitting catchers did not make a lot of sense. With Sims being four years younger than Haller, it made sense for the Dodgers to keep the former and trade the latter. They sent Haller to the Tigers for a player to be named later. Just when Sims thought he might have the catching job to himself, the Dodgers then made deals to acquire two veteran catchers: Chris Cannizzaro and Dick Dietz. When Sims slumped in ‘72, he lost the starting catcher’s job to Cannizzaro. The Dodgers placed him on waivers in early August. For the mere price of a waiver claim, the Tigers picked him up. And for the second time, Sims became a teammate of Haller, this time as a fellow backup to Tigers legend Bill Freehan.

In his very first game for the Tigers, a road affair, Sims went 2-for-5 with a home run. Soon after, Sims made his first start at Tiger Stadium. “I’m coming up from the on-deck circle and I’m getting booed and so I’m thinking, ‘That’s funny. Maybe it’s because of my time in Cleveland.’ ” Sims told Michigan Live. “But I was also thinking that… I had a home run and was off to a pretty good start.

“So, after the at-bat I go into the dugout and see Gates [Brown] and said, ‘So, what the hell kind of town is this, Gates?’ He goes, ‘Duke, they’re not booing you. They’re saying Duuuke!’ So I got it after that and got along great with the fans.”

Tigers manager Billy Martin found a way to get Sims as many at-bats as possible, either as a catcher, outfielder, or as a pinch-hitter. No matter what role Sims played, he did the job. In 121 plate appearances with the Tigers, Sims batted .316, drew 19 walks, and reached base 43 percent of the time. Remarkably, he delivered a total of 10 game-winning hits in less than two months. It’s safe to say that without the addition of Sims—not to mention the bargain basement pickup of Woodie Fryman in midsummer—the Tigers would not have won the American League East by a half-game over the Boston Red Sox.

Martin decided to ride the hot hand into the playoffs, in part because of a hand injury suffered by Freehan. In the first two games of the ALCS, Sims started at catcher and batted third. It was Sims who was behind the plate in Game Two, when Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris infamously flung his bat at Tigers reliever Lerrin LaGrow after being hit in the ankle with a pitch.

Sims sat out Game Three against left-hander Ken Holtzman. In Game Four, Martin made a controversial decision. He returned Freehan to his post behind the plate, but kept Sims in the lineup as the left fielder against Oakland’s Jim “Catfish” Hunter, while benching Willie Horton. Sims responded with a double in three at-bats before being lifted for defensive purposes, as the Tigers won the game to extend the series. Sims played left field again in Game Five, going 0-for-3 with a walk and committing an inconsequential error in the field, as the Tigers lost a heartbreaking finale to the pennant-winning A’s.

That game turned out to be Sims’ swansong in the postseason. He returned to the Tigers in 1973 and played reasonably well as Freehan’s backup, but the aging Tigers fell out of contention. In September, the Tigers sold him on waivers to the New York Yankees, where he became the backup to another prominent catcher, Thurman Munson. As a Yankee, Sims would become best known for hitting the final home run in the history of the original Yankee Stadium.

After a poor start to the 1974 season, the Yankees traded Sims to Texas for left-hander Larry Gura; with the Rangers, he enjoyed a reunion with Billy Martin, now the manager in Arlington. Sims struggled to find his batting stroke in Texas. The following January, the Rangers released him, against the wishes of Martin. At 33, Sims saw his playing days come to an end.

Sims prepared himself for the next phase of his life. Beginning in 1975, and continuing for more than 30 years, he attended self-improvement seminars and learned about a variety of fields, including communications and politics. Other than a brief stint as a minor league manager, Sims devoted himself successfully to the business world, culminating in a vice-presidency at Vital Stem, Inc., a company that produces in medical devices. Sims then retired, settling in Las Vegas.

I hadn’t heard much about Sims until about three years ago, when I became friends with him on Facebook. He quickly established himself as an outspoken political commentator, with strong conservative views on a number of issues. And then about six months ago, Duke left a cryptic comment in which he stated he would not be posting on Facebook for a while. Other than one post since then, Duke has gone silent.

I’m not sure what happened to Duke; I hope that his health is all right, but I really don’t know for sure. A while back, before he stopped posting, I told him that he has a standing invitation to stay with me and my family if he ever comes to Cooperstown.

Duke, if you can make the trip from Las Vegas to central New York, our door remains open. And your 1973 Topps card will be waiting for you.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.