Don Zimmer, who spent 66 years in baseball, dies at 83

June 5, 2014

Don Zimmer, one of baseball’s most recognizable and beloved figures, who played on the Brooklyn Dodgers’ only championship team in 1955 and later was a coach for a New York Yankees dynasty that won four World Series titles, died Wednesday at a hospital in Dunedin, Fla. He was 83.

His death was announced by the Tampa Bay Rays, the team he worked for as an adviser. He had been in failing health since a stroke in 2012 and had complications from heart-valve surgery in April.

After signing his first professional contract in 1949, Mr. Zimmer went on to spend his entire working life in baseball — 66 years as of this season. He finished his 12-year major-league playing career with the Washington Senators in 1965, managed four teams in the major leagues and gained perhaps his greatest renown as a feisty coach of the Yankees from 1996 to 2003.

He was on the same Dodgers team as Jackie Robinson in the 1950s, played under gnomic Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel with the original New York Mets and stayed in the game long enough to be a mentor to Yankees stars Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Jeter would rub Mr. Zimmer’s bald head for good luck.

During baseball’s long 162-game season, Mr. Zimmer could be counted on for comic relief. In 1999, after he was struck in the head by a foul ball in the Yankees’ dugout, Mr. Zimmer showed up for work the next day wearing a combat helmet.

Don Zimmer in 1999. (Vincent Laforet/Getty Images)

He also had a deep knowledge of baseball, which he put to use as the Yankees’ bench coach. Between 1996 and 2000, as Mr. Zimmer sat beside manager Joe Torre, offering advice on strategy, the team won the World Series four times in five years.

“I don’t want no credit for doin’ anything,” Mr. Zimmer said in a 2001 interview with Esquire magazine. “I sit next to Joe like a bump on a log — that’s the way I leave it.”

Despite his jovial ways, Mr. Zimmer was known throughout his career as a spirited competitor who never backed down from a challenge. He was considered a future star in 1953, when he was struck in the temple by a pitch while playing in the minor leagues. Players did not wear protective batting helmets in those days, and Mr. Zimmer suffered a broken skull.

He did not regain consciousness for 13 days. Holes were drilled in his skull to relieve pressure on his brain.

Contrary to a commonly repeated story, Mr. Zimmer did not have a metal plate in his skull. The holes were filled with metallic plugs.

By the beginning of the 1954 season, he was back in action.

“You know what the pitchers did?” he told ESPN baseball writer Tim Kurkjian. “They threw at me to see if I was scared. I moved closer to the plate.”

During the 2003 American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, Mr. Zimmer ran on the field during a brawl. He charged Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez, who sidestepped the roundhouse punches of the portly 72-year-old coach and flung him to the ground.

Mr. Zimmer apologized the next day for embarrassing his team and the game of baseball, although many thought no apologies were needed. Asked why he ran toward Martinez, he said, “I sure wasn’t going over there to kiss him.”

Mr. Zimmer was also one of the few Yankees employees willing to stand up to the team’s often-tyrannical owner, George Steinbrenner. During one ­locker-room meeting, Steinbrenner lashed out at his club, saying, “If there is anybody in this room who thinks they are doing everything they can to help the Yankees, win, you can leave right now.”

Mr. Zimmer got up and walked out. Fed up with Steinbrenner, Mr. Zimmer quit the Yankees after the 2003 season and spent the rest of his career with the Rays as a coach and adviser. Each season, he changed his uniform number to reflect the number of years he had spent in pro baseball.

In recent weeks, Rays third-base coach Tom Foley has worn Mr. Zimmer’s No. 66 jersey during games.

Donald William Zimmer was born Jan. 17, 1931, in Cincinnati, where his father was in the wholesale produce business. An outstanding athlete in several sports, Mr. Zimmer was an all-state quarterback who was recruited to play football at the University of Kentucky, then coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Instead, he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers after completing high school in 1949. He and his high school sweetheart, Jean “Soot” Bauerle, were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., on Aug. 16, 1951, between games of a doubleheader. Players held bats aloft to form a canopy.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two children and four grandchildren.

Mr. Zimmer made the major leagues in 1954, a year after his broken skull. In 1955, he hit 15 home runs in only 88 games for the Dodgers, helping the team win its only World Series in Brooklyn.

He suffered another setback in 1956, when his cheekbone was shattered by a pitch. He could never see the ball the same afterward, he said, and he ended up being a utility player for the rest of his career, which came to an end in Washington. His lifetime batting average was a pedestrian .235.

Mr. Zimmer got his first big-league managing job with the San Diego Padres in 1972. After being named manager of the Red Sox in 1976, he led the club to a dazzling 99-63 record two years later.

His team lost a 14½-game lead over the Yankees in the season’s final six weeks, and the two teams were tied at the end of the year with records of 99-63. The Yankees won a one-game playoff on a home run by Bucky Dent.

Nicknamed “Popeye” in his youth for his meaty forearms, Mr. Zimmer was later derisively dubbed “the Gerbil” by Boston pitcher Bill Lee for his bulging, tobacco-stuffed cheeks.

Mr. Zimmer later managed the Texas Rangers before taking over the Chicago Cubs in 1987. Using un­or­tho­dox tactics, he led the “Boys of Zimmer” to a division championship in 1989 and was named National League manager of the year.

During his long and well-traveled career, Mr. Zimmer played in Japan and winter baseball in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Venezuela. He even spent one offseason as a player-manager for a prison team, which provided him with another of his endless tales of baseball.

One of his outfielders, it seemed, deliberately let a ball go through his legs, then turned to run after it.

“Well, there was a getaway car waiting for him and he escaped,” Mr. Zimmer told he recalled to the St. Petersburg Times in 2004, “and that was the end of that.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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