Don Zimmer, a Baseball Fixture, Dies
FILE - In this Sept. 30, 1978 file photo, former Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, left, points as he chats with Red Sox manager Don Zimmer about players on the field, prior to game with the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park in Boston. Don Zimmer, a popular fixture in professional baseball for 66 years as a manager, player, coach and executive, has died. He was 83. (AP Photo/Dave Tenenbaum, File)
St. Petersburg, Fla. — Don Zimmer wasn’t a fixture in baseball forever. It just seemed that way.
He played alongside Jackie Robinson on the only Brooklyn Dodgers team to win the World Series. He coached Derek Jeter on the New York Yankees’ latest dynasty. And his manager once was the illustrious Casey Stengel.
For 66 years, Zimmer was a most popular presence at ballparks all over, a huge chaw often filling his cheek. Everyone in the game seemed to know him, and love him.
Zimmer was still working for the Tampa Bay Rays as a senior adviser when he died Wednesday at a hospital in nearby Dunedin. He had been in a rehabilitation center since having seven hours of heart surgery in mid-April.
“Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man,” Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said in a statement.
Zimmer started out as a minor league infielder in 1949, hitting powerful shots that earned him the nickname “Popeye.” He went on to enjoy one of the longest-lasting careers in baseball history.
And oh, the stories he could tell.
“I loved listening to him every day,” Billy Connors, a coach under Zimmer with the Chicago Cubs, told The Associated Press.
Zimmer played on the original New York Mets, saw his Boston Red Sox beaten by Bucky Dent’s playoff homer, got tossed to the ground by Pedro Martinez during a brawl and was Joe Torre’s right-hand man as the bench coach with the Yankees.
“I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me. He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game,” Torre said in a statement.
“The game was his life. And his passing is going to create 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,” he said.
A career .235 hitter in the big leagues, numbers could never define all that Zimmer meant to the game. He did have tremendous success, too — his teams won six World Series rings and went to the postseason 19 times.
Zimmer’s No. 66 Rays jersey had been worn recently by longtime Tampa Bay third base coach Tom Foley in tribute. The Rays hosted the Miami Marlins on Wednesday night, and Foley was crying in the dugout.
Earlier this season, the Rays hung a banner in the front of the press box at Tropicana Field that simply read “ZIM.”
There was a moment of silence at Dodger Stadium for Zimmer before Los Angeles played the Chicago White Sox.
“On behalf of Major League Baseball and the many clubs that ‘Popeye’ served in a distinguished baseball life, I extend my deepest condolences to Don’s family, friends and his many admirers throughout our game,” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
Zimmer’s biggest admirer was his wife “Soot” — they were married at home plate during a minor league game in 1951. Two years later in the minors, Zimmer’s path took a frightening turn — he was beaned by a fastball and left in a coma, and doctors had to put metal screws in his head.
He recovered well enough to wear a lot of uniforms during his 56 years in the majors. He played for the Dodgers, Mets, Cubs, Cincinnati and Washington. He managed San Diego, Boston, Texas and the Cubs.
“Probably the best baseball man I knew,” Connors said.
Yankees executive Hank Steinbrenner echoed that sentiment.
“I loved Zim. I loved his passion. He was a great, great guy. He was a great baseball guy,” he told the AP. “Everybody loved him.”
Steinbrenner, son of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, said Torre and Zimmer were the “perfect team” during New York’s run that brought four titles in a five-year span.
“Joe was low-keyed. Zim would get fired up. He was a bench coach for real,” Steinbrenner said. “He was an extremely important part of the 1990s success.”
Zimmer hit 91 home runs and had 352 RBIs in 12 seasons. He started Game 7 when Brooklyn beat the Yankees for the 1955 crown and was an All-Star in 1961.
The next year, he played under Stengel on the 1962 expansion Mets, who famously went 40-120.
“Don’t blame them all on me,” Zimmer once said. “I got traded after the first 30 days.”
Zimmer was the 1989 NL Manager of the Year with the Cubs and was at Yankee Stadium for three perfect games, by Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series and by David Cone and David Wells in the late 1990s.
“It’s a sad day for the game of baseball,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said after a 3-2 loss at San Diego. “Don impacted lives from the time he put a uniform on in the minor leagues until today.”
Zimmer is survived by his wife; son Thomas, a scout with the San Francisco Giants; daughter Donna, and four grandchildren.