Obituary: Don Zimmer / Popular pro baseball player, coach and manager for 66 years

Jan. 17, 1931 - June 5, 2014

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Don Zimmer, the stubby, Popeye-muscled baseball lifer with the unforgettable jowls whose passion for the game endured through more than 60 years as a player, manager, coach and adviser, died Wednesday in Florida. He was 83.

His death was announced by the Tampa Bay Rays, a team he served recently as a senior adviser. Mr. Zimmer underwent surgery April 16 to repair a leaky heart valve, according to The Tampa Tribune. He had been undergoing kidney dialysis since May 2012 after falling into a diabetic coma at his home. But he continued to visit the Rays' Tropicana Field when he could.

Mr. Zimmer was married on a baseball diamond in 1951 and it seemed that he never left the ballfield.

He played the infield for the Brooklyn Dodgers' only World Series championship team, he was an original member of the New York Mets and he was New York Yankees manager Joe Torre's confidant as his bench coach on four World Series championship teams. He filled in as the Yankees manager for 36 games in 1999 when Mr. Torre was being treated for prostate cancer.

Mr. Zimmer managed the 1978 Boston Red Sox, who were overtaken by the Yankees for a division title on Bucky Dent's playoff home run. He was the National League's Manager of the Year in 1989 when he led the Chicago Cubs to a surprising division championship.

He played in the majors for 12 seasons, mostly as an infielder, and he managed for 13 seasons. He was an All-Star only once and he never managed a pennant-winner, but his intensity remained undimmed.

While a Yankees coach in October 2003, at 72, he charged Boston's star pitcher Pedro Martinez during a playoff melee. Mr. Zimmer swung and missed, then was thrown to the Fenway Park turf by Mr. Martinez. He soon apologized for sullying the game he loved.

Donald William Zimmer was born and reared in Cincinnati, where his father owned a wholesale fruit and vegetable company. He was signed out of high school as a shortstop by the Dodgers' organization in 1949.

On Aug. 16, 1951, while playing for the Dodgers' farm team at Elmira, New York, he married his high school sweetheart, the former Carol Jean Bauerle (known since childhood as Soot), at home plate under a canopy of crossed bats held by his teammates.

By the summer of 1953, Mr. Zimmer was playing for St. Paul in the American Association, a promotion to the Dodgers in sight. He had good speed and fine power.

But his nearly lost his life when he was beaned in a game in Columbus, Ohio. His suffered a fractured skull and fell into a coma. Doctors drilled holes in the sides of his head to relieve pressure on his brain.

Mr. Zimmer made his major league debut in 1954, filling in briefly for Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers' future Hall of Fame shortstop and his boyhood idol. He hit 15 home runs in 88 games for the Dodgers' 1955 World Series championship team, but he endured a second severe beaning in 1956 against the Cincinnati Reds, his cheekbone shattered and his eyesight damaged.

Mr. Zimmer remained with the Dodgers through their 1959 World Series championship season in Los Angeles, played two seasons for the Chicago Cubs, making his lone All-Star appearance in 1961, then joined the expansion Mets as their third baseman in 1962. He was 0 for 34 at the plate to start the season before being traded to the Reds. He later played for the Dodgers once more and the Washington Senators, then retired after the 1965 season with a .235 career batting average and 91 home runs.

Mr. Zimmer managed the San Diego Padres (1972-73), the Red Sox (1976-80), the Texas Rangers (1981-82) and the Cubs (1988-91), then filled in for the recuperating Mr. Torre early in 1999.

He was Mr. Torre's bench coach from 1996 to 2003, then quit, maintaining that he had been treated abusively by the Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner. He joined the Tampa Bay team the next season, providing tips to players and doing community relations work in his advisory capacity.

In June 2012, the Rays gave away Zim Bear dolls to fans attending a night game with Detroit. The little bears, dressed in a Rays jersey and cap, featured the doll-maker's best effort to duplicate Mr. Zimmer's face.

"Somebody said they wouldn't put it in their living room," Mr. Zimmer said. "They'd scare somebody."

"All I've ever been is a simple baseball man, but it's never ceased to amaze me how so many far more accomplished people I've met in this life wanted to be one, too," he said in "The Zen of Zim," (2004) written with Bill Madden. "What a game, this baseball!"

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