Here is a link to my Tuesday column about Don Zimmer, RIP. The full text runs below:
Don Zimmer robbed me of my childhood.
The former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop and Yankees bench coach — he worked for so many big-league teams — died last week at 83. He was what people call beloved. In Zimmer’s honor, the Tampa Bay Rays put on a memorial on Saturday. Important people said nice things about him and the tribute ended with someone playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the bagpipe.
Zimmer had lots of nicknames. Gerbil was a good one. As a young player he was quick and slim, but he put on weight after he retired and looked like Popeye. From everything I know about Zimmer, he was a first-rate guy, a good friend, an important figure in the history of baseball.
In 1956 when I was 11, my dad took my friend Danny and me to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play the Reds. Zimmer started at short instead of Pee Wee Reese, batted eighth. A kid named Sandy Koufax was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers. He lasted into the sixth inning when manager Walter Alston yanked him. Clem Labine got the win — the Dodgers won 7-6.
Hal Jeffcoat was the Reds’ starting pitcher, pitched to Zimmer in the home fourth. You can get the play by play online and in the play by play it says: “Hit by pitch; (Gil) Hodges to second.”
This wasn’t any hit by pitch. This was the pitch crashing into Zimmer’s head, breaking his cheekbone. This was Zimmer falling down in the dirt. This was the crowd going deathly silent on a bright happy Saturday afternoon when tragedy isn’t supposed to happen.
This was me asking my dad if Zimmer would be OK.
I loved Zimmer so at that moment. This was my dad saying he didn’t know. This was Danny looking white and ill. This was my dad telling me Jeffcoat had been an outfielder. This was me thinking Jeffcoat had no business pitching if he couldn’t control his pitches. He should have stuck to the outfield.
This was my dad telling me Zimmer had been beaned once before. It was the first time I ever heard the word beaned. My dad said the first beaning was 1953 in the minors. Zimmer lost consciousness for 13 days. Doctors drilled four holes in his skull to relieve pressure in his brain. They told him his career was over. He made it to the majors the next year.
And now this. Beaned again. Zimmer was cursed. I didn’t care about the game after that. I kept wanting them to make an announcement saying he was OK. I never heard an announcement. The story goes doctors put a steel plate in his head. He returned to the majors the next season and kept playing another 13 years. When someone implied he was stupid, said he must have a hole in his head, he cheerfully said he had four.
Cut to a scene in Oakland many years later, me a sports writer. I was sitting on the bench in the visiting dugout before a game between the A’s and Yankees. And Zimmer was there. Pleasant. Crusty in a baseball way. We chatted. He was nice to me.
Finally, I told him I had been at the beaning, witnessed what Jeffcoat did.
I thought Zimmer would put his arm around me in a good-fellowship way. We would bond.
He eyed me.
“B.S.,” he said, using the complete words.
I stared at him.
“B.S.,” he repeated.
His lower jaw seemed to extend forward.
“Don,” I said, my voice plaintive, “I really was there. It was a traumatic moment in my life.”
“Listen, pal,” he said, “if all the people who told me they were there really were there, there would have been a million people in the stands.”
I never knew Don Zimmer was so important. I got the impression people from all walks of life approached him on a daily basis to badmouth Jeffcoat and express joy Zimmer had survived.
I wanted to convince him I was legit. I wanted to convince him for my dad and for Danny. But Zimmer had turned his face away. I was just another pretender trying to horn in on his glory.
For a moment, I doubted myself. Is it possible I made up the whole thing? But I remember traveling home on the Brighton Line of the subway speechless with grief, my father unable to console me.
Without meaning to, I’m sure, Zimmer had robbed me of my childhood — at least, he robbed me of that vivid, specific, transcendent memory. I don’t hold it against him.
I just want to say you were a good man, Zim. Everyone says you were. Please rest in peace. But I really was there.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.