He was called "Popeye," "Zim" or "The Gerbil" depending on the company he kept. Few men in baseball have been as highly respected and well-liked. When he retired from game, he had served in portions of seven decades. Commenting on Zimmer's recent passing, lifelong friend and former manager Jim Frey remarked: "He's everyone's loss."
Few would disagree.
Zimmer was born in Cincinnati. He attended Western Hills High School--the same alma mater as Pete Rose. He began his minor league career in 1949. An infielder, he spent significant amounts of time at second base, shortstop and third. On the farm, he earned the "Popeye" moniker because he had thick forearms like the cartoon character. He had some pop in his bat, smashing 23 homers in 1950 and 1953. Two serious beanings stunted his development as a player. The first one left him largely unconscious for twelve days. Holes were drilled into his skull to relieve the pressure that had built up. Titanium "buttons" were used to plug those holes--souvenirs Zimmer would carry for the rest of his life.
Over the course of his twelve year major league career, Zimmer spent time with five different clubs. His longest stint was with the Dodgers. The team won both World Series he appeared in. A lifetime .235 hitter, he enjoyed his best offensive campaign in 1958, reaching personal best marks of 17 homers and 60 RBIs. His numbers tapered off after that.
Finished as a player by 1968, he left a lasting mark on the game as a manager and coach. He managed in the minors through the 1970 slate then signed on as Padres' skipper in 1972. He had a long stint at the helm of the Red Sox beginning in 1976. Other managerial stops in Texas and Chicago would follow. He is perhaps best remembered for his tenure as a bench coach during the Yankees' glory days of the late-90s/ early 2000s.
Zimmer developed special relationships with the people he worked with over the years.
Lou Piniella got to know Zimmer during the great Yankee/ Red Sox rivalry of the late-70s. Everytime the two teams met, Zim and Lou would end up talking baseball and horse racing around the batting cage. Piniella made the mistake of mentioning that he had trouble picking up the offerings of pitcher Bill Campbell. "After that, it seemed every time I came to the plate from the seventh inning on against Boston, here came Zimmer to the mound summoning Campbell," Piniella remembered. After Zimmer left the Yankees in 2003, Piniella (who was managing in Tampa Bay) added him to Rays coaching staff even though there were no vacancies. The title of "special advisor" was invented to create an opening. Referring to Zimmer's infamous scrape with Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS, Piniella joked: "I never told him this, but I really hired him as a bodyguard."
Paul O'Neill was one of the most fiery competitors ever to step onto a diamond. He expected perfection of himself and when he didn't deliver, he would throw epic tantrums, flinging helmets, smashing bats and overturning water coolers. Zimmer always felt a kinship with O'Neill since they hailed from the same hometown. When O'Neill would launch into one of his tirades, Zimmer would glare at him and laugh openly. "What's so funny?!" O'Neill would bellow. "You are!" Zim would reply. No one else dared to confront the temperamental outfielder during his outbursts.
Derek Jeter gave Zimmer a lion's share of the credit for his development as a player. Jeter considered Zimmer to be a good luck charm and would rub Zimmer's bald head before important plate appearances. "Zim's a guy who's been around baseball for a hundred years and he just makes it fun," the iconic shortstop once said. "I look at him as a wise old Buddha." When he learned of Zimmer's passing last week, he nearly broke down in the middle of a game. He later cut a press conference short when he became too choked up to talk.
Joe Torre felt the loss deeply as well, commenting: "I hired him as a coach and he became like family to me. He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali's. We loved him."
A humble man, Zimmer never understood the effect he had on people--especially show business types. In his autobiography, The Zen of Zim, he wrote: "It's simply one of life's great mysteries to me. I meet these people and it's suddenly as if I've known them all my life. I know nothing about movies or politics and I still can't imagine why anyone would want to put a broken-down old humpty ballplayer like me in a TV commercial...Sometimes you simply can't explain things. They just are."
Before he retired, Zimmer created an All-Star team using players he had managed just for fun. His lineup was as follows:
C/ Carlton Fisk
P/ Greg Maddux
1B/ Rafael Palmeiro
2B/ Ryne Sandberg
SS/ Rick Burleson/ Shawon Dunston
3B/ Buddy Bell
OF/ Carl Yastrzemski. Dave Winfield, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Andre Dawson
That's one helluva team!