Don Zimmer was the ultimate futility infielder, though it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He was a star in the making until a 1953 beaning put him in a coma for nearly two weeks — he was even administered last rites – and left him with four holes in his head, later filled by the rare metal tantalum. Coming through a well-stocked Dodger system, he was blocked by future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese anyway, so he was forced to bounce around the infield to find playing time, and while he remained fearless at the plate, his offensive game never flourished.
As a player, Zimmer became a disposable commodity, a replacement-level scrub long before the words “replacement level” had ever been uttered. He bounced around the majors for 12 years with the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets (he was their inaugural third baseman but went 4-for-52 before being mercifully traded), Reds, Dodgers (again) and Senators, hitting a grand .235/290/.372 in the Show, winning a pair of World Series rings, making one All-Star team, and suffering yet another beaning that broke his cheekbone. About that, from a 1999 Sports Illustrated bit:
“After Jeffcoat hit me in the face,” he says, “doctors examined my skull and said, ‘What have you got in there?’” I told them, but somehow reports came out about a steel plate.” Why not correct the tale, which made his head the butt of countless jokes? “Aw, it’s like when people say they saw me play in Montreal,” says the Yankees’ interim manager. “I say, ‘Thanks, I enjoyed it,’ but I never played there. When somebody brought up the steel plate, I just said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ” Steel or no steel, he’s one of the game’s magnetic personalities.
After a year in Japan, Zimmer went back to the minors to manage in the Reds’ chain, and he spent he better part of the next half-century imparting his baseball wisdom and his stories. In the minors, he oversaw Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. In the majors, at the tail end of his first managerial job wearing a shit-brown Padres uniform, he greeted a rookie Dave Winfield. He skippered four major league teams and coached a total of eight, not counting his multiple stints with the Yankees. He presided over one of the worst collapses in Red Sox history, took the Cubs to a rare playoff appearance, and was Joe Torre’s sidekick through a pinstriped dynasty that included four world championships and six pennants, not to mention a few times of telling George Steinbrenner how far to shove it.
Disposable perhaps, but also indispensable. That’s the true secret of the tribe of futility infielders. While limited in talent relative to the stars at the highest levels, they find ways to carve out full lives in the game, passing on both the fundamentals and the lore. They’re nothing less than the laces that hold the ol’ leather together, the very soul of baseball. Zimmer clocked an amazing 66 years in the game, never drawing a paycheck outside of it.
Zimmer’s tenure as the Yankees’ bench coach came during the time that I turned from a modestly successful career in graphic design to starting a humble blog that sent me down the road to becoming a professional baseball writer and occasional TV talking head. With his bulging jowls and near-spherical shape, he cut an odd but memorable figure in pinstripes; you could put his silhouette in the MLB logo and it would be instantly recognizable. Thanks to a history that included meeting Babe Ruth, playing with Jackie Robinson and under Casey Stengel, managing against Bucky Fucking Dent and coaching Derek Jeter — who used to rub his head for good luck — he become a common reference point for baseball discussion among friends. The army helmet he donned during the 1999 postseason after getting drilled by a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball — could a fucking baseball avoid that poor, battered noggin just once? — turned him into an icon. He may have been loathed in Boston for presiding over the 1978 collapse, but he became beloved in New York.
On Wednesday night, I was in the Yankee Stadium press box trying to find an angle on Yanks-A’s as part of my night duty for the Sports Illustrated Strike Zone blog, where I’ve spent the past two years at the expense of this old space. When the news of Zimmer’s passing at age 83 came across Twitter, I got choked up, remembering all the laughs from that pinstriped era when my friends and I had so much time to drink beer, shoot the shit, and soak up baseball together at the ballpark while the Yankees kicked ass. Instinctively, I knew that the job of summarizing Zimmer’s career for SI.com would fall to me, and I began typing: “Baseball lost one of its lifers on Wednesday…” I capped my 2,000-word piece with quotes from a teary Joe Girardi, who played under him in Chicago, Colorado and New York, as well as Jeter, who did the press contingent the rare service of quickly showing up to his locker after a loss to deliver his brief soundbites on the thoughts of Zimmer’s passing.
I’m too much of a latecomer to have dealt with the Zim in a professional capacity, so I’ll have to fall back on the great 2001 Scott Raab profile from Esquire, the must-read words from Boston’s Leigh Montville, the on-air tribute by the incomparable Vin Scully, and SI colleague Tom Verducci‘s story of one time when Zimmer stood up to the Boss:
In the 1990s, when the New York Yankees won more than anybody else but not enough for owner George Steinbrenner, after one particular loss the owner ordered every member of the coaching and training staffs and manager Joe Torre upstairs to his office at Yankee Stadium. As many as two dozen people sat and stood around the room, their heads drooped, knowing the lashing that was about to come. Steinbrenner didn’t disappoint them with his fury.
“We have to do better,” Steinbrenner said. “All of us. 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.”
Don Zimmer got up out of his chair and walked out on Steinbrenner. The rest of the room managed to suppress both gasps and laughter.
Zimmer’s wife, Soot, who had been waiting in the lobby and was expecting the usual lengthy Steinbrenner summit, knew it meant only one thing to see her husband get off the elevator so soon after the meeting began.
“You’ve been fired!”
A great Sports Illlustrated photo archive of Zimmer is here. Number 6, with Jim Leyland, is a personal favorite, and number 7, of him with the army helmet, the most iconic.
He was The Zim, exemplar of the Futility Infielder species, and he will be greatly missed.