Don Zimmer, Man Who Shook Hands with Babe Ruth, Played with Jackie Robinson, and Helped Coach Derek Jeter and the Yankees to 4 World Series Championships, Dies at 83

AP FILE Don Zimmer sat with Ted Williams in the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park on Sept. 30, 1978.
Don Zimmer sat with Ted Williams in the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park on Sept. 30, 1978.

Don Zimmer was married at home plate at Dunn Field in Elmira, N.Y., between games of a doubleheader on Aug. 16, 1951.

What more do you need to know?

“I’d do it again,” Jean (Soot) Zimmer, his wife, once told me.

I never met anyone who was more pure baseball than Don Zimmer. “Never drew a paycheck outside of baseball,” he loved to say. He did have a go at a regular summer job once. Zimmy turned in his stuff at lunchtime and never looked back. After that it was baseball, baseball, and more baseball until he died Wednesday night at the age of 83.

As a player, manager, coach, and adviser Don Zimmer was a part of baseball from 1949 until his dying breath. I would guess his funeral will be the occasion for a whole lot of story-telling. I mean, just think of what he did and what he saw from the time he put on that first professional uniform in Cambridge, Md., as an 18-year-old shortstop in 1949.

He needed a year to get adjusted, but the following season he established himself as someone to watch in that always well-stocked Brooklyn Dodger organization. Zimmer completely destroyed the PONY League that year, leading it in home runs (23) and runs scored (146, and this in just 123 games), as well as putouts and assists.

Advancement was tough in those 16-team days, and it was exponentially difficult for a shortstop in the Dodger organization because future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese had been playing there since 1941 and wasn’t planning on going anywhere for a while. But Zimmer was going to be a tough one to deny. Eighty-one games into the 1953 season, the 22-year-old phenom was hitting .300 with 23 homers and 63 RBI’s for the Dodgers’ Triple A affiliate in St. Paul when a fastball thrown by Jim Kirk crashed into his un-helmeted head and changed his career path. He was unconscious for 13 days. Holes were drilled into his head and four corks were placed into it.

His career resumed but he was simply not the same player. Still, he made it to Brooklyn in 1954 and was a member of the only Brooklyn world championship team in 1955. Tragedy came calling once more in 1956 when he again was hit in the head, this time in the cheekbone.

Zimmer was denied stardom, but he carved out a 12-year career as a utilityman. He played in the second of the two 1961 All-Star Games. He was an Original Met, albeit a not very successful one. After a 4-for-52 start the Mets shipped him to Cincinnati. I used to love kidding him about being traded even-up for Cliff Cook, but it turns out it was a two-for-one, Bob Miller also coming over with Cook. It seemed somewhat appropriate that he ended his career in Japan. I’m going to guess he didn’t take much time to learn the language.

In later years Zimmy filled out the uniform nicely, but his distinguishing physical characteristic were a pair of muscular forearms that had earned him the nickname by which he was universally known in baseball: “Popeye.” Though a bit portly in middle age, he remained undeniably an athlete and he delighted in taking an occasional turn at the end of batting practice, peppering the wall or even launching a few into the screen.

There was never a doubt that Zimmer would remain in baseball when his playing days were over. His first big league managing job was a hopeless task in San Diego. He loved to point out to anyone who thought he had been fired by GM Buzzy Bavasi that in his wallet was a copy of his resignation letter. Gotta love that.

Of course, in these parts he is best remembered for his time as both third base coach and then manager of the Red Sox from 1974-80. He was the third base coach who says he shouted “No! No! No!” before Denny Doyle was cut down trying to score from third in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series (Doyle insisted he had heard “Go! Go! Go!”). He succeeded Darrell Johnson as the manager in 1976. In 1977, the Red Sox hit 233 home runs while finishing 2½ games behind the Yankees.

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Source: Boston Globe | Bob Ryan

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