Don Zimmer joined the Brooklyn Dodgers minor league system in 1949 and basically never left baseball. He's a beloved figure in the sport, nicknamed Popeye or The Gerbil by some, but mostly just called Zim. "He had the jowls of Dizzy Gillespie, the chins of Alfred Hitchcock and the forearms of Olive Oyl's favorite sailor man," Marty Noble wrote for MLB.com. Zimmer always said he never drew a paycheck from any employer except baseball. Zimmer died Wednesday in a hospital in Dunedin, Florida, after April surgery to repair a leaking heart valve. His death was announced by the Tampa Bay Rays, where Zimmer most recently was a senior adviser.
Zimmer was the last of the Brooklyn Dodgers to work in baseball in an on-field role. "He was just wonderful," Vin Scully said tonight on Twitter. "It was an honor, a pleasure, and a huge grace to have known Don Zimmer." On the air, Scully used the Dodgers at-bats in the second inning to pay tribute and tell Zim stories between pitches. "Wherever Joe Torre is, I bet his heart is broken because he loved Zimmer as much as all of us," Scully said. Scully was already the play-by-play announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers when Zimmer arrived. On that team he played with eight future Hall of Famers: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Dick Williams, Don Newcombe, Tom Lasorda and manager Walter Alston. Roger Kahn's 1972 book, The Boys of Summer, remembered the Brooklyn years and tracked the lives of the Dodgers players.
"The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali's," said Joe Torre, the former Dodgers and Yankees manager. "We loved him. The game of baseball lost a special person tonight."
Zimmer broke in with Brooklyn in 1954, won the World Series there in '55 and in Los Angeles in '59, and was traded in '60 to the Cubs for Johnny Goryl, Ron Perranoski, Lee Handley and cash. Zimmer played on four teams besides the Dodgers in his 12 seasons as a major league infielder. In the minor leagues in 1953, he was beaned on the head and left unconscious for almost two weeks, requiring brain surgery. A 1956 beaning fractured his cheekbone and affected his vision. His injuries from pitched balls were a major reason that batters began to use helmets. Zimmer also played in Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico, and in Japan in his final season in 1966.
Zimmer managed the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs, and coached in addition for the Expos, Giants, Rockies and Rays. But it may be for his time as Joe Torre's bench coach with the Yankees that Zim is most regarded. He was an essential element of Torre's staff. "The perfect bench coach," Torre wrote in his 1997 memoir “Chasing the Dream." "I ran everything past Zim. We had a great rapport and a lot of fun.”
Zimmer is listed as the author of two books: "Zim: A Baseball Life" and "The Zen of Zim."
Don Zimmer golfing with Jackie Robinson pic.twitter.com/6kSaXPqIiO— Dugout Legends (@DugoutLegends) June 5, 2014
"He was just wonderful. It was an honor, a pleasure, and a huge grace to have known Don Zimmer." Vin Scully pic.twitter.com/DjPZIB5yXE— Vin Scully (@VinScullyTweet) June 5, 2014
"Don Zimmer, while he was in a Dodger uniform, I would-- guess he was the most beloved Dodger amongst his teammates." Vin Scully— Vin Scully (@VinScullyTweet) June 5, 2014