It was Oct. 12, 1972, and the big guy playing left field for the Detroit Tigers was Duke Sims. He was also playing for the right to go to the World Series, which would begin two days later. Sims was normally a catcher, but he carried a big bat, and he was a left-handed hitter. Tigers manager Billy Martin wanted to get that bat into his lineup.
That was the final game of the American League Championship Series. “The A’s beat us, 2 to 1,” Sims reflected. And they went on to beat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. He was convinced his Tigers would have done the same had they won that final game of the playoff series.
“The playoffs that year were the highlight of my career,” recalled Sims as he and I sat over coffee at Highland Falls Golf Course in Sun City Summerlin. Sims, who moved to Sun City in 1997 with his wife of almost 40 years, Sondra, doesn’t mind swinging at a few golf balls at least once a week.
We talked about this year’s World Series, which is set to begin Oct. 23. Then he took a swing back in time to reminisce about a baseball career that spanned more than 17 years, 11 of which were spent with five teams in the major leagues.
“The playoff series wasn’t the only major thrill in my baseball career,” Sims said, displaying an impish smile. There was an interesting turn at bat he had a year later. That occurred Sept. 30, 1973, at the old Yankee Stadium in New York City’s South Bronx, when Sims, then a member of the Yankees, slammed one of the most memorable home runs in Yankee history.
But the way he tells it makes it even more meaningful.
“You gotta remember, this was one of the best-known baseball stadiums that ever existed,” Sims said. The old Yankee Stadium, sometimes referred to as the Cathedral of Baseball, was opened on April 18, 1925. Babe Ruth hit the first home run that day in a stadium that ultimately earned the name The House that Ruth Built.
“Ruth once said, ‘God blessed me to have hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium. God only knows who will hit the last home run in Yankee Stadium.’ I was honored to have done that,” Sims said proudly.
Ironically, Sims grew up a Yankee fan and has remained loyal in that regard throughout. Shortly after he was born in 1941 in Salt Lake City, his family moved to Pocatello, Idaho.
“I became a catcher when I was about 10 years old,” he said. “That was when Little League came to Pocatello. The coach needed a catcher, so I went behind the plate for the first time. I didn’t even have a uniform, but I hit two home runs in that game. They found a uniform for me after the game.”
He relates how he almost agreed to play with the Yankees after graduating from high school, but he signed instead with the Cleveland Indians.
“The Indians offered me more money,” he said. “The Yankees might have matched it, but my mother was against me signing with the Yankees, even though I was a huge Yankee fan. You know, the tradition — DiMaggio, Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig.
“You see, my mom got mad at the Yankee scout, a guy named Tony Robello. He was supposed to meet with us, but he came late. She felt he didn’t have enough respect to tell us when he was going to be late.”
So he played with the Indians for seven years, then finished his baseball career bouncing with the Dodgers, Tigers, Yankees and Rangers. It was during his two-month stay with the Yankees that Sims hit his historic home run.
But therein lies another fascinating story.
“It was the last game of the season,” he recalled. “The Yankees’ starting catcher, Thurman Munson, had already gone home, and the manager, Ralph Houk, came to me and Jerry Moses, the other two catchers on the team. Ralph flipped a coin. I lost, so I played. And that’s how it came to be that I hit the last home run in the historic stadium.”
Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at email@example.com.