The following was first published in the Rays game program Inside Pitch in June 2011. We have created a photo gallery of the photos included in the article.
Story by Dave Scheiber and photos by Steven Kovich
Walk inside his cozy Seminole condo, and the walls, halls and shelves hold a living history of baseball. That's only fitting, considering Don Zimmer is a living history of the game himself.
He's a bridge between the sport's golden age and today, spanning the eras from Jackie Robinson to Derek Jeter. He's an invaluable source of insight for the Rays in his eighth season as senior advisor. And he's a .235 lifetime hitter whose towering place in baseball is assured.
This is a year of milestones for the man affectionately known as Zim: his 80th birthday marked in January and his 63rd season in pro baseball. This August, there's another important date on the calendar: his 60th anniversary with high school sweetheart and wife, Soot. They were married beside home plate at Dunn Field in Elmira, N.Y., where Zim was a minor leaguer in the Dodgers system.
They call each other "Mom" and "Dad" now, a bond that has lasted his entire, amazing ride as a player for five teams in 12 years and manager or coach for nine teams in 40 years. Soot keeps all his photos, memorabilia and awards meticulously organized in more than 60 scrapbooks, or immaculately displayed around their home.
By 80, most in baseball figures have long since penned their personal histories. But the game won't let Zim go and he has no intention of leaving, either.
We visited him on a recent morning so he could lead us through some steps on his journey, telling us about the keepsakes that define a remarkable career that continues to roll on.
In three matching mahogany cabinets overlooking the living room, the memorabilia pulls you in like a mini-museum.
There's the first trophy he ever received for 1950 Team MVP with the Class-D Hornell, (N.Y.) Dodgers, and another from the Class-A Elmira Pioneers from 1951. His very first lineup card with the San Diego Padres as a first-time manager in 1972 sits on a shelf above. Inches away is a cherished plaque from the first championship team he played on in the majors, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, who finally beat the arch-rival Yankees with a lineup that included such greats as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Duke Snider and Junior Gilliam. "I was lucky enough to be on that team I was just a young kid," he said. "But all those other guys who'd been beat by the Yankees so many times, just to win that first time was such a thrill for them."
On another shelf, you can see a photo of Yankees legend Yogi Berra and Zimmer. "He coached first base and I coached third for Billy Martin, he said. "We still call each other every now and then. I say, 'How ya doin'Shorty?' And he goes, 'How you doin' Shorty?'"
There's also a collection of autographed baseballs from an All-Star roster of players and non-players alike: Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, Ronald Reagan, Robert Redford, Ted Williams and Derek Jeter to name a few. Each ball has a story.
"In 1996, Joe Torre and I went to our first spring training together, and Jeter was a young kid in camp with us," Zimmer recalled. "Two weeks in, we felt he could be the shortstop. Clyde King, who was a kind of adviser for George Steinbrenner, comes in one day and says 'He's not ready for the big leagues.' I said, 'Well, we've been here two weeks. You've been here one day.' Joe jumps in and says, 'He's gonna play shortstop for us.' And I said, 'I agree.' I think it worked out pretty well."
Zimmer then shares the story of how Jeter went hitless in a couple of games early on, rubbed Zim's head for good luck and got two hits the next night. From then on, Jeter rubbed Zimmer's head for luck and always reminded him to keep his hair short. "Anytime I needed a haircut, Derek would say, 'Hey coach, tighten it up a bit.'"
A grainy shot of members of the championship 1955 Dodgers horsing around: Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Don Houk, Don Newcombe, Zimmer, Junior Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese (whom Zim replaced at short in 1958), Gil Hodges and Walter Alston. He points to Newcombe and himself. "You know what's scary? We're the only guys left."
On a front wall, a photo from a local golf course of Zimmer and a smiling Jackie Robinson presides prominently. "Jackie took a liking to me, because of the way I played," he said. "Jackie was a tough man to get close to. He kept people at bay. Pee Wee Reese was No. 1 with him, but I became a very good friend, too. And when he went to work for Chock full o'Nuts (coffee company), after refusing to go to the Giants in a trade, he called me one day in '58 and asked if I could get him a golf game in town. That was one of the biggest thrills in my life. Now, at the time, I played every day with a St. Pete sports writer named Jimmy Mann. So I called Jimmy and said we have a golf game Tuesday. He says, 'Who with?' I say, 'Jackie Robinson.' And he flipped!"
Zimmer pauses to reflect on Robinson. "You have to give credit to Branch Rickey to pick one man out of the world who could break the color barrier, and he picked Jackie Robinson. He knew he could handle it. And Jackie did. He took a lot of abuse. It wasn't as bad when I got there in '54, but I saw it."
Not far from the Robinson photo is one of Zimmer and Torre representing a priceless relationship between the former Yankees bench coach and skipper. "We just hit it off from the start," Zimmer said. "I was out of a job, and he calls me at home in Treasure Island. He'd just gotten hired by George (Steinbrenner) and first thing I think is that he wants to ask me about players I know. He says, 'How's your health?' I say, 'I'm alright.' He asks me five questions, and I'm thinking, 'What the heck is going on here?' Then he goes, 'Wanna be a coach?' I say, 'Where?' "
That's when Torre offered him the bench coach job.
"I'll call you back in five minutes," Zimmer recalls responding hastily.
"You can have a week to think about it if you want," Torre said, reassuringly. "I called him back in six minutes and said, 'You've got a bench coach.'"
Zimmer joined Torre at then-named Legends Field in Tampa, and their bond was instant. "I told my wife, 'This is going to work,' " he said. "I knew right then we were going to hit it off. And what a ride it was."
He was all-everything at Western Hills High in Cincinnati a baseball, football and basketball star and endless black-and-white photos showcase his exploits in Soot's scrapbooks. Many of his records still stand. He was voted first-team all-state in 1948 as quarterback for the Maroons and was recruited to play football at the University of Kentucky by then-head coach Bear Bryant.
He is quick to point out photos with his family, including one with his son, Tommy, on his back while he unveils the uniform of the expansion New York Mets in 1962 or his favorite non-baseball photo, a portrait of the extended Zimmer clan clad in matching white outfits: Zim and Soot, children Tommy and Donna and four grandchildren, Whitney, twins Ron and Lane, and Beau, a reporter for WTSP in Tampa.
As he continues to flip through photo pages, one picture stands out, showing Zimmer in a hospital bed after getting hit in the head by a pitch on July 7, 1953, in the midst of a red-hot start as a minor leaguer in the American Association with 23 homers and 63 RBI. He could have been killed, lying semi-comatose for 14 days with a fractured skull and missing the rest of the season. Then playing for Brooklyn against Cincinnati in 1956, he was nearly blinded by a pitch that hit his cheekbone, forcing him to wear a blindfold for two weeks and "pin-hole glasses" for six. "Al Campanis (Late Dodgers executive) often said what a great player I would have been if I hadn't gotten hurt," Zimmer said. "I never looked at it that way. I was very lucky to be able to play again after I had two beanings."
Those photos prompt Zim to reach above his cabinets for a vintage Army helmet that was given to him after an incident as Joe Torre's bench coach during the 1999 playoffs.
"Joe always said to me when I sat next to him that he'd protect me if a foul ball came our way," he said. "Well, one day Chuck Knoblauch hits this ball right at me, and Joe ducked the other way and let it hit me! George Steinbrenner came down with two doctors to see me. But it turned out it had just nicked my ear, so I felt at ease after that."
The next day, Zimmer found a hat box on his clubhouse chair with a helmet inside sporting ZIM and a Yankees logo.
"Steinbrenner comes into the clubhouse five minutes before game-time, and I said, 'George, did you put that helmet there?' He says, 'I didn't do it, but I dare you to wear it out on the bench.' " With Knoblauch's advance blessing, Zimmer waited for the second baseman to come to bat and donned the helmet. Knoblauch popped up after two pitches, but it was long enough for photographers to have a field day and make the shot a front-page sensation. (And no, the Boss didn't leave the helmet, several scouts pulled the prank).
A plaque marking his NL Manager of the Year honor symbolizes his greatest baseball feat guiding the Cubs to the NL East title in 1989. "In Boston, we were supposed to win the pennant, but we wound up second all the time. So in '89, we went to spring training with the Cubs and Jim Fry is my GM. My wife and I went to high school with him. I think the team went 5-22 that spring. Jim says to me, 'You think there's any way we can win 81 games?' I said, 'If we win 81 games with this team, you and I will dance down Michigan Avenue together.' We had four rookies in the lineup Joe Girardi, Mark Grace, Dwight Smith and Jerome Walton. And we had a year that just kept going. When we clinched the division in Montreal, I think it was the best baseball moment I ever had. Lots of people picked us to finish last. And we fooled everybody."
Along a hallway is a crowded bat rack with signed World Series and playoff bats from his career including his first bat with Brooklyn. It's a hefty 36-inch, 36-ounce Louisville Slugger that dwarfs many of the bats that sluggers use today, like Evan Longoria's 33 inch, 31 ounces. "It wasn't unusual for guys back then to use bats like this," he said. "But I showed it to some of the Rays players and they couldn't believe it."
This past Opening Day, during a radio interview prior to the game against Baltimore, Zimmer was asked about his most memorable season-opening experience. After the interview had ended, he remembered a vintage story that he relishes sharing now.
"Back in 1960, I got traded from the Dodgers to the Cubs four or five days before the opener and wouldn't you know they were scheduled to play each other in the first game of the season. So Opening Day arrived, with 93,000 people in the stands at the LA Coliseum. So I come up to the plate against Don Drysdale. I used to kid him all the time and say, 'You ain't ever gonna scare me. You can throw it at me and I won't give an inch.' Well, the very first at-bat, I hit a home run off him to put us ahead 1-0.
"Later on, Drysdale belts a triple and slides into third base where I was playing. I didn't know what to say, so I stayed quiet. He brushes himself off, looks at me and says, 'You hit that thing pretty good, didn't you?'"
Zimmer savors that memory, even though the Dodgers came back to win 2-1. And though he forgot to share it in the radio interview, he did have an answer to the question about his most memorable Opening Day.
"I said, 'It might be today. I'm 80 years old and here I am still wearing a uniform. After all these years in baseball, I guess you could say that's pretty memorable.' "