“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1976-1980
#10   DON ZIMMER

Donald William Zimmer was an infielder, manager, and coach in Major League Baseball (MLB). Zimmer was involved in professional baseball from 1949 until his death, a span of 65 years. Zimmer signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 1949. He played in MLB with the Dodgers (1954–59, 1963), Chicago Cubs (1960–61), New York Mets (1962), Cincinnati Reds (1962), and Washington Senators (1963–65). Shortly thereafter came a stint with the Toei Flyers of Nippon Professional Baseball in 1966.

In between, Zimmer saw action in all or parts of 18 minor league seasons spanning 1949–67. He also played winter baseball with the Elefantes de Cienfuegos and the Tigres de Marianao of the Cuban League during the 1952–53 season, as well as for the 1954–55 Puerto Rican League champion Cangrejeros de Santurce en route to the 1955 Caribbean Series. Zimmer led his team to the Series title, topping all hitters with a .400 batting average (8-for-20), three home runs and a .950 slugging percentage, while claiming Most Valuable Player honors.[4][5]

During a minor league game on July 7, 1953, Zimmer was struck by a pitch thrown by pitcher Jim Kirk, causing Zimmer to lose consciousness. He suffered a brain injury that required surgery. He woke up two weeks later, thinking that it was the day after the game where the incident took place. This led to Major League Baseball adopting batting helmets as a safety measure to be used by players when at-bat. Phil Rizzuto was the first player to use the batting helmets.

Following his retirement as a player, Zimmer began his coaching career. He served as manager for the Padres (1972–73), Red Sox (1976–80), Texas Rangers (1981–82), and Cubs (1988–91).

After being fired by the Padres at the close of the 1973 campaign, he served as the third-base coach for the Boston Red Sox for 2½ seasons. Working under skipper Darrell Johnson, Zimmer's tenure included a memorable event during Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Boston had the bases loaded and none out in the home half of the ninth inning. The score was tied. A soft fly to left field was too shallow to score the winning run, but baserunner Denny Doyle thought Zimmer's shouts of "No! No! No!" were actually "Go! Go! Go!" He ran for home, and was thrown out at the plate. That play, and Dwight Evans' brilliant catch off Joe Morgan in extra innings, set up Carlton Fisk's classic, game-winning home run.

The 1976 Red Sox never got on track under Johnson, and he was fired in July. Zimmer was named acting, then permanent, manager and he led them to a winning record, but a disappointing third-place finish in the AL East. The Red Sox would win more than 90 games in each of Zimmer's three full seasons (1977–1979) as manager, only the second time they had pulled off this feat since World War I. His 1978 team won 99 games, still the fourth-best record in franchise history.

However, he is best remembered among Red Sox fans for the team's dramatic collapse during the 1978 season. After leading the American League East by as many as fourteen games, the Red Sox stumbled in August. By early September that lead was reduced to four games. That lead evaporated in a four-game series against the surging New York Yankees which is still known as "the Boston Massacre."

The Red Sox spent the last month of the season trading first place with the Yankees, forcing a one-game playoff on October 2. In that game, the Yankees took the lead permanently on a legendary home run by Bucky Dent over the Fenway Park Green Monster.

During this stretch, Zimmer made several questionable personnel moves. He never got along with left-handed starting pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee. As a matter of fact, his outright hatred of Lee (who had nicknamed Zimmer "The Gerbil.") ran so deep that he gave the starting assignment in the last game of the "Massacre" to rookie Bobby Sprowl, who had only been called up from Triple-A Pawtucket a few days earlier. Reportedly, Carl Yastrzemski pleaded with Zimmer to start Lee, who, along with Luis Tiant, had dominated the Yankees during their careers. (Lee, for example, won 12 out of 17 decisions against the Yankees in 10 years with Boston.) Sprowl allowed four walks, one hit and one run in the first inning before being pulled and made only three more major-league starts.

Zimmer also penciled Fisk, the team's longtime starting catcher, into the lineup 154 times (out of a possible 162), a heavy workload for a catcher. Fisk complained of sore knees for much of this stretch and missed most of the next season with a sore arm. Finally, Zimmer kept third baseman Butch Hobson in the lineup, even though Hobson's elbow miseries (he had floating bone chips which he frequently rearranged before coming to the plate) made it impossible for him to hit for power or average, or throw accurately. Hobson made error after error, until finally Zimmer called on Jack Brohamer to replace him; with Brohamer at third, Boston won its last eight games of the regular season to force a tie with the Yankees, but the Red Sox lost the playoff game on home runs by Dent and Reggie Jackson.

Zimmer next managed the Texas Rangers. He spent less than two years in the job and his firing by owner Eddie Chiles. In 1996, he joined the Yankees as their bench coach for their run of four World Series titles. In 1999, Zimmer filled in for Manager Joe Torre while Torre was recuperating from prostate cancer. Zimmer went 21–15 while guiding the Yankees during Torre's absence. This record, however, is credited to Torre's managerial record. Many fans know him for his "brawl" with Pedro Martínez in the 2003 American League Championship Series, when Zimmer ran at Martinez and Martinez threw Zimmer to the ground. Zimmer accepted responsibility for the altercation and was apologetic to his family and the Yankees organization but maintained that Martínez was "one of the most unprofessional players" he had ever known.

Zimmer was a senior advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays. His role included assisting the team during spring training and during home games. Every year, Zimmer incremented his uniform number by one to match the number of years he has worked in baseball. During the 2014 season he wore #66, as seen on the Rays' official site. (In 2014, longtime Tampa Bay third base coach Tom Foley wore Zimmer's name and number on the back of his own uniform in tribute.) Zimmer often noted that every paycheck he'd ever gotten came from baseball, and that he never held a job in any other profession. From the 2008 season to his death, Zimmer was the last former Brooklyn Dodger (besides announcer Vin Scully) still in baseball in some capacity.