His big-league career began in the 1950s and included the most recent Yankees dynasty. Along the way, the word “beloved” was often attached to his name. Baseball – the players, the fans, seemingly the sport itself – is mourning Don Zimmer today, after he died at age 83 Wednesday.
The tributes to the feisty guy with a good sense of humor and a bottomless love for the game are pouring out from all over, proof that he didn’t waste any time during his 66 years in baseball. In recent years, Zimmer had been suffering from kidney and heart problems.
As a player, Zimmer was an All Star shortshop for the Dodgers. As a manager for the Cubs, he won honors as the best in the National League. As a bench coach, he endeared himself to New York Yankees fans. Add in his stints with Boston and, most recently, with the Tampa Bay Rays, and you get a sense that people are missing this stout little man all over the United States. The Rays announced his death Wednesday.
Zimmer’s career is littered with landmark moments and brushes with greatness. He won world championships with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1959. He shared dugouts with superstars from Casey Stengel to Derek Jeter.
And in 2003, the Yankees’ Zimmer famously rushed at Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez during a bench-clearing scuffle in a playoff game.
If you needed more proof of what Zimmer meant to the game, consider that after that moment, when the 72-year-old Zimmer was thrown to the turf and stayed there, the size of the throng of players that were angry about an aggressive pitch was quickly dwarfed by the crowd that formed around Zimmer. Yankees and Red Sox players who had just been facing off with each other stood quietly to check on the man they called Zim.
Here are some of the remembrances we’re seeing:
Joe Torre: “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. 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.”
Zimmer, quoted by The New York Times: “All I’ve ever been is a simple baseball man, but it’s never ceased to amaze me how so many far more accomplished people I’ve met in this life wanted to be one, too.”
MLB.com: “He had the jowls of Dizzy Gillespie, the chins of Alfred Hitchcock and the forearms of Olive Oyl’s favorite sailor man. For most of his 83 years, he had a haircut that required minimum maintenance and a quick, disarming smile that significantly widened his face and belied his sense of purpose.”
Boston Globe: “Don Zimmer was married at home plate at Dunn Field in Elmira, N.Y., between games of a doubleheader on Aug. 16, 1951. What more do you need to know?”
One of the best remembrances comes from legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who said of Zimmer that despite his lengthy career that included stops with many other teams, “He’ll forever be a Dodger.”
Scully spoke about Zimmer’s recovery from being beaned by a pitch in 1953 that left him unconscious and unable to speak for days. He also told a story about the time Scully had dressed in a Dodgers uniform and slipped into the team’s dugout for a game against the Chicago Cubs, where Zimmer was the manager.
The sneaky move had gone unnoticed, Scully thought. But then the Cubs first base coach tossed a ball to Scully. On it was written, “If a fight breaks out, I want you. Zimmer.”
Across the diamond, the entire Cubs dugout was rolling with laughter, Scully recalls.
“He was just wonderful,” Scully said. “It was an honor and a pleasure, and a huge grace to have known Don Zimmer, believe me.”
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