Don Zimmer has been in baseball for a long time. Currently a senior advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays, Zimmer signed his first professional contract 61 years ago, beginning a career that has included stints as a player, coach, and manager at the minor- and major-league levels. Best known for his time at the helm in Boston and Chicago, and for having a metal plate in his head—the result of a serious beaning in 1956—Zimmer spent 12 years as a big-league infielder, including the 1955 and 1959 championship seasons in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Now 79 years old, and still going strong despite having suffered a stroke in December 2008, Zimmer talked about his playing days during a recent visit to Fenway Park.
David Laurila: You signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. What do you remember about that time in your life?
Don Zimmer: I left high school [in Cincinnati] and I was on a train going to Cambridge, Maryland. I had a suitcase and I was scared to death.
DL: Looking back to that era, how different was the game compared to now?
DZ: So much that it would take three days to tell you how different it was. It was different in many, many ways, from pitch counts to bats being smaller—they were heavier back in the day. There are just so many things that are different today that there isn‘t time to talk about all of them.
DL: Was baseball more popular in 1949 that it is today?
DZ: I think it’s popular now. That part of it, I don’t think there is that much difference.
DL: When you broke into the big leagues, in 1954, Jim Gilliam and Pee Wee Reese formed the Dodgers double-play combination. Did you ever wonder if you’d get to the big leagues with them in front of you?
DZ: Well, I got there. I got there with them being there.
DL: You were 23 when you finally got called up. Did you think you were ready before that?
DZ: Yes. I felt that I… the game was different than it is today. There was no… you’d just keep your option for the minor leagues and I wasn’t going to take Pee Wee Reese’s place. But they did bring me up when they had to protect me. They either protected me off the Triple-A club or they’d lose me, and I knew they were going to protect me. That’s how I got to Brooklyn.
DL: You got your first big-league hit against Curt Simmons.
DZ: Yes, my first hit in the major leagues… I was playing Triple-A ball in St. Paul and I took a red-eye all night because Pee Wee Reese had gotten hurt in Philadelphia. They said, “You’re playing shortstop the next day,” My first time at bat I hit a ball, in the old Philadelphia ballpark, where [the stands] overhung the lower part. I hit the ball and it bounced back towards the field. I was just running like heck and wound up diving into third base for a triple. The next day, the Philadelphia guys in the bullpen said that it should have been a home run, that it hit the overhang and came down, but I ended up getting a triple instead.
DL: The following year you hit 15 home runs in just 280 at-bats. Were you a power hitter as a young player?
DZ: I was not a good hitter. I had some power and I remember hitting 15 home runs in about 250 at-bats, and I drove in 51 runs. I felt that I contributed to the club that year.
DL: What are your favorite memories from the 1955 World Series?
DZ: Well, just the idea that we beat the Yankees for the first time, and for [Gil] Hodges and Jackie Robinson, and Pee Wee—all of them got the monkey off their back. They finally beat the Yankees.
DL: Is Jackie Robinson underappreciated by today’s players?
DZ: People today don’t even know who he is—some young people. But I knew who he was. He was a great, great player and a great man. Branch Rickey had to be a very smart man to pick Robinson out of the whole world to be the first black player.
DL: You played with Sandy Koufax before he was Sandy Koufax.
DZ: Yes, he was erratic, and by the time he got to Los Angeles, it was hard to realize how wild he was. But then he could throw it in a tea cup. [Catcher John] Roseboro would call it here and he would hit that spot. That’s how good he was.
DL: You were seriously beaned in both 1953 and 1956. How much did that impact your career?
DZ: Well, it’s… there’s no question that when you have brain surgery—and the other time I got hit in the face—that it’s got to hurt. But I was a lucky man in that I was able to play 12 years after that. I’ve been in the game for a long time.