Zimmer launched 50-year pro ride in Cambridge

June 27, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

Everything about Don Zimmer has to do with an admirable depth ofcharacter that sets him apart. It was in 1949 that he entered professional baseball at its lowest level, and for the past 48 years he has been with the same wife he married in a home plate ceremony. Her name is Jean, but he calls her "Soot."

Zimmer is 24-karat, genuine in all ways, loyal to friends and to himself. "Everything I have came from baseball, even meeting my wife," he says. "There have been ups and downs but the ups outweigh the downs. People helped me, and I sure hope I helped them in return."

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Zimmer's entrance into professional baseball, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers' Class D farm club at Cambridge in the Eastern Shore League. It was the last year of existence for the Shore League but the first for Zimmer there. A different time. Baseball had 59 minor leagues, its most ever, and the Dodgers operated 34 farm clubs, but the nation was enamored with this new magic picture machine called television. It was to damage the entertainment appeal of baseball in small towns across America. Why pay to watch young, untested players at the minor-league level when DiMaggio, Williams and Musial were available for free on TV?

Zimmer rode the railroad from his native Cincinnati to Cambridge, which was still being provided passenger service in 1949. He got off wearing a sport coat and carrying two pieces of luggage, and admits to being "really scared."

"The general manager met me at the hotel, which had a large porch, and took me to the ballpark in a truck," he remembers. `When I got in the clubhouse and was being introduced, a voice hollered, `Who the hell is this little squirt?' It was Dom Bertocci, a kid from Brockton, Mass., who was only 5 feet 4, or 5 inches shorter than I was."

Zimmer's debut box score shows a 2-for-4 night, two RBIs, a stolen base and two errors. Something to build on. He had been signed, after his mother accompanied him to Brooklyn for workouts at Ebbets Field, for a bonus of $3,900 and a salary of $140 a month.

It was a battle for survival. The Dodgers, shortly thereafter, had an unprecedented logjam of highly talented shortstops in their system, including Chico Carrasquel, Billy Hunter, Maury Wills, Tommy Brown, Eddie Miksis, Bobby Morgan, Rocky Bridges and Jim Pendleton, all of whom made it to the major leagues with either the Dodgers or other organizations.

Before taking on this long-shot challenge of beating his way to the top, Zimmer had rejected football scholarships to Ohio State and Kentucky. He said no to coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, who roomed him with Babe Parilli on his Kentucky visit and tried to convince him football and a college education offered more promise.

"I wanted to be a big-league player since I was 8 years old," Zimmer relates. "My father bought me a Lonny Frey model glove -- nothing cheap about that-- and a couple years later I was on a softball team with him and other grown men. As I played high school and American Legion baseball [a national title winner in 1947], I got a fair idea of how to play the game."

Most of what has happened to Zimmer in life, in and out of baseball, he recounts with vivid detail. He says the day after reporting to Cambridge, he found the newspaper office of The Banner and ordered a mailed subscription for his father so he'd have a daily progress report on how his son was doing.

"About a week later, I called home and Dad said, `Well, I see where you set a record.' I didn't know what he meant. I never much read the paper, but he told me a story said I set a league record for most errors in a game -- six.

"What happened is they called me for two errors on bad hops that hit me on the shoulder. I booted two other ground balls, dropped a fly in short left field when I got mixed-up with the outfielder and also made a wild throw that hit an outhouse that was beyond first base. I can't forget that night."

He says the pitcher, Zeke Zeisz, had walked off the field at game's end and said derisively to third baseman Hank Parker, "Where did they come up with this guy?" Zimmer heard the comment and also the defense Parker put forth: "Listen, don't knock the kid. He just got out of high school a week ago."

Yes, the kind of things, now remembered 50 years later by Zimmer, on his Cambridge experience. He says he took one look at an outfielder, Dick Smith, and thought he'd become a major-leaguer, but that never happened. Another player at Cambridge, Lou Johnson, had been beaned early that season and, after recuperating from a skull fracture, was back in the lineup.

"But a pitch grazed his chin from a sidearm pitcher at Rehoboth Beach. Lou dropped his bat, came back to the dugout and said he couldn't do it anymore."

It was a preview of Zimmer's own troubles. He was beaned twice, once lapsing into a coma for two weeks, before cap liners or helmets were used. But he went on to play in the majors for 12 years, then managed in the minors and majors, including the Cubs, Rangers, Red Sox, Padres and Yankees.

Bill Mowbray, who wrote the book, "The Eastern Shore League," says his mother took him to the games in 1949, but he was too young, a mere lad of 9, to remember Zimmer -- only his name. "But I have nothing but respect for that man. He is refreshingly honest, has compassion and loyalty and yet is fiercely competitive."

Don Zimmer. A credit to himself, to family and to baseball. He ought to be put down in good wine to be kept for the ages. A throwback, exemplifying what decency and consideration for others is all about.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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