Tuesday, January 18, 2011

'56 of the month: Don Zimmer

I don't think I was any different than any other kid during the 1970s other than that I probably grew up at a slower rate than some of my classmates. Perhaps I was a little more sheltered.

For example, HBO was the big deal with the coolest kids back then. Do you remember when everyone called HBO "Home Box Office"? It was the wildest thing. You could receive a television station that would air cursing and nudity right there in your home.

There is no way my folks would go for something like that. But I had friends whose parents did. One of my friends became fascinated with George Carlin and I remember sitting there at his house in his room as he recited Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" over and over and over. Carlin was arrested for disturbing the peace while performing this bit during a comedy gig in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old in upstate New York was reciting it repeatedly with absolutely no resistance.

My friend knew Carlin from HBO. Through HBO and my friend, I became aware of things like "The Exorcist," and Monty Python, and Phantom of Paradise, which was a rock n' roll musical take-off of Phantom of the Opera. Unlike "The Exorcist," which thankfully I didn't see until years later, I did watch Phantom of Paradise as a 9-year-old and it freaked me out. I didn't sleep the whole night. The main actor in the movie, Paul Williams, briefly became the representation of all that was weird and perplexing in adult life.

A year later in school, our class watched the movie "Lord of the Flies," based on the famous book by William Golding, and I had a similar experience. It's quite the leap from "Herbie the Love Bug" to a movie about kids on a deserted island bumping each other off.

I know ... where am I going with this?

Well, here is the deal with Don Zimmer, who celebrated his 80th birthday on Monday. When I think of Zimmer, I don't think of his 50-plus years in baseball, or his time as a bench coach with the Yankees, or getting swept to the ground by Pedro Martinez or losing to the Yankees and Bucky Dent or any of that.

I think of him lying in a hospital bed wearing a blindfold after getting beaned for the second time.

I first heard of Zimmer's beanings when I was a kid. The first time he was beaned, he almost died. But for some reason, the second time he was beaned stuck in my brain more. The second time, Zimmer was struck in the jaw, but he suffered an eye injury, too, and almost lost the eye. He wore a blindfold for a time so he wouldn't move his eyes. But after that, he wore pin-hole glasses that prevented him from shifting his eyes from side-to-side.

From reading up on Zimmer now, it appears that he wore these glasses while walking around. But as a kid, I had this image of Zimmer lying in a hospital bed, incapacitated, in a pitch-black room, wearing some freaky all-black glasses with tiny pinholes for weeks straight, unable to turn his head an inch or he would DIE.

That's what I thought. And it flipping freaked me out.

But I also thought, well, Zimmer has the greatest comeback story of all-time after THAT.

My perception of what Zimmer went through was a little dramatic -- much like my reaction to the fictional movies -- if you could even overdramatize getting beaned in the head twice.

But it remains what I think of most when I recall Zim.

This card came out just before Zimmer's second beaning in June of 1956. You'll notice that there is no mention of his first beaning when he was in the minor leagues four years earlier. But his beanings are mentioned in future cards, including his card the following year.

During yesterday's birthday mentions of Zimmer, I was surprised by how many didn't mention the beanings. For me, it's the first thing that should be mentioned on Zimmer's tombstone -- if the guy ever passes on, and I'm starting to have my doubts. The beanings are the ultimate testament to character.

Do you think he cared all that much that he was derisively called "a gerbil" by Bill Lee? Do you think he was irreversibly affected by losing to the Yankees in '78 or the Giants in '89? Do you think he was shamed by getting shoved to the turf by Martinez? Firings, demotions, even that shot to the ear that he took when Chuck Knoblauch's line drive found him in the dugout during the 1999 playoffs, had less of an affect because:


Now that's drama.

I know he's written two books, but why aren't they making a movie about this guy?


  1. Great stories. Zim is just one of those great baseball guys. He's been wearing a uniform for over 60 years. Remarkable.

  2. Ah yes I remember when HOBO was called Home Box Office. I didn't have it either but had friends with it and heard about how they would show the movies straight through with NO commercials . Carlin I heard of through his albums and him being the first host of Saturday Night Live.

    I didn't know all that about Zim's eyesight.

  3. I like the way you OBVIOUSLY Photoshopped the baseball card at the top to make Don Zimmer look all thin and young and stuff.

    Because as far as I'm concerned, he was always the fat, balding manager of the Chicago Cubs, circa 1989.

    Hard for me to believe that he was actually young/thin enough to steal all those bases, or tough enough to survive two beanings TO THE HEAD.

  4. Also, back in the late 1980s, David Letterman did his show from Chicago for a week.

    From his May 4, 1989 episode:

    Top 10 Least Popular Chicago Tourist Attractions

    7. You-Give-Don-Zimmer-a-Spongebath


  5. I have a friend with a twisted sense of humor who subjected me to Phantom of the Paradise a few years back, and all because I showed him Jesus Christ Superstar. That's hardly a fair trade.