Don Zimmer, who spent 66 years in professional baseball, dies at 83
Baseball lost one of its lifers on Wednesday. Don Zimmer, who had been part of the game since 1949 as a player, coach, manager and advisor, passed away at age 83. Zimmer, most recently a senior advisor to the Rays, had undergone surgery to repair a leaky heart valve on April 16 and had been on a ventilator since. With the blessing of Major League Baseball, Rays third base coach Tom Foley had recently taken to wearing Zimmer's number 66 jersey — representing the years of his tenure in baseball — in tribute.
Zimmer's influence went far beyond Tampa Bay. Simply put, he touched just about every corner of baseball. He played for five different franchises during his 12-year major league career (1954-65), managed four others — famously overseeing the Red Sox' collapse in 1978 and winning a division title with the Cubs in 1989 — and coaching five more. Most notably in that latter role, he served as the bench coach for Joe Torre during the Yankees' run of four world championships and six pennants from 1996-2003. He even spent 36 games as New York's interim manager in 1999 while Torre underwent treatment for prostate cancer.
The latter-day image of the bald, jowly Zimmer — aptly nicknamed "Popeye" for his resemblance to the cartoon character — belies the fact that he once appeared to be a star in the making. Born in Cincinnati in 1931, he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 for a bonus of $2,500. In his 2004 autobiography, The Zen of Zim, he joked that "[M]y hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds, made a real bidding war out of it — with a counteroffer of $2,000. I'm proud to say I lived up to every penny."
Zimmer climbed methodically through the Dodgers well-stocked system and was in the process of putting himself on the map — hitting .300/.347/.584 with 23 homers in 81 games at Triple A St. Paul — when he was hit by a pitch on his temple on July 7, 1953. He needed surgery to drill four holes in his skull to relieve the pressure (later filled with tantalum, a metal used in lightbulb filaments and nuclear reactors) and the prognosis was so grim that he was administered last rites. Zimmer was unconscious for nearly two weeks, lost almost 50 pounds and was told that his career was over. The injury was a tipping point in leading MLB to require batting helmets.
Against the odds, Zimmer recovered. He hit .291//361/560 in 71 games for St. Paul the next season before being called up to the Dodgers, though he made just 37 plate appearances in that 1954 season. He saw more action in '55, playing alongside Jackie Robinson and filling in at shortstop for future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese and at second base while Jim Gilliam shifted to leftfield. Zimmer went 2-for-9 in the World Series against the Yankees, starting three games while helping Brooklyn win its only world championship before the franchise departed for Los Angeles.
Alas, any hopes Zimmer had of building upon that season were threatened when he suffered yet another beaning, this time sustaining a fractured cheekbone when he was hit by a pitch from the Reds' Hal Jeffcoat in April 1956. A 1999 Sports Illustrated story recounted an unlikely outcome that added to Zimmer's legend:
"After Jeffcoat hit me in the face," he says, "doctors examined my skull and said, 'What have you got in there?'" I told them, but somehow reports came out about a steel plate." Why not correct the tale, which made his head the butt of countless jokes? "Aw, it's like when people say they saw me play in Montreal," says the Yankees' interim manager. "I say, 'Thanks, I enjoyed it,' but I never played there. When somebody brought up the steel plate, I just said, 'Yeah, sure.' " Steel or no steel, he's one of the game's magnetic personalities.
The injury limited Zimmer to 17 games in '56, but he returned to spend the next three years with the Dodgers in a utility role. He hit .262/.305/.415 with 17 homers and 14 steals for Los Angeles in 1958 (the team's first year in L.A.) while taking over shortstop duties from an aging Reese. After slumping to a .165 batting average in 1959, he was traded to the Cubs for three players and cash in April 1960. He spent two years as Chicago's regular second baseman, playing alongside future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, and earned All-Star honors for the only time in his career during the latter year, when he hit .252/.291/.403 with 13 homers.
Nonetheless, the Cubs left Zimmer unprotected in the October 1961 expansion draft, and he was selected by the Mets. He was their starting third baseman on the franchise's inaugural Opening Day, on April 11, 1962, in an infield that included fellow ex-Dodgers Gil Hodges and Charlie Neal, but went just 4-for-52 before being traded to his hometown Reds. After a brief return to Los Angeles the following year, Zimmer spent his final two and a half major league seasons with the Washington Senators. For his career, he hit .235/.290/.372 with 91 homers in 1,095 games.
Zimmer may not have starred in the majors, but he had absorbed more than his share of baseball wisdom, which he spent the better part of the next half-century passing along to future generations. After spending a year in Japan with the Toei Flyers, he returned to the Reds organization as a minor league player-manager; he even pitched 12 games in relief at Double A! Among the players he oversaw were future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and Hal McRae. After one more year managing in Cincinnati's system, Zimmer spent single seasons skippering at various levels in the Cubs' and Padres' organizations before returning to the majors in 1971 as the third base coach for the Montreal Expos. He was set to do the same for San Diego in 1972, but 11 games into the year the club fired manager Preston Gomez, and Zimmer took the reins.
The team's brown-and-yellow uniforms weren't the Padres' only sin. In fact, they were one of the majors' most poorly run franchises, and Zimmer didn't have much to work with. The Padres went just 54-88 under him in 1972, and 60-102 in '73, finishing last in the six-team NL West both times.
Fired at the end of the '73 season, Zimmer caught on with the Red Sox as their third base coach under manager Darrell Johnson. Boston won the American League pennant in 1975, and in Game 6 of the World Series against the Reds he infamously sent Denny Doyle on an ill-fated run for home on a bases-loaded shallow fly ball in the ninth inning. Zimmer shouted, "No, no, no" but in the roar of the Fenway Park crowd, Doyle heard "Go, go, go" and took off, getting thrown out and sending the game into extra innings. The Red Sox eventually won on Carlton Fisk's famous home run in the 12th inning but lost the series in Game 7.
Johnson was fired midway through the 1976 season, and Zimmer took over, piloting Boston to a 42-34 finish and third place in the seven-team AL East. That audition sufficed, and the next year, he oversaw a 97-win team in which future Hall of Famers Fisk, Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski were in full flower. Alas, the Red Sox could do no better than third that season. The next year, the Sox won 99 games, but it wasn't enough; a 3-14 slide in late August and early September allowed the Yankees, once 14 games behind in July, to get back into the race. New York completed its amazing comeback by wining the Game 163 play-in via Bucky Dent's home run. Zimmer's overreliance on Fisk (who played 157 games) and injured third baseman Butch Hobson, who had to rearrange the bone chips in his elbows between errors (of which he made a jaw-dropping 43) helped gain Zimmer infamy, as did pitcher Bill Lee nicknaming him "The Gerbil" and openly battling him.
Few managers could survive such a collapse, but Zimmer did, at least temporarily. Boston won 91 games in 1979, though that was again good for only third place in the AL East, and the axe finally fell late in the 1980 season as the Red Sox were finishing an 83-win campaign. Zimmer spent the strike-shortened 1981 season and part of the following year managing the Rangers before being replaced by Johnson, the same man he had taken over for in Boston.
After serving two coaching stints with the Yankees, one with the Cubs and one with the Giants, Zimmer was named Cubs manager in 1988. While the team finished just 77-85 that year, the squad — led by future Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg and Greg Maddux — went 93-69 in '89, giving Zimmer what would prove to be his only division title. Alas, Chicago lost the NLCS to the Giants in five games.
The Cubs slumped back to 77 wins in 1990, and 37 games into the 1991 season, Zimmer was fired again. That was the last time he managed a major league team, save for his 21-15 interim stint with the Yankees in 1999, which isn't officially included in his ledger; he finished his career with an official record of 885-858, good for a .508 winning percentage.
Zimmer returned to Boston as third base coach under Hobson in 1992, then moved to Colorado for the first three seasons with the expansion Rockies (1993-95). In 1996 he rejoined the Yankees for what proved to be a fruitful run. Under Torre New York won the World Series for the first time in 18 years that season, and after falling in the Division Series in '97, the team ripped off three straight championships from 1998-2000 and added a fourth consecutive pennant in '01.
Of his job as bench coach, Zimmer told Esquire in 2001, “I sit next to Torre on the bench. When he plays hit-and-run that works, I say, ‘Nice goin’, Skipper,’ and if it doesn’t work, I go down to the other end of the bench, get a drink, and get out of his way.” He didn't always stay far enough out of the way, however. In the 1999 playoffs he was struck in the face by a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball -- he showed up in an army helmet with the Yankees' logo the next night -- and during Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS, the 72-year-old lunged at, and was thrown to the ground by, Boston's Pedro Martinez after the Red Sox ace escalated a beanball war by throwing behind the head of New York's Karim Garcia.
A tearful Zimmer apologized for his part in the brawl the next day and was fined $5,000 by MLB.
Once his relationship with owner George Steinbrenner inevitably strained, Zimmer left the Yankees following the 2003 season and joined the Devil Rays as an advisor. He was allowed to be in uniform during spring training and in pregame workouts as well as select road trips; it was then that he took up the custom of adding one number to his uniform every year.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi and team captain Derek Jeter — the last uniformed links to Zimmer's time in the Bronx — learned of Zimmer's passing during the team's loss to the A's on Wednesday night. Girardi choked up during the postgame press conference when asked about Zimmer, who managed him as a Cub and coached him as a Rockie and Yankee. He said he last spoke to Zimmer before his recent surgery and described him as:
"A great baseball man. A baseball lifer, a mentor to me. I had him 10 out of my first 11 years in the big leagues, so wherever he went, I went… He gave me my first opportunity, I'll never forget that. He told me with a week to go [in spring training] that I'd made the club in 1989 but I couldn't tell anybody. I was scared to death to tell anyone, the only person I told was [my wife] Kim."
"He liked to have fun. I saw Zim dance on a table after we came from behind and won a game. The table broke and snapped and here came Zim down."
Said Jeter, "Zim was around when I first came up, he taught me a lot about the game. He's pretty much seen everything… He was always positive and liked to have fun. It's a long season, so that's what you miss." Asked to recall the 2003 brawl, he added, "He was a fighter, he was intense. I think that exemplifies him. He was into the game and fun to be around."
Elsewhere, Torre (now the executive vice president of MLB) said in a statement, "I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me," while Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner called Zimmer "an original — a passionate, old-school, one-of-a-kind baseball man."
Indeed, they don't get any more old school than a man who spent 66 years in the game and never drew a pay check outside it. Don Zimmer will be missed.
UPDATE: The golden voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully, is a must-hear on the subject of Zimmer, whom he called "the most beloved Dodger amongst his teammates": [mlbvideo id="33442449" width="600" height="336" /]