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Don Zimmer, 83; became iconic figure on ballfield

Don Zimmer, whose five seasons as manager of the Boston Red Sox, including their heart-wrenching 1978 season, were one piece of a six-decade career in baseball, died in Dunedin, Fla., Wednesday night after a long illness. He was 83.

Mr. Zimmer spent his adult life in baseball, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. At the time of the death, he was a senior adviser to the Tampa Bay Rays. He had been in a rehabilitation center since undergoing heart surgery in mid-April.

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He became one of the most recognized figures at Fenway Park, his muscular forearms earning him the nickname “Popeye,’’ his full jowls prompting Sox pitcher Bill Lee to dub him The Gerbil. His coaching stints with the division rivals New York Yankees and Tampa Bay guaranteed he was a frequent figure in the visitors’ dugout.

Mr. Zimmer started his career as a highly regarded shortstop in the Dodgers system. In 1953, however, he was struck in the head with a pitch. He was in a coma for two weeks, and surgeons had to insert screws in his skull.

After recovering, Mr. Zimmer played 12 seasons in the majors, starting with the Dodgers, then joining four other teams. The career .235 hitter was a utility player, but made the All-Star team in 1961 while with the Chicago Cubs.

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Mr. Zimmer helped the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers win World Series championships.

He was a member of the original Mets in 1962 and even played a season in Japan.

As a manager, he won 885 games over parts of 13 seasons, leading the San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers, and Chicago Cubs, in addition to the Sox from 1976 to 1980. He earned the Manager of the Year award in the National League in 1989 when the Cubs won their division.

“Like everyone in Major League Baseball, I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Don Zimmer, one of our game’s most universally beloved figures,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “A memorable contributor to baseball for more than 60 years, Don was the kind of person you could only find in the national pastime.”

A native of Cincinnati, Mr. Zimmer also spent time as a coach with the Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, and Colorado Rockies.

In all, he spent 66 seasons in professional baseball.

Zim became the third base coach of the Red Sox in 1974 under Darrell Johnson, then was named manager in July 1976, when Johnson was fired.

The Red Sox won 91-plus games three times under Mr. Zimmer, but the 1978 team infamously lost a 14-game lead and then a one-game playoff against the Yankees, thanks to a home run at Fenway by light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent.

Mr. Zimmer was fired in the final days of the 1980 season. He returned in 1992 as a coach under one of his former players, Butch Hobson.

“We are saddened to hear of the passing of former Sox manager Don Zimmer,” the Red Sox said in a statement. “One of the great colorful gems in baseball. You will be missed, Zim.”

Mr. Zimmer joined the Yankees before the 1995 season as the bench coach under new manager Joe Torre. He was instrumental in the team obtaining Joe Girardi to be the team’s catcher, and Girardi went on to become the manager of the Yankees, replacing Torre.

In 1996, while Torre was being treated for prostate cancer, Mr. Zimmer managed the Yankees for 36 games. He quit the Yankees after the 2003 season, saying he was tired of being treated abusively by owner George Steinbrenner.

“I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me,” Torre said. “He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life.”

In 2003, during Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Mr. Zimmer, then 73, confronted Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez during a brawl between the teams and was thrown to the ground by the pitcher.

Mr. Zimmer later said that the incident was an embarrassing one for him and that he greatly regretted it.

Mr. Zimmer leaves his wife of 62 years, Jean (Soot), his son Thomas, daughter Donna, and four grandchildren.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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