June 5, 2014, 3:07 am
I was watching the A’s-Yankees game on ESPN when I learned that Don Zimmer passed away at the age of 83 following complications from open heart surgery.
ESPN color commentator Rick Sutcliffe, who played under Zimmer with the Cubs, was visibly upset upon hearing the news.
Zimmer was quite literally a baseball lifer. He spent 66 years in the game as a player, coach and manager. Drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, his career nearly ended before it began. During a minor league game in 1953, Zimmer was beaned, rendered unconscious for two weeks and had to have a steel plate inserted in his forehead.
However, Zimmer would make his big league debut with the Dodgers late the following season as a utility player. He would earn a World Series ring with The Bums in 1955. Zimmer would follow the team to Los Angeles in 1958 and earn another World Series ring with them in 1959. Prior to the 1960 season, Zimmer was traded to the Chicago Cubs for future big league manager Johnny Goryl and relief pitcher Ron Perranoski. While with the Cubs, Zimmer would be named to his only All-Star Game in 1961.
Zimmer was an original member of the New York Mets, but only played 14 games with them before being traded to the Cincinnati Reds. In 1963, Zimmer would return to the Dodgers, only to be sold to the Washington Senators where he remained through 1965. Zimmer was among the first American players to play in Japan which he did in 1966. Zimmer also played in Latin America.
But Zimmer is best known as a manager and coach. After coaching under Gene Mauch in Montreal in 1971, Zim moved onto San Diego to coach under Preston Gomez. But early in 1972, the Padres fired Gomez and named Zimmer manager. The Padres fared no better under Zimmer and he was dismissed following the 1973 season.
In 1974, Zimmer would become the third base coach for the Boston Red Sox. In Game 6 of the ’75 World Series, Red Sox second baseman Denny Doyle thought Zim said “Go!”, but he actually said “No!” Doyle ended up getting thrown out at home by George Foster. If not for that miscommunication we would not have had Carlton Fisk’s heroics.
In the middle of the 1976 season, the Red Sox abruptly fired manager Darrell Johnson and replaced him with Zimmer. Despite guiding the Sox to 97, 99 and 91 wins from 1977-1979, Zimmer had nothing to show for it. Of course, in July 1978, the Sox had a 14 1/2 game lead in the AL East only to have Bucky Dent hit a pop fly over the Green Monster one October afternoon. Zimmer was widely criticized for pitching the likes of Bobby Sprowl over veterans like Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Late in 1980, Zimmer would be fired.
Zimmer moved south to manage the Texas Rangers in 1981, but was dismissed in the middle of the 1982 season and replaced, ironically enough, by Darrell Johnson. The next few years were spent as a coach with the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants before getting his final opportunity to manage in the big leagues when he was hired by the Cubs in 1988. In 1989, Zimmer would finally reach the post-season guiding the Cubs to a NL East title. He would remain with the Cubs through the 1991 season.
In 1992, Zimmer would return to Boston to coach on Butch Hobson’s staff. Hobson had played third base when Zimmer managed the Sox. In 1993, Zimmer joined the expansion Colorado Rockies and became Don Baylor’s bench coach through 1995. In 1996, Zimmer moved back east and returned to the Yankees to become Joe Torre’s right hand man and become part of four World Series championship teams. During his tenure with the Yankees, he became known for wearing an Army helmet after being plunked by a foul ball hit by Chuck Knoblauch. He would also become known for trying to start a fight with Pedro Martinez during the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox. Deeply chagrined, Zimmer tearfully apologized the following day.
From 2004 until the very end, Zimmer served as the bench coach for the Tampa Bay Rays. He would see his final World Series in 2008 when the Rays went from worst to first before falling short against the Phillies.
After Zimmer underwent open heart surgery, Rays third base coach Tom Foley paid tribute to Zim by wearing his uniform during Rays games. Zimmer’s number was 66 signifying the years he spent in professional baseball.
Zimmer and his high school sweetheart Jean (affectionately known as Soot) were married before a minor league ballgame in 1951 and remained married for 62 1/2 years until death did they part.