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Zimmer, baseball mainstay for 66 years, dies at 83

Beloved figure worked in game as manager, player and coach

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. Well before his time came, he had developed a silhouette like no other in the game. If nothing else, Don Zimmer was distinctive, a ball of distinction, you might say -- no corners, no angles, no edges. So round he almost was spherical.

Zimmer, a baseball icon for the past six decades -- most recently as a senior advisor for the Rays -- passed away on Wednesday at BayCare Alliant Hospital in Dunedin, Fla. He was 83.

"Like everyone in Major League Baseball, I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Don Zimmer, one of our game's most universally beloved figures," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "A memorable contributor to Baseball for more than 60 years, Don was the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime.

"As a player, Don experienced the joys of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers and the struggles of the '62 Mets. In his managerial and coaching career, this unique baseball man led the Cubs to a division crown and then, at his good friend Joe Torre's loyal side, helped usher in a new era in the fabled history of the Yankees.

"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."

The Rays will honor Zimmer with a moment of silence at Thursday's Rays-Marlins game at 4:10 p.m. ET at Tropicana Field and will conduct a special pregame ceremony prior to the Rays-Mariners game on Saturday at 4:10 p.m.

"Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man," said Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg. "Don dedicated his life to the game he loved, and his impact will be felt for generations to come. His contributions to this organization are immeasurable. I am proud that he wore a Rays uniform for the past 11 years. We will miss him dearly."

Said Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations: "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 was likened to Popeye, Jabba The Hutt and even a gerbil, and he happily acknowledged he never had been mistaken for Cary Grant or one of the hunky James Bond actors.

The priceless malapropism of the late Giants and Mets manager Wes Westrum seemingly applied more to Zim than to anyone else in the game. "When they made him," Westrum's quote went, "they threw away the molding."

Indeed. "So many things about him are different," Torre once said about his late-in-life sidekick and friend. "And when you put all the differences together in one body, you've got someone a little odd ... and very special."

Zimmer's distinctions were more than superficial, though. No one else squeezed with the bases loaded. No one else had a button-down skull. Who else in the game could laugh so readily at himself? The wife of what other baseball personality was named Soot? And who else played with the only Brooklyn team to win a World Series as well as Casey's bumbling Mets of 1962, endured the Boston Massacre, witnessed the grandeur of the '98 Yankees and managed the game's two most tortured franchises?

Zimmer's distinctions live on, and now that he is gone, form a baseball legend more entertaining than most. Zim, Zimmy, Zip, Popeye or however you knew him left us Wednesday, seemingly reducing the number of characters in the game by more than one.

"Don spent a lifetime doing what he loved," Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees' managing general partner, said in a statement. "He was an original -- a passionate, old-school, one-of-a-kind baseball man who contributed to a memorable era in Yankees history. The baseball community will certainly feel this loss. On behalf of our organization, we offer our deepest condolences to his wife, Soot, their two children and four grandchildren."

A baseball lifer, Zimmer had the best parts of Stengel, Will Rogers, John Madden, Hawkeye Pierce and everybody's tickle-me grandpa. And all the while he was a serious baseball man, wearing the caps -- extra-large, of course -- of 18 franchises, 13 in the big leagues, and one army helmet in his six decades in the game.

Mostly, Donald William Zimmer was a delightful sort who defied comparison and became too renowned in later life to remain what he had been as a player, an everyman. He produced a long, memorable resume in the game he loved, though he was neither an accomplished player nor a manager of great success. He was merely Zim.

In 12 seasons and 3,283 at-bats with the Dodgers, Mets and four other teams, Zimmer produced a .235 batting average, 91 home runs and 352 RBIs. He was a one-time All-Star, with the Cubs in 1961, and participated -- barely -- in the two World Series with the Dodgers, in Brooklyn in 1955 and in Los Angeles in '59. The teams Zimmer managed -- the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers, Cubs, and on an interim basis, the Yankees of 1999 -- produced a composite .509 winning percentage in 1,780 games and one first-place finish in 14 seasons. Interspersed with his seasons as a manager were 26 years of coaching that began with Expos in 1971, took him to Denver, San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, the North Side of Chicago, the Bronx and ended in 2006 in Tampa Bay.

From the days he was the Flatbush understudy to Pee Wee Reese through his years on the flank of a man with genuine Brooklyn roots, Torre, we lost track of Zimmer only once, in 1966 when he took his career to Japan for one last go-around as a player. Otherwise, his presence almost always was noted, always seemed to matter. Now his absence is conspicuous, permanent and mourned.

* * * *

Generations of baseball fans became familiar with Zimmer. The passionates of Ebbets Field knew everything about their Dodgers heroes, and Zim played for them from the middle of 1954 through the team's final day in Brooklyn in 1957. Vin Scully introduced Zim to his transistor audience in Los Angeles in '58, Reese's final season, the year before Maury Wills took over shortstop in Chavez Ravine and Zim's most productive season -- 17 home runs and 60 RBIs in 127 games. Two years, 1960 and 1961, in Wrigley Field as the Cubs' pre-Ken Hubbs second baseman laid a foundation for Zimmer's work as a coach and manager there years later and preceded his move to the expansion Mets in '62.

Zimmer was a reliable defender who played second, third, shortstop, left and right field and even caught in 35 games late in his career. Stengel liked him, but a bad back and a 34-at-bat hitless streak that spanned 2 1/2 weeks prompted a trade that moved Zim from the Polo Grounds to his hometown, Cincinnati, in early May 1962. After a brief return to the Dodgers in '63, Zimmer played his last 299 games with the dreary expansion Senators, a period he characterized as "uglier than me."

Zimmer made his bones primarily as a manager, a role in which his friendly personality shone brightly. Zim had three high-profile managing jobs: The Red Sox from mid-1976, the year after their loss to the Reds in the World Series, through the cursed 1978 season and the Bucky Dent Game and through most of the 1980 season; the Cubs in 1989 when they reached the playoffs; and with the Yankees, albeit for 36 games in 1999, while Torre recuperated from prostate cancer.

Not that Zimmer made no mark as a player; he played a significant though minor role in the Dodgers' 1955 World Series championship. "All I did was get the hell out of the way, and we finally beat them [the Yankees]" was how he characterized his contribution. It occurred in the sixth inning of Game 7.

Manager Walter Alston removed Zimmer for a pinch-hitter, George Shuba, after the Dodgers had scored their second run of the inning for a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Alston had Junior Gilliam move from left field to second base, where Zimmer had started, and he inserted Sandy Amoros in left.

The Yankees immediately launched their resistance. A walk to Billy Martin and a bunt single by Gil McDougald brought Yogi Berra and his dangerous left-handed swing to the plate. Mostly a pull hitter, Berra somehow produced a high fly ball down the left-field line. Amoros, a left-handed thrower, made a running catch in the corner and initiated a 7-6-3 double play that punctured the Yankees' rally balloon.

Whether Zimmer, a right-handed thrower and less fleet than Amoros, might have made the catch in the corner remains a question that he answered differently depending on his audience or how he felt at the moment.

Most of the public's recall of Zimmer was tied to his years with the Yankees and at Torre's side. He was the club's bench coach and the personal good-luck charm of Derek Jeter from 1996-2003, during which the Yankees won four World Series. But Zim did have something of an after-career with the Rays, and when he worked for them, he extended his distinction as the last former Brooklyn Dodger still on a Major League field.

* * * *

Zimmer, Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre were caught by camera hundreds of times, most often with the others appearing stoic and Zim smirking, smiling or laughing.

His jovial expression may have been misleading. Zimmer did simmer from time to time. Umpires were subject to his wrath occasionally, and he let opponents know if their on-field deportment upset him. He also was a skilled bench-jockey, having learned from Dick Williams during seasons they shared in Brooklyn.

Even the most casual baseball followers undoubtedly recall Zimmer's distasteful skirmish with Pedro Martinez during the fourth inning of Game 3 of the 2003 American League Championship Series at Fenway Park. When the dugouts emptied for a second time, Zimmer, age 72, moved from the third-base dugout toward Martinez in front of the first-base dugout. The Red Sox pitcher threw him to the ground.

Zimmer was more embarrassed than injured. He publicly apologized the following day. In one of his books, he wrote that Martinez had sent word that he wanted to apologize, as well. "What does he have to apologize for?" Zimmer wrote. "I was the guy who charged him and threw the punch. To the people who said Pedro beat up an old man I said, 'No, an old man was dumb enough to try and beat up on Pedro.'"

Intrigue also played a part of Zimmer's celebrity. For years -- indeed, even his death -- he was characterized as a man with a steel plate in his head.

Not so. But Zimmer did have holes drilled in the left side of his skull to relieve pressure on his brain in the summer of 1953 after he was struck in the left temple by a pitch while playing for the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. He was unconscious for the better part of 12 days while twice undergoing surgery.

At one point, after Zimmer's life no longer was in jeopardy, his career clearly was. He was unable to talk or walk and his vision was impaired. Holes were drilled in the right side of his skull to reduce the pressure. Tapered tantalum "buttons" eventually were inserted in the holes.

Zimmer's weight dropped dramatically during his convalescence. Contemporaries from that time subsequently said he never again showed the power he had demonstrated before the injury. Zimmer had hit his 23rd home run for the Saints the day before he was hit, and he was leading the American Association in home runs and RBIs.

Zimmer was promoted to the Dodgers on July 2 of the following year and began an extended period as Reese's apprentice. His career was again interrupted by a beaning. Hal Jeffcoat of the Reds hit Zimmer under the left eye on June 23, 1956. Zimmer played in one more game that season.

The steel-plate misinformation became more widespread during the 1999 AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium when a foul ball into the dugout struck Zimmer in the face. He wasn't injured, and he wore an army helmet the following day, creating yet another indelible image for one of the game's truly unforgettable characters.

Zimmer is survived by his wife of 62 years, Jean; his son Thomas; daughter Donna; and four grandchildren: Beau, Whitney, Ron and Lane.

Marty Noble is a reporter for
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