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Bob Ryan | Appreciation

Don Zimmer was truly a baseball man

Don Zimmer was married at home plate at Dunn Field in Elmira, N.Y., between games of a doubleheader on Aug. 16, 1951.

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“I’d do it again,” Jean (Soot) Zimmer, his wife, once told me.

I never met anyone who was more pure baseball than Don Zimmer. “Never drew a paycheck outside of baseball,” he loved to say. He did have a go at a regular summer job once. Zimmy turned in his stuff at lunchtime and never looked back. After that it was baseball, baseball, and more baseball until he died Wednesday night at the age of 83.

As a player, manager, coach, and adviser Don Zimmer was a part of baseball from 1949 until his dying breath. I would guess his funeral will be the occasion for a whole lot of story-telling. I mean, just think of what he did and what he saw from the time he put on that first professional uniform in Cambridge, Md., as an 18-year-old shortstop in 1949.

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He needed a year to get adjusted, but the following season he established himself as someone to watch in that always well-stocked Brooklyn Dodger organization. Zimmer completely destroyed the PONY League that year, leading it in home runs (23) and runs scored (146, and this in just 123 games), as well as putouts and assists.

Advancement was tough in those 16-team days, and it was exponentially difficult for a shortstop in the Dodger organization because future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese had been playing there since 1941 and wasn’t planning on going anywhere for a while. But Zimmer was going to be a tough one to deny. Eighty-one games into the 1953 season, the 22-year-old phenom was hitting .300 with 23 homers and 63 RBI’s for the Dodgers’ Triple A affiliate in St. Paul when a fastball thrown by Jim Kirk crashed into his un-helmeted head and changed his career path. He was unconscious for 13 days. Holes were drilled into his head and four corks were placed into it.

His career resumed but he was simply not the same player. Still, he made it to Brooklyn in 1954 and was a member of the only Brooklyn world championship team in 1955. Tragedy came calling once more in 1956 when he again was hit in the head, this time in the cheekbone.

Zimmer was denied stardom, but he carved out a 12-year career as a utilityman. He played in the second of the two 1961 All-Star Games. He was an Original Met, albeit a not very successful one. After a 4-for-52 start the Mets shipped him to Cincinnati. I used to love kidding him about being traded even-up for Cliff Cook, but it turns out it was a two-for-one, Bob Miller also coming over with Cook. It seemed somewhat appropriate that he ended his career in Japan. I’m going to guess he didn’t take much time to learn the language.

In later years Zimmy filled out the uniform nicely, but his distinguishing physical characteristic were a pair of muscular forearms that had earned him the nickname by which he was universally known in baseball: “Popeye.” Though a bit portly in middle age, he remained undeniably an athlete and he delighted in taking an occasional turn at the end of batting practice, peppering the wall or even launching a few into the screen.

There was never a doubt that Zimmer would remain in baseball when his playing days were over. His first big league managing job was a hopeless task in San Diego. He loved to point out to anyone who thought he had been fired by GM Buzzy Bavasi that in his wallet was a copy of his resignation letter. Gotta love that.

Of course, in these parts he is best remembered for his time as both third base coach and then manager of the Red Sox from 1974-80. He was the third base coach who says he shouted “No! No! No!” before Denny Doyle was cut down trying to score from third in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series (Doyle insisted he had heard “Go! Go! Go!”). He succeeded Darrell Johnson as the manager in 1976. In 1977, the Red Sox hit 233 home runs while finishing 2½ games behind the Yankees.

But the year most Red Sox fans of a certain age recall most vividly was 1978, when the Red Sox could not hold onto a 14-game lead over New York in late July. Zimmer’s transgressions included playing Butch Hobson every day when it was apparent his right elbow was shot; overplaying Carlton Fisk; and most notably, having an almost complete inability to get along with his pitching staff. Bill Lee, with whom he should have bonded over their mutual love for the game, nicknamed him “The Gerbil,” and don’t think Zimmy ever forgave or forgot. Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins was another enemy. My own theory was that Zimmer, having twice been beaned, had a subconscious hatred of pitchers as a species. There is no doubt the relationship was counterproductive.

All I can tell you is that Don Zimmer was a kind and thoughtful man when in the company of non-pitchers. On the last road trip in 1977 he threw a little get-together in his hotel suite for the writers, with whom he was always approachable. And when a year later he got wind of the fact that I was going to Butte, Mont., to see his son Tom, an Independent League manager, in order to write a feature story, he called me over right behind home plate. Pressing a 50 dollar bill into my hand, he said, “You take Tom and Marian out to dinner.” This was 1978, so, yes, that $50 could cover three steak dinners in Butte.

Zimmer later managed the Rangers and the Cubs, but his greatest acclaim in the latter stages of his career was as Joe Torre’s consigliere in New York. Zimmer had a prior relationship with George Steinbrenner because his offseason home was in St. Petersburg (I remember the day in 1978 when he proudly announced that the home he had purchased in 1953 was now paid for) but he had nothing going at all with Torre when the phone rang and Torre asked him to be his bench coach. It certainly came as no shock when he wound up in the employ of the Rays organization. Talk about a natural fit.

I can’t say Zimmer was all baseball. He loved the ponies and maybe the greyhounds even more. Any day off he ever had while working in Boston was spent at either Suffolk or Wonderland. And when the fall came he had his college football sources. Zimmer didn’t just watch for fun, if you know what I mean.

But other than those occasional diversions Don Zimmer devoted his life to baseball. So what if it almost got him killed — twice? A man who gets married at home plate already has made his statement about how much he loves the game. I just hope they’ve got a good Fenway replica Up There so Zimmy can take a little BP.

More coverage:

Don Zimmer, 83; became iconic figure on ballfield

Photos: A look back at Don Zimmer

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached atryan@globe.com.

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