Baseball lost one of its great ambassadors Wednesday when former Cubs manager Don Zimmer died in Florida at 83.
Zimmer, nicknamed “Popeye” for his strength and big cheeks, spent 66 years in baseball.
But few were as wild as his three-plus seasons managing the Cubs, whom he led to a division title in 1989 with an unpredictable style that never has been replicated.
Zimmer's 247-239 record in his first three seasons with the Cubs was the highest victory total for a Cubs manager at the time since Leo Durocher won 535 games from 1966-72.
His exit was also one of the most memorable in Cubs history. Zimmer handed an ultimatum to Tribune Co. executive Don Grenesko to give him a contract extension early in the 1991 season, asking for the same kind of security the players had.
“Am I any different?” Zimmer said he told Grenesko. “What am I? A piece of garbage in Lake Michigan?”
The ploy didn't work, and Zimmer was fired after 37 games. In typical fashion, he invited the beat writers into his New York hotel suite and told them to empty out the minibar so he could charge it to the team.
Zimmer began his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954 and later played for the Cubs under the College of Coaches in 1961. He was dumped into the first National League expansion pool when he popped off about the issue on a WGN-9 pregame show and went on to play for the original Mets. He also played for the Reds and Washington Senators during a 12-year career, mostly as an infielder.
After spending the 1966 season playing in Japan, Zimmer managed in the minors from 1967-70 before becoming a coach with the Montreal Expos in 1971. He had several coaching stints afterward, and managed the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs, going 885-858 and winning his one division title with the Cubs.
Zimmer also was bench coach under Joe Torre on four Yankees World Series championship teams and engaged in a famous brawl with the Red Sox during the 2003 ALCS when pitcher Pedro Martinez flung the then-72-year-old coach to the ground.
Torre on Wednesday said that Zimmer was “like family” to him.
“The game was his life, and his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife, Ali's,” Torre said. “The game of baseball lost a special person tonight.”
Former Cubs coach Jimmy Piersall, a contemporary of Zimmer's as a player, once said Zimmer's life “is his wife and family, baseball and the racetrack.” He was passionate about everything he did, and it showed.
“He was a great, fiery ambassador for the game,” said Zimmer's former Dodgers teammate Roger Craig, who also hired him as a coach when he managed the Padres and Giants. “That's why he worked for so many teams and with so many good baseball people. He loved the races and he loved baseball. He was a great human being.”
Zimmer often was asked about having a steel plate in his head, the result of a beaning in Columbus, Ohio, in 1953, when he was a promising prospect in the Dodgers system. The beanball fractured his skull and led to a blood clot, leaving him unconscious for 12 days. After two operations and five spinal taps, Zimmer eventually returned to baseball and stayed in it the rest of his life.
“I don't have a plate in my head,” Zimmer told the Tribune in 1988. “What I have in my head are buttons, which are like tapered corkscrews in a bottle. Three of them on one side, one on the other side.”
Zimmer seemed indestructible. In 1956, he was hit by a pitch under his left eye, fracturing a cheekbone and almost detaching the retina. In the 1999 AL Division Series, a foul ball struck him in the face. He wore an army helmet the next day, showing his sense of humor.
Nothing could deter Zimmer from doing the job he loved. He was an old-school manager who had a few run-ins with players, particularly Red Sox left-hander Bill Lee, who nicknamed him “The Gerbil.” Lee, Fergie Jenkins and other Red Sox players formed a clique they called “The Buffalo Heads,” referring to Zimmer as a buffalo as a slight to his intellect.
The '78 Red Sox blew a 14-game lead to the Yankees, and Zimmer was vilified in Red Sox Nation. After being fired as a manager for the Red Sox and Rangers, Zimmer expected to be a coach the rest of his career before Cubs general manager Jim Frey, his old friend, offered him the managerial job in 1988.
“Jimmy said, ‘You want to manage the Cubs?'” Zimmer recalled. “And I think I made one statement to him: ‘Who in the hell who has a uniform on wouldn't want to manage the Cubs?'”
Zimmer said he never asked about the contract terms.
“I didn't know if it was a one-year deal for $20 a month or what,” he said. “I trusted Jim Frey to give me what was fair. I didn't have an agent to negotiate a contract for me. We wrapped it up in one sitting. There were three reasons I took the job. The Cubs fans, they're the best. The ballpark, it's something special. And Jim Frey.”
In 1989, Zimmer reached the zenith of his managerial career, throwing out the book and using crazy strategy to great success, including squeeze bunts with the bases loaded and a triple-steal with a pitcher at the plate.
After going 9-23 in spring training, the Cubs came out of nowhere to win the NL East, prompting the nickname “The Boys of Zimmer.” Zimmer's popularity in Chicago soared, especially after he was caught on national TV barking at a critic in the box seats: “Go on home, you fathead.”
Despite losing to the Giants in the NLCS, he was named NL Manager of the Year.
“A couple of breaks here and there, and we could have gone to the Series,” he said after winning the award. “I'm gonna remember this as the greatest year in the 41 years I've been in baseball. I'm not gonna let the last three games change my mind.”
Zimmer was proud to be a baseball lifer, and he died as a member of the Rays organization.
Tribune reporter Mark Gonzales contributed.
Twitter @pwsullivanCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun