One of the stories I was fascinated with as a young student of baseball involved a Brooklyn Dodgers player in the 1950s that was beaned and had to have a metal plate inserted into his head in order to protect him from further injury. I remember admiring the guy for continuing to play, despite the risk of incurring another head injury. I figured he must have really loved the game.
That player was Don Zimmer, not a name casual baseball fans would routinely remember, but one baseball history buffs will never forget. Zimmer died on June 4 at age 83, after sixty-six years in the game in various capacities. To most people in baseball, he was known as “Zim.”
This baseball “lifer” actually came close to ending his career, as well as his life, at age 22, when he was plunked in the head by a pitcher named Jim Kirk in a minor league game on July 7, 1953. Indeed he was near death, unconscious for almost two weeks and unable to speak for eight weeks. He had to be fitted with a cranial plate.
Zimmer had been a promising prospect in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, having signed with them out of high school. Once touted as Pee Wee Reese’s replacement as the regular shortstop for the Dodgers, he never really lived up to those expectations. However, he did become a serviceable utility player whose major league career spanned from 1954 to 1965. He played on two Dodger World Series championship teams, in 1955 with Brooklyn and 1959 with Los Angeles.
He was the first third baseman in New York Mets history, when the franchise played its inaugural season in 1962. However, he wound up playing in only 14 games for them, which included a 0-for-34 hitless streak, beginning what seemed to be an endless run of second-rate third basemen for the Mets.
Zimmer also played with the Cubs, Reds, and Senators during his twelve major league seasons. He was largely a below-average hitter, but he occasionally showed some home run pop in his bat. His best season occurred in 1958, when he hit 17 home runs and 60 RBI while compiling a .262 batting average. He completed his playing career after one season in the Japanese Pacific League in 1966.
Zimmer had several stops as a minor league manager before being named a coach for the Montreal Expos in 1971. His first major league managerial position came in 1972, when he replaced Preston Gomez and the San Diego Padres manager.
Through his later managerial and coaching stints, he became one of the “characters” of the game. He took over as manager of the Boston Red Sox in mid-season in 1976. He often feuded with outspoken Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who dubbed Zimmer a “designated gerbil.” Zimmer wasn’t able to live down the Red Sox debacle in 1978, when they squandered a 14-game lead and then lost a one-game playoff to the New York Yankees. New Englanders never forgave him, despite the Red Sox’ turning in three 90+ wins seasons.
After an uneventful stint as the Texas Rangers’ manager, Zimmer seemed to gain resurgence when he took over as manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1988. His stocky, pop-eyed appearance and his antics on the field, frequently arguing with umpires, made him a popular manager. Of course, it helped that the Cubs won the division title in 1989, their first in five years. However, early in the 1991 season, he was replaced.
In 1996, Joe Torre hired Zimmer as his bench coach for the New York Yankees. Zimmer remained in this capacity with the team until 2003, and even filled in as manager for 36 games when Torre missed time due to surgery. During that time period, the Yankees won three World Series titles and finished as runner-up in two more seasons. Even though he was considered an old-school baseball guy, he was a trusted advisor to the players, as well as to Torre, and he continued to demonstrate a deep passion for the game.
One memorable event that characterized Zimmer’s zest for the game involved a bench-clearing with the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. The Yankees were convinced that Red Sox hurler Pedro Martinez was intentionally throwing at several Yankees’ batters. Later in the game, Yankees’ pitcher Roger Clemens retaliated against a Red Sox hitter, which prompted both teams to empty their benches. In a futile attempt to stand up for his Yankee teammates, Zimmer ran up to Martinez with intentions to fight him. Martinez tossed the 72-year-old Zimmer to the ground. Zimmer was taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure, but was not injured after all. He later publicly apologized for his actions, but his Yankees team was proud of their coach and mentor.
Zimmer is famous for another media moment in 1999 with the Yankees, when he was noticed on a television broadcast wearing a military combat helmet in the dugout one day. This followed the previous day’s game in which Zimmer was beaned in the dugout by batter Chuck Knoblauch’s foul ball. Zimmer had to be taken to the clubhouse since he was bleeding profusely, but again he was not seriously injured. He later said, “All I could think was, this would have been a helluva way to end my career in baseball, especially since this was the way it all started.”
In 2004, Zimmer was named senior baseball advisor with the Tampa Bay Rays. He could be seen in uniform during spring training and during pre-game activities for regular season home games. For over ten seasons, he maintained this role, which also included community work for the Rays.
Indeed, Zimmer loved the game. Nicknamed “Popeye,” he practically spent his entire life, parts of seven decades, in some capacity in the game. The baseball family will miss him.
For more information about the life of Don Zimmer, I recommend two autobiographical books: Zim: A Baseball Life and The Zen of Zim.