The package of Red Man Tobacco is back in his hip pocket. Don Zimmer gave up the stuff in spring training, but now, quite unexpectedly, he's the manager of a team, the Chicago Cubs, that is driving for the championship of the National League East, and, well, a good chew is a good chew. His face again resembles that of a lopsided man in the moon as he stares across the diamond at Wrigley Field, seeing the things that only someone with 58-year-old baseball eyes can see.
This is an article from the Sept. 25, 1989 issue
"I had some heartburn one day in the spring," he said not long ago. "So I just give up chewing. About a week ago, though, I pick up a package. Just started. It's a disgusting habit." He spits into a Red Man puddle on the dugout floor. A reporter standing nearby says she wishes she hadn't worn white shoes.
The story this time is that Zimmer has a bunch of young guys who are doing things they aren't supposed to do. And now half of Chicago is wearing clothing with a Cub insignia on it. Not only that, but Zimmer's picture is selling fried chicken from posters all over the city, and the nightly news gives updates on how much weight he has lost on his six-week-old diet. As of Sunday, he had shed 26 pounds.
"I say I'm going on a diet," he says. "Some guy writes it in the paper. So these people, Nutri/System, call up the team publicity department. The next day this beautiful blonde shows up and gives me a whole program. All their food. My wife cooks it for me while I'm home, and on the road they have it waiting for me. I just go into the hotel dining room and say, 'I'm Mr. Zimmer, and I'm supposed to have a special meal.' Everything's ready for me."
Zimmer's wife, Soot, is also on the diet. She figured it was just as easy to cook the special food for two as for one. She has lost 15 pounds, but she says Don, who weighed 215 when he began dieting, has an advantage. He has more weight to lose.
"I feel good," says Zimmer. So good, in fact, that, after the Cubs' 10-inning 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 27, he did a standing jump onto a metal table in the Chicago clubhouse. The table buckled at one end, but he made the jump. He says he'll pay for the table. "I'll pay for a table every day," he says, "if we can keep winning games like that."
His hair is cut, as usual, in a boot-camp special, buzzed down to a gray nub. He sometimes rubs his hands across his head, as if trying to coax answers from a fuzzy crystal ball. This is the way he has worn his hair for 40 professional seasons, through all kinds of changes in style. Soot says she doesn't know anymore where the hair ends and baldness begins. She suspects she may never learn.
"I'm just saying we put ourselves in position," says Zimmer, trying to explain the staying power of the Cubs, who at week's end had a five-game lead in their division. "If I had said to you at the beginning of the season that we'd be here now, they'd have locked me up in Chattahoochee. But here we are."
Patience has been Zimmer's greatest asset this year. The young guys—players like outfielders Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith—have made a lot of young-guy mistakes, but Zimmer has nodded and said that's how young guys learn. "He's a laid-back manager," says Walton. "We've done a lot of things he could have exploded on, but he never did. I was thrown out four times on the bases in a week. He called me into his office. I expected him to explode, but he just told me to calm down."
"You listen to him closely, and he's doing just the right thing with a young team," says 33-year-old Rick Sutcliffe. "Whenever we win, he gives all the credit to the players. Whenever we lose, he takes all the heat."
Zimmer has held his team together with bubble gum and string, not any grand plan. He has relied on essentially three starting pitchers—Mike Bielecki, Greg Maddux and Sutcliffe. He has found closing strength in relievers Mitch Williams and Les Lancaster. And he has baffled opponents with his unorthodox moves. At one point, Cub catchers threw out seven straight runners on pitchouts with the count at 2-2, and as of Sunday the Cubs had scored 11 runs on suicide squeezes.
Zimmer can look beyond the centerfield scoreboard and see the apartment tower where he and Soot live. Thirty-ninth floor. On the mornings of day games, he comes to the ballpark at 8:30 a.m. with his hitting coach, Joe Altobelli, who lives in the same building. Zimmer is dressed by nine: full uniform, even the shoes. He has the lineup card filled out by 9:15, even if the game doesn't start until three o'clock. His boyhood friend Jim Frey is his boss, the general manager.
Three of Zimmer's grandchildren, aged six to 11, were in town a few weeks ago. He hit fungoes to them and talked about his teenage years. Time stood delightfully still.
"Frey and me played on a Cincinnati team in 1947 that won the American Legion championship," he says. "We got on a train and were gone 25 days. We played in Quincy, Illinois, and then Cedar Rapids, Iowa—and then win the thing in Los Angeles. Babe Ruth was there. He was dying then, but he was active in the American Legion. I remember he shook our hands and said in that husky voice that he'd seen a lot of teams during the season, but the best one won. We come back to Cincinnati for a celebration, and then they take us to New York for the World Series. The Dodgers were playing the Yankees. Gionfriddo made that catch."
Babe Ruth? Al Gionfriddo's catch? The kids' hearts are beating a little faster. And there ain't nowhere Zimmer would rather be than here. Then again, he ain't never been much anyplace else.
"You wouldn't think a wedding at home plate could be beautiful, but it was," says Zimmer. "You see the pictures in the album—I got it at home—and you'd have to agree. You'd say it was beautiful."
Don and Soot were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y. Night game. Aug. 16, 1951. His son, Tom, was born while Don was arriving home from a road trip. Hot day. Mobile, Ala. His daughter, Donna, was born in St. Petersburg, Fla., while he was trying to beat out Pee Wee Reese for the shortstop job on the Brooklyn Dodgers. He heard of his father's death while he was sitting in the dugout at Anaheim Stadium as the manager of the Boston Red Sox.
Frey says that Zimmer "has always been one-minded about baseball." The game has captivated him since the moment his father, Harold, gave him his first genuine big league glove. By the time Don was 15, he was playing second and his father short on a slo-pitch team in Cincinnati. One of the outfielders was Pete Rose's father, Harry.
Social events never mattered that much to Zimmer. Nor did schoolwork. Jean Bauerle, nicknamed Soot by her grandmother, became his girlfriend in the 10th grade and his wife four years later. And Frey's girlfriend from high school, Joan, became his wife. The two couples have been double-dating ever since the 11th grade. A date almost always meant a ball game.
"The rest of us in school thought that maybe we could play baseball, but we also were protecting ourselves," says Frey. "We were thinking about going to college. I went. Ohio State. Don just wanted to be a ballplayer. He put the importance where he thought the importance should be, which is great. I hear these guys today say something like, 'I want to put baseball in its proper priority.' Well, if baseball's paying you $2 million a year, baseball better damned well be your first priority."
To Zimmer, the academic schedule at Western Hills High in Cincinnati was something to be endured to remain eligible for football and baseball. In 11th-grade English, Zimmer had "Itchy" McKinley, who gave the football players in her class a B plus for every touchdown they scored in a big game. For math one year he had Mr. Ehler, who also doted on athletes. "Plane geometry," says Zimmer. "I never even knew how to spell it. I still don't. I convinced Frey to take it, and I'm sitting in the back and he's sitting in the front. I'm doing fine. I'm getting my B's. Then one Saturday night, Mr. Ehler drops dead. I hear it on Monday morning, and my first thought is, Phew! I ain't got a chance. This young woman appears and she puts a problem on the board. Calls on me. First one out of the chute. 'Mr Zimmer, can you explain this problem?' I don't even try to fool her. I say, 'No, ma'am, I can't.' I sit down. Class ends. I go straight to the principal's office and transfer to shop."
To this day, Frey talks about Zimmer deserting him. He says, "I'm still sitting up there, studying geometry and Zimmer is in the basement making lamps."
Kentucky and Oregon wanted Zimmer to play quarterback for them. McKinley wanted to send him to Miami of Ohio. Said she would pay his way. But baseball came first. After graduating from Western Hills, Zimmer signed with the Dodgers and was off to the minors, one of 600 hopefuls trying to climb the greased pole to Brooklyn. The 40-year trip had begun.
"I've kept a scrapbook from every one of those years," says Soot. "It's amazing, the number of clippings. The years he managed, I've had to keep two scrap-books. They seem to write twice as much about a manager. This is a two-scrap-book year already."
Rented apartments. Rented houses. Rented rooms. A trailer in Salem, N.H. A hotel room in Japan, where in 1966 Zimmer hobbled through his final year as a player on a broken toe. Small towns. Big cities. Winter ball in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Day games. Night games. Cut. Traded. Hired. Fired. Soot once drove with the two kids from St. Petersburg to a new apartment in Los Angeles. Her husband called from Cincinnati three days later to tell her he had been sold to the Washington Senators. She began driving again.
"You know that we rented Bucky Dent's house in '83, don't you?" says Soot. "Everybody knows."
Bucky Dent's house?
"I've been fired by Texas, and I take a coaching job with the Yankees," recalls Zimmer. "Dent has been traded by the Yankees to Texas. I rent his house in Wyckoff, New Jersey. I go in there and on every——wall, there's a picture of him with that swing for that home run. Every——wall. I call him up and I tell him I turned every——one of them around, facing the wall."
Travel long enough and heartbreak can become just another anecdote. In this case heartbreak came in the form of Dent, a light-hitting shortstop, slapping a fly ball into the net at Fenway Park during the American League East playoff in 1978 to win the division for the Yankees and send Zimmer's Red Sox—who at one point in that season had a 10-game lead—to oblivion. You would think that Zimmer's idea of hell would be a room with Dent's picture above the mantel. Nah. For him, the defeat was merely another stop. "One pitch, Mike Torrez to Bucky Dent," says Zimmer. "I sometimes think if it weren't for that one pitch I might still be in Boston." He shrugs.
Until this season, 1978 was Zimmer's last turn as a manager in the national spotlight of a pennant race. His stay in Boston ended badly, with the fans booing him whenever he went to the mound in '79 and his free-thinking pitching staff going into rebellion—led by starter Bill Lee, who nicknamed him Gerbil. Still, Zimmer says the time he spent in Boston was as pleasant as any time he has spent anywhere in the sport. He also says that about Chicago. The common denominator: baseball.
"I suppose I had no idea what I was getting into," says Soot. "I was going to be a nurse. I was going to Elmira to get married, finish my training."
The wedding pictures show a young guy in a white Palm Beach suit marrying a young woman in a gown. The best man was second baseman Jack Lillis, the other half of the Pioneers' double-play combination. The other players formed an archway with bats.
"Ed Roebuck was a pitcher on that team," says Zimmer. "One day he says he's going to get married, and I say I am, too. The general manager, Spencer Harris, hears about it. He had had some home-plate weddings in Fort Worth and says the fans like 'em. He asks us to do it. Roebuck's Catholic and Polish, and his family doesn't like the idea. I don't care. Roebuck gets married in the morning in a church. I get married at night at home plate. Roebuck pitches the game and then gets three days off for a honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Me? The next night I got to hit against Gene Conley."
Soot ponders their wedding night. "I think he got a couple of hits," she says. "I can look it up."
The one mystery in this single-minded baseball life came early: What if? Every life has at least one "what if," but Zimmer's is more poignant than most. He was on his way to becoming a standout major league shortstop when a pitched ball left him half-dead at home plate on a July night in Columbus, Ohio, in 1953. Zimmer says he doesn't think about it. Never has. "I remember my doctor telling me when I left the hospital that when you have brain surgery a lot of things happen to you," says Zimmer. "He said, 'You ain't never going to be the player you were.' I said, 'That's it,' and I never thought about it again."
The game began in twilight. A righthander named Jim Kirk was pitching for the Columbus Red Birds. Zimmer was having a season of seasons for the Triple A St. Paul Saints. His numbers were so good—23 homers and a .300 average—that he would be voted the American Association's Rookie of the Year without playing another game.
The first pitch was a fastball. Zimmer had trouble picking it out of the background. "I almost didn't see that," he remembers telling the Columbus catcher.
"Yeah, it's tough tonight," said the catcher.
The second pitch was an overhead curve. Zimmer lost sight of it. His baseball instincts told him to duck. But the ball followed him and hit him on the left temple. He dropped to the ground. "Am I bleeding?" he asked.
"No," replied the St. Paul manager, Clay Bryant. Then Zimmer lost consciousness and remained semicomatose for the next 13 days.
Soot was in St. Paul, pregnant with Donna. The radio in their apartment was broken, so she was not listening to the game. One of the other players' wives knocked on the door and told her Don was hurt. "I guess I was too young to realize how dangerous all of this was," she says. "It wasn't until we were leaving the hospital that I heard the doctor who performed the operations point to Don and say, 'See that young man? He's very fortunate to be alive.' "
The impact of the pitch slammed Zimmer's brain against the right side of his skull. The doctors drilled two holes on the left side of his head to release the pressure. The operation didn't work. Then they performed it again on the right side. This time it worked.
"A lot of people think he has a steel plate in his head, that he sets off metal detectors," says Soot. "That's not true. How do these things get started? All he has is some little buttons to fill the holes in the skull. They're made of tantalum, some kind of rare metal."
Zimmer remembers seeing everything in triplicate when he awoke. He could not walk or talk. His weight dropped from 170 pounds to 124. Buzzy Bavasi, the Dodgers' general manager, came to the hospital and said there would always be a place for Zimmer in the organization. That was supposed to be the end. Zimmer was 22 years old.
Somehow Zimmer made it back to training camp the next spring. In a game against the New York Giants during the first week of the exhibition season, he hit a foul ball that shot back and bounced off his forehead. He went back to St. Paul for the season and found himself ducking a lot of beanballs. "There were some crude people in the minors in those days," he says. "Not like today. We played in Toledo, and they knocked me down five times in three games."
Fresco Thompson, the Dodgers' minor league director, saw that series. Afterward he told St. Paul's pitchers that if they didn't start retaliating, Zimmer couldn't play baseball. The pitcher the next day was a small lefthander named Wade Browning. He told Zimmer before the game that he would knock down any player Zimmer wanted. All Zimmer had to do was tug on his belt.
"When I'd left the day before, some of the Toledo players were sitting in the parking lot," says Zimmer. "Bob Thorpe. Kermit Wahl. George Crowe. I said something like, 'I'll be glad to get out of here. Someone could get hurt.' It was a joke. They didn't laugh. One of them said, 'If you can't take it, kid, you better go home.' "
Thorpe was Toledo's first batter. Zimmer tugged. Thorpe went down. Zimmer tugged again. Thorpe was hit by Browning's pitch. Wahl was the next hitter. First pitch. Tug. Wahl went down. Second pitch. Tug. Browning hit Wahl. Crowe was next. "He was standing up there on tiptoes," says Zimmer. "Browning looked at me. I said that was enough. We got the message across. Things got better after that."
Zimmer was beaned again in 1956. A fastball from the Cincinnati Reds' Hal Jeffcoat broke his cheekbone. However, the first beaning is the one that left the question, What if? Zimmer played 12 years in the majors for four teams, piling up answers to trivia questions. He was the third baseman for the New York Mets in their first game and the last player to wear number 14 for the Reds before Pete Rose. He was the Dodger who left in the 1955 World Series so that outfielder Sandy Amoros could come in and make his famous catch. Zimmer finished with a .235 career average and 91 homers. And yet....
If Zimmer had had a Hall of Fame career, would playing have been enough? Would he be sitting in the sunshine today, in the heat of a pennant race? "I never think about it," he says.
"What if you'd been wearing a batting helmet against Kirk?" he is asked.
"Wouldn't have put a nick on the plastic," he says. "It was a curveball."
The Cubs win again. Holy cow! The little man sits in his office. He spits into a wastebasket. He rubs his head. His English is fractured, but it don't matter. There's never any doubt that he knows baseball. The way a farmer knows the soil or a ship captain knows the sea.
In recent years, teams have tended to hire younger men as managers—guys who use computers to plan their strategies. Frey was criticized when he hired Zimmer in November 1987. Cronyism at its worst, the reporters wrote. There was even mention of a boyhood pact. Frey says this is nonsense.
"Are you kidding?" says Frey. "I hired Don because of my respect for his baseball ability and my respect for him as a person. All of those computer printouts are a great crutch. Seventy-five percent of them are nonsense. What are you going to do when you go to the mound in the eighth inning and see that your pitcher is quivering when he talks to you? Look at the computer? You need a guy who knows the game at this level; who has seen it."
Zimmer is certainly that, ain't he?
"I have never drawn a paycheck outside of baseball," he says, leaning back in his chair, clearly satisfied. "People always ask me, 'How'd you get by in those early years? You had a family. You weren't making much money.' "
"I played winter ball."