A lot of baseball history was lost Wednesday with the death at 83 of Tampa Bay Rays coach Don Zimmer, one of the most colorful and popular figures in the game (and one of the roundest). He died peacefully from complications of heart and kidney disease.
Zim, as he was known, never drew a paycheck for anything but baseball after he went from high school to the minor leagues in 1949. He even married his high school sweetheart, Soot, at home plate in a minor league park in Elmira, New York in 1951. Zim’s baseball career lasted 65 years, his marriage 63. (Zim’s other nicknames were “Gerbil” and “Popeye.” If you wonder why, just look at pictures of him.)
Zimmer broke into the bigs with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954, when his teammates had names like Snider, Newcombe, Furillo, Hodges, Campanella, Erskine, and Robinson. He played about half the time at second and backed up Peewee Reese at shortstop on the 1955 Dodgers, Brooklyn’s only world champions. The original plan was for Zimmer to replace Reese when Reese retired. That didn’t work out to expectations, but Zim enjoyed an 11-year Major League playing career with the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Reds, and Senators. He then managed for 13 years in the bigs with the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers, and Cubs. Since 1992 he coached, including many years as Joe Torre’s bench coach when Torre managed the Yankees. Zimmer even filled in as Yankee manager in 1999 while Torre was recovering from prostate surgery.
Here’s what Torre had to say on learning of Zimmer’s death: “I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me. He certainly has been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to crate a void in my life and my wife Ali’s. We loved him. The game of baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man.”
Zim’s Major League career almost never happened. He was struck in the temple by a pitch in 1953 while playing for the AAA St. Paul Saints. He was unconscious for 13 days and for the rest of his life had a metal plate in his head to remind him of the incident. It was assumed that his career was over, and it’s a testimonial to his personal strength that he fought his way back into the game and on the Major Leagues.
Zimmer was always unselfish, and took a personal interest in the players he managed and coached, doing all he could to help them succeed. Testimonials were flooding in Wednesday from players and former players that Zimmer helped over the decades.
RIP Don Zimmer. A baseball lifer. A great American.