Don Zimmer: A Baseball Lifer
Is there another man that has seen as many great baseball moments in person than Don Zimmer? You'd be hard pressed to find one. For sixty consecutive years, Donald William “Zim” Zimmer has never strayed far from the infield grass of a baseball diamond. He broke in to baseball as a teammate of Jackie Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers' first championship team. He was not only an original New York Met, but the very first person ever to try on a Mets uniform. As a player and coach, he took part in such historic games as Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Carlton Fisk's dramatic 12 th inning homerun in the 1975 series, and Bucky Dent's homer to beat his Boston team in the 1978 playoffs. Zim has just about seen it all as a player, coach, manager and front office executive at all levels, including the minors, majors and foreign baseball. In short, Don Zimmer is the definition of a baseball lifer.
Zim was born on January 17, 1931 in on the west side of Cincinnati, Ohio. As a teenager, he played sandlot ball with Jim Frey, forming a friendship that would foreshadow future events. Zim starred on the baseball and football fields of Western Hills High School, a school that would produce several major leaguers, most notably Pete Rose. His accomplishments there drew the attention of several pro baseball and football scouts. Despite offers from Kentucky and Oregon to come play quarterback for their football programs, Zim opted for baseball and signed with Brooklyn following his graduation in 1949.
Leaving home for the first time at age 18, Zim boarded a train bound for Maryland and began his professional career with the Cambridge Dodgers of the Class D Minor Leagues.
He batted only .227 in 71 games, but showed promise. In 1950 he reported to Hornell, NY and played for the Hornell Dodgers. His batting improved to .315 and he led the team with 23 home runs. 1951 proved an eventful year. He played for Elmira Pioneers in Class A. He also married his high-school sweetheart Jean Carol Bauerle in an on-field ceremony before a Pioneer night game on August 16. “Soot,” as Zim affectionately calls his wife, has been his one constant over the years, the steadying influence in a life that has seen its fair share of both ups and downs.
It was a steady uphill climb for Zim in the first half of the 1950's. In 1952, Zim made his way to south to Mobile, Alabama. There he batted .310 and continued to show power, swatting 17 homers. He earned a promotion to the St. Paul, Minnesota Saints in Class AAA. Zim was riding high that summer, batting .300 and leading the league with 23 home runs when the first of what would become many unfortunate on-field incidents sidetracked his season, and almost cost him his life.
In a night game against Columbus on July 7, 1953, Zim came to bat against right-hander Jim Kirk. It was dusk, and hitters were having a hard time seeing the ball. On the first pitch, Zim ducked under a high and tight fastball. On the second, he lost sight of a sweeping curveball, and ducked again. The ball followed him though, and struck the left side of his head, slamming his brain against the right side of his skull. As he lay on the ground, he asked up to St. Paul manager Clay Bryant “Am I bleeding?”. Those were the last words he would utter for thirteen days.
Two weeks later, he woke up in a hospital bed. While he was comatose, two surgeries were performed to drill holes in his skull to alleviate swelling. It has been widely reported that Don Zimmer has a steel plate in his head as a result of this 1953 beaning. But the truth of the matter is that he only has four small cork-shaped tantalum metal “buttons” in there that were used to plug the drilled holes. Years later, he can joke about the incident. He tells listeners that all the players who thought that he managed like he had holes in his head were right all along
Zim's numbers were so good that despite missing the rest of the season, he was named the 1953 MVP of the American Association. Miraculously, despite dropping from 170 pounds to 124 during his hospital stay and recovery, Zim managed to show up to spring training in 1954. He began the year with St. Paul and picked up where he left off. He was batting .291 with 17 home runs 73 games into the season when he got the call from the big club.
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