The Baseball Lifer: Don Zimmer

zim2Don Zimmer always had a story. No surprise. If baseball history was being made, chances are he was there.

In the mid-1990s, I spent some time in the Yankees’ clubhouse working on a variety of stories and I could always count on an anecdote or two from Zim.

In 1998, I waited until the beat guys cleared Joe Torre’s office to ask him about his memories of Yankee Stadium for a piece about its 75th anniversary.

Torre recounted being a Brooklyn kid in the third deck between third base and left field when Mickey Mantle made the runnning catch on Gil Hodges’ shot to preserve Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Zim, of course, was hanging out in the office, ever at Torre’s side and when I left, he followed me into the well of the locker room and said he had a story, too. Of course.

He said he saw his first World Series at the stadium in 1947, the year his American Legion team from Cincinnati won the national championship and were rewarded with the trip. It was the first of many. 

Eight years later, he was the second baseman when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the seventh game in Yankee Stadium.

Zimmer died on Wednesday, but those stories remain his legacy. He was teammates with Jackie Robinson. He married his wife in 1951 at the home plate of a minor league park. He was beaned and nearly killed during a minor league game; doctors drilled holes in his skill to relieve the pressure. He was the first third baseman of the hapless Mets. He played for a dozen years in the majors, hitting 15 home runs for the Dodgers in just 88 games in 1955. He managed those loveable losers, the Cubs and the Red Sox and was the man in charge at Fenway when Bucky “Bleeping” Dent homered over the monster in 1978. He managed the Cubs to a division title in 1989.

When he lost his composure at the age of 72 and charged Pedro Martinez during a Yankees-Red Sox dustup, he sat in front of the cameras the next day and apologized, blinking back tears.

Derek Jeter adored him and the feeling was returned. Jeter rubbed Zimmer’s bald head daily in the locker room for luck. From the first day, Zimmer was a Jeter fan, telling me for a 1996 story that he was headed to the Hall of Fame.
Not long after he departed the Yankees, he caught on with the Tampa Bay Rays, near his home and stayed with the team as an adviser, often in uniform, until he fell ill this spring. That’s what a baseball lifer does.

He once told me he’d never earned a paycheck outside baseball.

Zimmer had those bug-eyes and a head that disappeared into his shoulders. When he told a story, he leaned in a little, proud and passionate about his life in baseball.

He played and managed the game the right way, perhaps the best thing you can say about him.



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