Don Zimmer: Cincinnati Kid and baseball legend dies at 83

Manager, player from West Side had 66-year career

CINCINNATI - If you wanted to rank the impact of Cincinnatians on modern major league baseball (without going all the way back to the founders of the Red Stockings in 1869), three names would be at the top:

Pete Rose

Ken Griffey, Jr.

Don Zimmer

The Cincinnati Kid was one of the most colorful and popular figures in baseball during his incredible 66-year professional career. Locally, he helped blaze a path to the major leagues for Rose and scores of other local players.

That's why baseball is mourning Zimmer, who died Wednesday at age 83.

“He was my best friend in life,” said former Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “I called him three or four times a day. He took a liking to me years ago when he was a coach with the Yankees and we became fast friends.

“There is no better person in life than Don Zimmer was.”

"Great baseball man. A baseball lifer. Was a mentor to me," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in tears after Wednesday night's game.

Zimmer, it could be said, was Pete Rose before Pete Rose – an outstanding West-Side athlete who became a local legend at Western Hills High School  - and later, a baseball icon whose fame spread across the country.

It was Zimmer and Jim Frey who started the pipeline from West Hi to the major leagues for Rose and other great Mustangs of the 1950s like Russ Nixon, Ed Brinkman and Art Mahaffey.

That was during an era when local boys loved to play Knothole baseball and local high school and American Legion teams dominated the diamonds near and far.

Zimmer's success  - and Joe Nuxhall's and Jim Bunning's and others of their era - created such a remarkable interest and enthusiasm for baseball in this region that it produced generations of local stars – from the likes of Jimmy Wynn, Buddy Bell, Ron Oester and Dave Parker to David Justice, Bill Doran, Richard Dotson and Leon Durham, to Barry Larkin, Jim Leyritz, Griffey and Kevin Youkilis.

For a long time, no place created more major leaguers than Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

Of course, Zimmer didn't have the remarkable playing career that Rose and Griffey had, but his colorful personality, like Yogi Berra, made him popular with players and fans, and his longevity made him one of a kind.

Zimmer was still active as the senior adviser for the Tampa Bay Rays since 2004. He had been in a rehabilitation center in Florida since having seven hours of heart surgery in mid-April.

After starting as a minor league infielder in 1948 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Zimmer went on to have one of the longest careers in baseball history.

Zimmer played alongside Jackie Robinson for the only Brooklyn team to win the World Series in 1955.

He played for Casey Stengel and the original New York Mets in 1962.

He managed four teams in the 1970s and 80s and nearly guided the Boston Red Sox to a championship.

And he was Joe Torre's right-hand man for eight years with the New York Yankees' most recent dynasty.

"I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me," Torre said in a statement. "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 ... We loved him. The game of baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man," Torre said.

Zimmer was easily recognizable for his Popeye looks and the big chaw that always seemed to be in his cheek, and his storytelling was a treat for anyone lucky enough to hear him.

Early in his career, Zimmer was beaned by a fastball and doctors had to put metal screws in his head. Many years later, as a Yankee coach, Zimmer charged Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez during a brawl, only to have Martinez toss him to the ground.

Zimmer was a three-sports star at West Hi and an all-city quarterback. He turned down a scholarship offer from Bear Bryant to play at Kentucky because baseball was his love. 

Zimmer said he signed with the Dodgers instead of the Reds because the Dodgers offered him $3,700 and the Reds offered $1,500.

Zimmer married his high school sweetheart, Carol Jean Bauerle (nicknamed Soot), at home plate at Dunn Field in Elmira, N.Y., between games of a doubleheader on Aug. 16, 1951.

Zimmer spent time in a lot of uniforms. An infielder, he played 12 seasons (1954-65) for the Dodgers, Mets, Cubs, Reds (63 games in 1962) and Washington Senators. He hit .235 and had some pop in his bat. He hit 15 homers in only 88 games as a rookie in 1955 and he was an All-Star for the Cubs in 1961.

RELATED: See Zimmer's playing stats

He was a manager for 13 seasons, leading the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs, where he won NL Manager of the Year in 1989.

The Cubs GM who hired him was Frey, his West Hi teammate.

Before managing in the big leagues, Zimmer managed Johnny Bench with the Reds' AAA farm team in Buffalo.

He also coached for the Expos, Giants and Rockies.

Zimmer has six World Series rings to his credit. His teams the postseason 19 times.

“Everybody remembers Zim as a funny character,"  Frey, his lifelong friend from the West Side, told the Chicago Tribune Thursday from his home in Baltimore. "And they remember some funny things about him. But he was a serious baseball man and a great friend. There are just very few guys who come down the road that you meet in your life that have that exceptional quality, and he was one of them.

“He’s everybody’s loss.”

Zimmer's No. 66 jersey had been worn recently by longtime Tampa Bay third base coach Tom Foley in tribute. The Rays hosted the Miami Marlins on Wednesday night, and Foley was crying in the dugout.

Foley later remembered the Rays going as a team to see "42," the movie about Robinson.

"He would talk about it. He had a lot of stories, a lot of history coming out of him," Foley said. "He had a lot to give, a lot to offer and he did."

Earlier this season, the Rays hung a banner in the front of the press box at Tropicana Field that simply read "ZIM."

"Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said.

"On behalf of Major League Baseball and the many clubs that 'Popeye' served in a distinguished baseball life, I extend my deepest condolences to Don's family, friends and his many admirers throughout our game," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.

"Zim was a great man, and there are no words to explain what he brought to us and what he meant to me," Rays star Evan Longoria said. "He taught me a lot of things, and those days of sitting in the dugout with him will be missed."

"He always lit everybody's faces up whenever he'd walk in," Rays ace David Price said. "Zim had a passion for baseball that rubs off on everybody."

Zimmer is survived by his wife; son Thomas, a scout with the Giants; daughter Donna, and four grandchildren.

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