In 1999, I spent a few days in Kansas City doing a story on baseball lifer Don Zimmer, who passed away on Wednesday.
Here's the piece, from his days as the Yankees bench coach:
By Jim Souhan
His is the face of baseball, symmetrically seamed and smooth. His
has been a life of baseball, a Forrest Gumpian romp through the
game's history, his mementos ranging from a ball Babe Ruth signed
in 1947 to the ring he won in the House that Ruth Built 51 years
Don Zimmer earned Ruth's autograph when his American Legion team
won a national tournament. Zimmer, now the Yankees' interim manager
who will direct the defending World Series champions against the
Twins tonight to start a three-game series, played with that
precious artifact on the sandlots of hometown Cincinnati. He would
never again trifle with baseball history.
"My wife keeps a scrapbook," he said this weekend, sitting in the
dugout in Kauffman Stadium. "We have a cupboard on the floor below
the trophy case. I would say that cupboard is probably as long as
from here to that wall," he says, pointing to the end of the
dugout, 10 feet away.
"There are doors that open up here, here and here, and she's got
scrapbooks starting in 1948, when I was in high school, all the way
up 'til today. Somebody wants to see something about 1949, all they
have to do is pull it out."
Zimmer's longevity reveals itself in a couple of his nicknames -
ranging from one of the original, crude, cartoons ("Popeye," given
to him as a young man for the size of his forearms) to a high-tech
special effect ("Yoda," for his posture and mentoring on the
Yankees' bench). His scrapbooks span the same timeline, from faded
black-and-white to florid color.
"It's amazing what she's done, amazing," Zimmer said of his wife,
Jean, nicknamed "Soot." "I'll get my grand-kids in there and we'll
start looking at '55, '54, '56 when we wore those bloomers. Oh,
they start laughing. `Pops, you didn't really wear those kind of
uniforms, did you?' "
Zimmer laughs, and those bright blue eyes that have seen
everything from Ruth's wizened grin to Jackie Robinson's glare to
Sandy Amoros' catch to Bucky Dent's homer to a Yankee team winning
125 games emerge from the cheeks and jowls.
"That's all we wore," he says, laughing, the punch line more in
the delivery - leaning forward, eyes wide - than the line.
Zimmer's baseball life has spanned from flannels to double-knits,
those tight-fitting pants that today reveal the outlines of a brace
wrapped around Zimmer's right knee. He's 68, and he might have both
knees replaced, which is why his days as interim manager might soon
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner begged him to run the team
while Zimmer's friend, Joe Torre, recovers from prostate cancer.
Zimmer has defiantly fought off Steinbrenner's meddling attempts,
which has been easy because he has nothing to fear - his knees hurt
so much a firing would be an act of mercy.
He doesn't take the lineup to home plate or visit the mound to
change pitchers. All the miles he has traveled around the bases and
on buses, trains and planes, playing in a handful of countries and
for teams now defunct and forgotten, and suddenly a 90-foot stroll
Wednesday, frustrated and pained, Zimmer told the Yankees players
he was "going home." Then Torre told him he couldn't return yet,
and Zimmer agreed to stay on indefinitely.
When Torre returns, Zimmer will indeed "go home." He hasn't
committed to retirement or returning, only to spending time with
Soot and surgeons.
"I've had a lot of people tell me, no big deal, I had it done,"
Zimmer said of knee replacement surgery. "I asked, `How long'd it
take?' Six months. I said, `That's nothing?' My days are numbered."
Someone told Zimmer he might as well get both knees replaced.
"Very good," Zimmer said, nodding. "Put me to sleep and get it
done, and then I'll go dancing."
And he laughs again, and runs a hand over the face that has
appeared in so many of baseball's climactic scenes, and sighs,
"What a life." It is neither complaint nor proclamation, just a
sigh from baseball's accidental tourist.
Zimmer is sitting on the bench in Kansas City, and Yankees
shortstop Derek Jeter, 30 feet away, calls out "Zim-mah!"
"You hear him call me that?" Zimmer says with a wink. "He's heard
me tell stories about Boston."
Zimmer managed the Red Sox in 1978, when they blew a 14-game lead
to the Yankees, then forced the most infamous playoff in New
England history, when Dent's pop-fly homer cleared the Green Monster.
"I'd take one step out of the dugout to go get the pitcher, and
it would be `You bleeping bum Zimmah!' " Zimmer said. " `You're a
bum! Pahk the cahr! You're still a bum!"
Were those the toughest fans he has faced? "Well, it's very
easy," he said. "If there are 28,000 in the stands and 27,999 are
booing you, I guess that would be the spot."
Was his wife the lone dissenter? "That's it," he said. "But
sometimes I think she was in there, too."
He got booed again the first time he returned to Boston as the
Texas manager, on Opening Day at Fenway Park. Ralph Houk was the
Red Sox manager.
"I bring out the lineup," he says. "My players are waiting
because they know I'm going to get booed. I take one step out . . .
`Booooo.' As soon as I got to home plate I took my hat off [he
doffs it]. That's when I said to the umpire, `Tough town. Here's
Mr. Ralph Houk, The General, war hero, and people are booing him."
With Zimmer, there's not only a tongue-in-cheek story, there's
the story behind the story.
He didn't just get victimized by Dent's homer - he later rented
Dent's house - and called Dent to tell him he was taking all the
pictures of his famous home run and turning them to face the walls.
He not only played for perhaps the worst team in history - the
first-year Mets - he served as the bench coach for perhaps the best
- last year's Yankees.
Zimmer didn't just marry his high school sweetheart, he held his
wedding on the baseball diamond at Elmira in 1951 and his wedding
party strolled under a calliope of crossed bats.
He was in the dugout when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game,
and in the third base coaching box when Pete Rose, playing third
base for the Reds in the '75 World Series, said, "Zim, I don't know
who is going to win this game, but it might be the greatest game
I've ever played in," and then Carlton Fisk waived his home-run fair.
He is the last member of the Dodgers who won the World Series in
Brooklyn who's still in uniform, just as he is the last of the
original Mets still active.
He hasn't earned any money outside baseball his entire life,
except for the one social security check he cashed in '95, when he
thought he was retired. Then Torre called, and the two scripted two
World Series championships.
His first major league at-bat? A triple off Curt Simmons. His
first American League at-bat? A two-run homer for the Washington
Senators. His first game with the Cubs? A homer off Don Drysdale at
the Los Angeles Coliseum.
He can take credit for the only World Series the Brooklyn Dodgers
ever won, because Amoros replaced him in the lineup and made maybe
the most famous catch in Brooklyn history.
One Opening Day at Wrigley, when Zimmer was managing the Cubs,
Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams frightened the faithful before securing
a save, just as he had the previous Opening Day.
A writer and Zimmer were sitting in Zimmer's office when a TV
crew came in, asking about Deja Vu. Zimmer gave a perfunctory
answer, the crew left, and Zimmer asked the writer, "What's all
this about Ronja Vu? Why don't they ask me about the game?"
Zimmer doesn't follow baseball's mythical and omniscient "book."
What's the use of spending a life studying baseball, then using a
crib sheet on the test?
He has hit-and -run with the bases loaded. He walked Kent Hrbek
with a one-run lead in the ninth and nobody on.
"He was on a home run streak," Zimmer once said. "The next guy
was a good hitter - I forget who - but I didn't want Hrbek to tie
the score. The next guy hits a two-run homer . . . I'm fired."
But the pitcher came through.
"It took me a year more to get fired," he said.
"He was the best manager I ever played for," said Red Sox manager
Jimy Williams, who played for Zimmer in the minors. "He's an
old-school guy - who can communicate."
One time Yankees right fielder Paul O'Neill popped out, then
started tossing bats and helmets. Zimmer went to him, and O'Neill
yelled, "That's it, Zim, I quit, I'm going home."
Zimmer put on his Yoda face and said, "That's good, we're both
from Cincinnati, I got a guy in the cement-block business who can
give you a job."
When Zimmer's status was in doubt last week, O'Neill said, "What,
is Zimmer going home to take my job?"
Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, a Chicago guy, never got to
know Zimmer well. "But my Mom did," Stelmaszek said. "She works at
Ah, off-track betting - Zimmer's second-favorite type of betting,
right behind on-track betting. Once, when Zimmer was in a previous
incarnation as a Yankees coach, he told writers he had experienced
the best day of his life. He had visited three tracks in one day.
He was asked how much money he had won, to make it the best day
ever. "Nothin'!" he said. "But I got to bet on 37 races!"
In early April, the trumpeter Chuck Mangione appeared as a guest
on a Cubs broadcast.
After he played that fanfare heard before every horse race,
Mangione said, "Every time I play that at Yankee Stadium, Zim
levitates off the bench."
There's a remote chance Torre could replace Zimmer this week,
raising the possibility Zimmer's last days in uniform could come in
Minneapolis, 46 years after the Brooklyn Dodgers thought their
successor to Pee Wee Reese had played his last game in St. Paul.
In 1953, Zimmer was playing for the St. Paul Saints, a Dodgers'
farm club, and leading the American Association with 23 homers when
he was beaned.
He went into a coma for two weeks. His season was over.
"And then the next year, I got to go back to St. Paul, because
the Dodgers have to see if I can play, if I'm afraid of the ball,"
Zimmer said. "Real quick I hit 17 homers, and I got called to the
Dodgers and stayed."
In '56, he had his cheekbone fractured by Hal Jeffcoat in
Cincinnati. He missed the rest of that season, too. Two beanings,
and his promise as a future star faded. He once stole home 10 times
in a minor league season, but never got to recreate those heroics
in the majors.
He outlasted Reese, but lost the shortstop job to Maury Wills.
With more luck, Zimmer could have been a star, could have become
part of the Dodgers' pantheon with Campy, Hodges, Reese, Snider.
Zimmer treats regrets the way he has treated tobacco chaws,
spitting them anywhere there aren't white shoes. This weekend, as
he limped about and told stories, someone asked Zimmer if he has
spent time thinking about his life in baseball.
"Tremendous," he says, those eyes emerging again. "Tre-men-dous.
How lucky can a guy be, to be in the game all of his life?
"It boils down to this: Anything and everything I have I owe to
baseball. I owe the game everything. I've had a great ride."
Donald William Zimmer
- Age: 68
- Birthplace: Cincinnati
- Residence: Treasure Island, Fla.
- Married: Jean Carol Bauerle (nickname: Soot)
- Teams played for: Brooklyn Dodgers, Los Angeles Dodgers
(twice), Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Washington
Senators, Toei Flyers (Japan)
- Teams coached for: Yankees (three times), Boston (twice),
Giants, Rockies, Cubs, Expos
- Managed: Padres, Red Sox, Rangers, Cubs, Yankees (interim)
- Managerial record: 885-858
- Notable: Stole home 10 times in one minor league season. . . .
Hit 23 homers for the St. Paul Saints in 1953 before being beaned,
and he hit 17 homers for the St. Paul Saints in 1954 before being
called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers. . . . Career .235 major league
hitter, as he so often reminds people.
- Plans: "Going home," meaning he will go to his home in New
York, visit his grandchildren, probably have knee surgery and
recuperate. It might also mean retirement, but nobody knows for
sure but Zimmer - and maybe Soot.