Monday, January 17, 2011

Baseball Digest Birthdays: Don Zimmer | Baseball Digest

If you look up the word “character” in the dictionary, there’s a good chance you’ll see a picture of Don Zimmer next to the definition. With over 60 years in baseball as a player, coach, and manager, and one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, the man called “Popeye” has become one of the most beloved figures in the sport.

The Cincinnati, OH native started his career in the minor leagues as a player in Cambridge, MD as part of the Eastern Shore League. He made a number of stops, including Elmira, NY, where he married his wife Jean, better known as Scoot, in 1951. But it was a stop in St. Paul, MN that nearly ended Zimmer’s career and his life. Long before the days of batting helmets, Zimmer lost a pitch in the sun and was hit in the temple. He wasn’t fully conscious for 13 days.

Holes were drilled into his head to relieve the pressure on his brain. He couldn’t talk, walk, and had blurred vision. The stocky 5’9″ infielder lost 35 pounds. He was lucky to be alive, but doctors told him his career as a player was finished. But Don Zimmer would prove them wrong.

He reached the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954 and became a utility infielder for the next three seasons. In 1958 he became the regular shortstop as Pee Wee Reese played his final season with the then-Los Angeles Dodgers. It was arguably the best season of Zim’s career – 17 HR, 60 RBI, .720 OPS. Zimmer was traded after the ’59 World Series championship to the Cubs and then played for the Mets (an original member), the Reds, one more brief stint with the Dodgers, and the Washington Senators before retiring after the 1965 season (He would play one final year in Japan in 1966). It was an ordinary career by numbers – a .235 career average – but Zimmer was a student of the game and made many connections along the way.

The transition to managing was a natural one and Zimmer spent a handful of years at the helm in the minor leagues before taking a 3rd base coaching job for the Montreal Expos in 1971. He was on the Padres staff a year later when manager Preston Gomez was fired and Zimmer was named his replacement. He managed through the end of the ’73 season before he too was let go.

Zimmer’s next managerial stop was his most famous, or possibly, infamous. He was the skipper for the Boston Red Sox from 1976 (replacing Darrell Johnson after 86 games) to 1980. That means, of course, that he was running the team that blew a 14 1/2 game lead in July, 1978 before losing a one game divisional playoff to the rival New York Yankees. He also led the Texas Rangers (1981-1982) and the Chicago Cubs (1988-1991) and was a member of a number of coaching staffs until one fateful day when Joe Torre, whom he didn’t know at the time, asked him to be the bench coach for his new gig as manager of the New York Yankees in 1996.

The late Arthur Daley, of the New York Times and the first sportswriter to win a Pulitzer Prize, wrote an article for Baseball Digest in September of 1958 centered around Don Zimmer's breakout season. Click here to read the article!

Just like Rick and Captain Renault in Casablanca, it was the start of a beautiful friendship. Zimmer’s time in New York would make him a folk hero and led to a pair of books on his life and career. His time in the Big Apple was marked by supreme loyalty to Torre, the infamous brawl in Boston during the 2003 ALCS when he was thrown to the ground by Pedro Martinez, and an abrasive relationship with George Steinbrenner that helped lead to his voluntary departure after the 2003 season. Zimmer became a senior advisor for the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in 2004 and still holds that position today.

Happy 80th birthday Zim. You are a true gem!

Also Celebrating A Birthday Today:

Chili Davis (b. Kingston, Jamaica 1960): One of the best hitters in baseball, Charles “Chili” Davis spent 19 season in the major leagues. His stops included San Francisco, Anaheim, Minnesota (WS ring ’91), Kansas City, and New York (AL, WS rings ’98-’99). He finished his career with 350 home runs, 1,372 RBI, and 2,380 hits. He was a three time All-Star and finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 1982.

Also Born Today:

Darrell Porter: The Joplin, MO (1952) native would become a hometown hero when he was named the MVP of the 1982 World Series while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. A catcher, Porter played 17 seasons with the Brewers, Royals, Cardinals, and Rangers. He’s 29th all-time in games caught with 1,506, and was a four time All-Star. His best season came for he Royals in 1979 when he hit .291-20-112 with an AL-leading 121 walks. Troubled by drug and alcohol addiction, Porter tragically died as a result of a drug-related incident in 2002.

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