He was all baseball.
He even looked like a baseball.
Round faced and completely bald, all Don Zimmer needed was two painted red stitching lines on his head.
Sort of a coach emeritus and senior adviser for the Tampa Bay Rays until his recent death at 83, “Popeye,” as he was known due to his resemblance to the comic strip character with the wide cheeks and bulging biceps, experienced it all on the baseball field.
A product of Cincinnati’s large German-American community, Zimmer began his 66-year baseball career as a minor league infielder in 1949. Two years later while playing for the Elmira club, Zimmer married Carol Jean Bauerle, a.k.a. “Soot,” the Cincinnati girl who was the love of his life in a home plate ceremony at the small New York town’s ballpark.
In July of 1953, while carrying an impressive .320 batting average with 23 home runs for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate, the St. Paul Saints, Zimmer was knocked unconscious by a pitched ball. The stocky 5-9, 170-pounder wouldn’t wake up for thirteen days.
“When I woke up, I saw my wife, mother and dad sitting next to the bed,” Zimmer once told me. “I thought it was the next morning. I couldn’t believe what my wife told me. I couldn’t speak right for over a month and lost a lot of weight while recovering.
“They came up with something new at the time. Tantalum buttons. It’s like a cork that fits into a bottle tapered. It’s the same consistency as the skull and I have three in my left side and one on my right side. I went through the first year with sometimes four or five migraine headaches a week. And gradually it got less and less.”
The scrappy infielder never reached the batting heights he’d attained before the beaning but was good enough to make the Dodgers for the 1955 season. He batted only .239 and saw action in 62 games at second base, 21 at shortstop and eight at third.
The Dodgers used Zimmer to spell the aging Jackie Robinson at second base (Robinson also played first base and the outfield). Zimmer was popular with veteran teammates like Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider – and with a rookie lefthander named Sandy Koufax.
In June 1956, a pitched ball caught Zimmer in the face and fractured his cheekbone, sidelining him for the rest of the season. He was back in action for the Dodgers’ last season in Brooklyn in 1957 and went west with the team, becoming the regular shortstop in Los Angeles in 1958. After losing the shortstop spot to Maury Wills, Zimmer was dealt by the Dodgers to the lowly Cubs in 1960.
Selected by the expansion New York Mets in 1962, Zimmer started the season for Casey Stengel’s club by going hitless in his first 32 at-bats. When Zimmer managed a single the next day, Stengel apparently thought the time was right to trade the suddenly “hot” Zimmer and so he sent him to Cincinnati.
Zimmer was elated to be with a better club and playing in his hometown, but the good feeling didn’t last long as he was traded to the Washington Senators the following year.
After batting .199 in 1965, Zimmer was released. He had a .235 career average after 12 big league seasons and wanted to keep playing. So he took his 35-year-old body and played in Japan for the next two seasons.
The popular Zimmer then coached for the Montreal Expos under Gene Mauch in 1971 and the following year was named manager of the San Diego Padres. Later in the 1970s he coached and managed for the Boston Red Sox. Then, after managing the Texas Rangers, Zimmer coached for the Yankees under the fiery Billy Martin.