Rays induct 'true baseball legend' Zimmer into Hall of Fame

April 2nd, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays officially opened their new team Hall of Fame by posthumously inducting former senior advisor Don Zimmer as the first member of their inaugural class.

Zimmer, who passed away on June 4, 2014, at the age of 83, was recognized during a ceremony Sunday at Tropicana Field before the Rays’ series finale against the Tigers. He was represented on a stage set up in front of the mound by his wife, Soot, his son, Tom, and longtime Rays coach Tom Foley, with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren seated on the field.

Broadcaster Dewayne Staats, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, Tom Zimmer and Foley shared stories and reflected on Zimmer’s legacy before team presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman unveiled Zimmer’s Hall of Fame blazer and a piece of commemorative art. His great-grandson, 7-year-old Carter, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

“He was one of the most charismatic and iconic personalities our sport has ever seen,” Sternberg said. “He was and remains a true baseball legend.”

The Rays created their Hall of Fame to honor former players, managers, coaches, broadcasters and executives who made exemplary contributions to the franchise. While celebrating the franchise’s 25th anniversary season, the club will formally induct two former players this year: Wade Boggs (July 9) and Carl Crawford (Aug. 26).

Zimmer spent his entire adult life working in baseball, a tenure that spanned 66 years and parts of eight decades. He and Soot were even married at home plate in 1951 at a ballpark in Elmira, N.Y. He was a teammate of Jackie Robinson; a six-time World Series champion as a player, coach and manager; and an invaluable resource for generations of players who sought his advice and guidance.

His last 11 years (2004-14) were with Tampa Bay, the most time he spent with any club, as a senior advisor. It was technically a front office role, but Zimmer -- a former player, coach and manager -- continued to wear a uniform. The Rays retired Zimmer’s No. 66 on Opening Day in 2015, one of only three numbers (also Boggs’ No. 12 and Jackie Robinson’s No. 42) hanging out in left-center field at Tropicana Field.

Zimmer’s son, Tom, credited the Rays for hiring him and Sternberg for telling him, despite his age, “You’re here for as long as you want to be here.” As he battled through medical issues, Zimmer continued showing up to the ballpark where his baseball career was honored on Sunday.

“It was a great honor. The Rays have been super, absolutely super,” Soot said. “I was very surprised and proud, really. It just started, and to think that he would be the first one, it amazed me.”

As part of the celebration, the Rays brought back one of their more unique and memorable promotional items, the “Zim Bear,” as a bobblehead giveaway for all fans in attendance.

Zimmer was an influential figure during Tampa Bay’s transformation from the struggling Devil Rays to the perennially contending Rays, bringing a respected presence to a young franchise. Specifically, “Zim” worked well with the club’s young stars and developed a particularly close relationship with Evan Longoria, who went on to become the franchise’s most accomplished player.

“As a Tampa Bay Ray, you knew the face. You knew the presence, the knowledge, the intelligence,” manager Kevin Cash said. “[He had] been around the game for so many years, and I think the Rays were incredibly fortunate to have him spend the [11] years that he was here.”

Born on Jan. 17, 1931, Zimmer began his playing career in 1949 and broke into the Majors in 1954 as an infielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He often joked how surprising it was that a .235 hitter carved out the baseball career that he did, but what a career it was.

The Dodgers were the first of many Major League teams that employed Zimmer as a player, coach or manager, along with the Washington Senators, Mets, Reds, Montreal Expos, Padres, Red Sox (who inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2010), Rangers, Yankees, Cubs (with whom he was named 1989 National League Manager of the Year), Giants, Rockies and Rays. His teams reached the postseason 19 times, including Tampa Bay’s first four trips to the playoffs in 2008, ’10, ’11 and ’13.

“He was a humble, simple guy -- never wanted to be in the spotlight, always downplayed his ability and his accomplishments,” said Foley, Zimmer’s friend who spent 24 years in the organization and 43 years in baseball. “And somehow the spotlight always found him. … He was loved by most and respected by all."