Wednesday, July 11, 2012

#398 - Duke Sims

This card has always mystified me a bit. There are quite a few cards in this and other sets – in fact one will be coming up shortly – in which Topps has to airbrush players into uniforms of teams they played for the year before because photos weren’t available in the new team uniforms. Usually that happened when a trade occurred after the Topps photographers took the shots. But Duke Sims here gets a card in a Yankee uniform at the Stadium even when he only played for NY literally the final week of the ’73 season. This is Duke’s last card even though he put in a full season in ’74. Fittingly it is taken at Yankee Stadium since – continuing the “last” theme – Duke here hit the final home run there before the Stadium was shut down for two years to be rebuilt/ renovated. He came to NY off waivers from Detroit where he spent most of the season backing up Bill Freehan and judging by the pitching staff was back to full-time usage of his catchers mitt (more on that below). Duke has a couple videos on YouTube and in one of them he admits to being a big drinker while he played. Maybe the sun is in his eyes here but this shot looks like it was taken just after he downed a couple. Plus his hat looks oddly tiny. But it’s pretty late as I type this so maybe all that is just me.

Duke Sims was born in Utah and grew up playing the big three sports in Idaho where he was all-state in each in high school. He was signed to Cleveland after briefly attending the University of Idaho in ’59 and did a pretty good number on D pitchers the next two summers, then had his best season in B ball in ’61 when he hit .304 with 21 homers and 88 RBI’s. He continued to hit pretty well the next two summers in A and Double A ball, also doing a nice job defensively behind the plate, although he had a trouble with passed balls. In ’64 he moved to Triple A where his average was light but he only put up two errors. Then in ’65 after hitting over .300 he moved up to Cleveland. He would spend a bit of time in Triple A in ’66 but was pretty much up for good.

The ’65 Indians were a pretty good team and already had a young defensively-skilled catcher in Joe Azcue behind whom Sims would initially play. His first year he didn’t hit too well but he gunned down nearly half attempted base stealers and had come up with ace Sam McDowell so his playing time was assured. After boosting his average in ’66 a bunch he and Azcue spent the next two seasons platooning behind the plate with Joe the better defender and Duke the power guy. He also had some trouble catching knucklers – remember the passed balls – and he took to wearing a first baseman’s mitt whenever he had to catch those guys. In ’69 Azcue went to Boston and Duke got the starting nod over Ken Suarez and rookie Ray Fosse. He also the past couple seasons began putting in time at first and the outfield so the Tribe could keep his bat in the line-up. Then in ’70 things got reversed as Fosse took over the starting role and became an All-Star while Duke, playing everywhere that year, put up his best offensive numbers up top. But Cleveland’s vaunted late Sixties pitching had either been traded away or run out of gas and when the Dodgers came calling for a power hitter, Duke was sent over for pitchers Ray Lamb and Alan Foster.

The ’71 Dodgers, despite being absurdly low on power, were pretty well stocked at Sims’ chief positions of catcher, first base, and outfield. They had just acquired Dick Allen and were pretty flush with young outfielders so if Duke was going to play anywhere, it would be behind the plate. There he vied for starting time with three other guys and did pretty well offensively but because of restricted at bats never really got rolling. In ’72 incumbent Tom Haller got sent to Detroit and Bill Sudaikis to the Mets but Chris Cannizzaro got most of the starts, and with young kids Joe Ferguson and Steve Yeager coming up, and with him toting a sub-.200 average, Duke was placed on waivers. Ironically he was picked up by Detroit to rejoin Haller. Duke was the hard-nosed type of guy manager Billy Martin loved and so when he joined the Tigers in early August he pretty much leapfrogged Haller into the line-up, raised his average over 100 points, and put up a .432 OBA. Those numbers got him lots of playoff time against Oakland and he was the guy behind the plate when Bert Campaneris launched his bat at pitcher Lerrin LaGrow. Then in ’73 when his offense settled down a bunch and after Billy left town, Duke again hit the waiver wire and landed in NY to hit his big homer. Early in the ’74 season he was traded to Texas – where he rejoined Martin – for pitcher Larry Gura and spent his last season backing up defensive whiz rookie Jim Sundberg. Duke finished with a .239 average, 100 homers, and 310 RBI’s, with a .340 OBA. He hit .214 with two doubles in his four post-season games.

Sims relocated for a bit to the east coast after playing where he did work in financial planning and insurance for a while until he was lured back to baseball in ’86. That year he managed a couple levels in the White Sox system, replacing and then being overseen by old pal Tom Haller. But that only lasted a year – he was pretty tough on the players apparently – and he returned to business, mostly as a sales guy for various industries or as an entrepreneur. He once tried to do a Ralph Branca/ Bobby Thomson type of co-autograph deal with Benji Molina who hit the last homer in Yankee Stadium before its demolition but those two really didn’t have the star power. Since ’92 he has been living and working in Vegas where he has specialized in various web-based marketing gigs and is chairman of the Young Readers Council. He has a pretty decent presence on the web.

Duke definitely has one of the shortest names in the set and is a pretty rare breed in that he was a left-handed catcher. Those two bits of info are related as he played the outfield in two of those playoff games.

There are a couple music items to get caught up on, and they both regard the charts. On July 7, 1973 the new Number One in the US pretty much kept things in the Beatles family as Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles” took over for a two-week run. Billy was an keyboardist for a couple of the group’s later albums. In ’74 on July 6 the Hues Corporation’s “Rock The Boat” took over the top spot in the States, thus sealing the deal on the decline in music that year.

Duke and George almost never crossed paths so let’s use a former MVP:

1. Sims and Zoilo Versalles ’69 Indians;
2. Versalles and George Stone ’71 Braves.

Boy, did that  guy fall hard after his big ’65.


  1. According to the back of the card and baseball-reference, he wasn't left handed. He batted left (not unusual for a catcher), but threw righty. I think that cap looks suspicious. Like it was cut from another players pic and stuck on Duke's noggin.

  2. This card always bugged me -- the very un-Sims-like hair, and that tiny, tiny cap. It does look suspicious.

  3. "Downed a couple"? Looks like he was smoking some of those funny cigarettes.