Don Zimmer, one of baseball’s most recognizable faces for decades, died Wednesday at age 83.
He underwent heart surgery in mid-April, more than five years after he suffered a stroke.
Zimmer enjoyed a 66-year career in the game that began as a player with the Brooklyn Dodgers and ran through recent years as a senior adviser to the Tampa Bay Rays.
“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,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said Wednesday in a statement. “A memorable contributor to Baseball for more than 60 years, Don was the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime.”
Zimmer’s greatest fame came when he served as manager for two of baseball’s iconic franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. He was in charge in Boston in 1978 when the Red Sox blew a 14-game division lead to the New York Yankees and lost a one-game playoff. However, Zimmer guided the Cubs to the postseason in 1989.
Zimmer was a coach for the Red Sox from 1974-76 and then took over as manager in the 1976 season when Darrell Johnson was fired. He guided the team to a 42-34 record for the remainder of the season.
He then went on to manage the team to three consecutive 90-win seasons from 1977-79, but the team suffered the late-season collapse in 1978 and lost to the New York Yankees in a one-game playoff for the American League East Division when the Bucky Dent hit a homer over the Green Monster.
In 14 seasons as a manager, including stints with the San Diego Padres and the Texas Rangers, Zimmer compiled an 885-858 (.508) record. The Cubs’ 4-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 National League Championship Series marked his only playoff berth as a manager.
Zimmer broke in with the Dodgers as a shortstop in 1954, but he regularly saw action at second base and third base, too, during his career.
He earned his first World Series championship with Brooklyn in 1955. He moved with the team to Los Angeles in 1958 and won another World Series ring as a Dodger in 1959.
Zimmer played for the Cubs in 1960 and 1961, earning his only All-Star berth in the latter year when he batted .252 and had a .403 slugging percentage, 13 homers and 40 RBIs.
He was a member of the expansion New York Mets in 1962, a club that finished a miserable 40-120.
Zimmer also played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1962, split 1963 between the Dodgers and the Senators, then stayed in Washington through the end of his playing days in 1965.
He played 35 games at catcher over the last two seasons of his 12-year playing career even though he never appeared at the position previously. Zimmer wound up with .235 average, a .290 on-base percentage, a .372 slugging percentage, 91 homers and 352 RBIs in 1,095 games.
Zimmer then went into coaching, spending several years in the minor leagues before getting a major league job as the Montreal Expos’ third base coach in 1971. He coached third for the Padres in 1972 before taking over as manager early in the season. He was fired after the 1973 season.
A stint as the Red Sox’s third base coach led to Zimmer taking over as Boston’s manager in July 1976. He remained on the Boston bench through 1980, then managed the Rangers in 1981-82 and the Cubs from 1988 to 1991. In between, he was a coach for the New York Yankees, the Cubs and the Giants.
Zimmer was part of the expansion Colorado Rockies’ coaching staff before returning to the Yankees to serve as manager Joe Torre’s bench coach. Zimmer earned four more World Series rings during the Yankees’ 1996-2000 dynasty.
Torre said Wednesday in a statement, “I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member 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. The game of Baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man.”
After leaving the Yankees, Zimmer was a fixture with the Rays, this year wearing the No. 66 uniform — symbolizing his years in the game — during spring training. Rays third base coach Tom Foley recently began wearing the No. 66 shirt as a tribute to the baseball lifer.