Don Zimmer The Catcher

The passing of Don Zimmer this week hit me pretty hard. I moved to New England in 1975 and watched a lot of Red Sox games and he became a sympathetic figure to me for the collapse of his Boston Red Sox and for the booing he received even if it meant my favorite team won during those years. And then with the Yankees for those glorious championship years, I really felt that he made Joe Torre a better manager and I enjoyed the way Derek Jeter rubbed his head and the laugh invoked by the action. I wanted to write some sort of tribute for the man I did not really know but had developed a fan fondness for, cemented when he stood up to Steinbrenner and told him to stuff it. But what could I write that hasn’t been written a hundred times by writers all over the country? All the aspects have been covered—his managerial years, his championships with the Dodgers as a player, Bill Lee, the Red Sox, his run with the Yankees and his final years becoming a beloved figure in Tampa. The word, “Lifer,” is often used. It has all been written.

So I decided to look at his playing days to see if I could get a nugget from there. I did not want to focus on the beanball that almost killed him and led to batting helmets in baseball and a plate in Zim’s head. I wanted something else.

But the truth is, Don Zimmer wasn’t much of a player, though he hung around for twelve years, played in Cuba and Mexico and even a year in Japan. He was a utility player, never a star. It’s often mentioned that Zimmer made the All Star team in 1961, but even that year, he had a good first half and faded in the second and was only worth a 1.2 WAR that season. In fact, despite the All Star nod, he was exposed to the expansion draft after that season and drafted by the new National League Mets for their fledgling season. Even then, he started poorly and was traded away in early May.

Don Zimmer batted eighth more in his career than any other batting lineup spot. Before the days of the DH, the eighth spot was where you put your bad hitters.

So I went back to his managerial career and again, he had his moments. Despite the collapse, the Red Sox won 287 games in a three year period with him at the helm. His 1989 Chicago Cubs featured three current managers (Ryne Sandberg, Lloyd McClendon and Joe Girardi) and finished first in the NL East that season. They would go on to lose to the Giants in the Championship Series.

But other than the collapse that everyone talks about and the Bill Lee thing, there are no great nuggets left there and his overall managerial record was a mundane .507.

So what then? What is left? Then one small thing caught my eye so I thought I would share it with you. I was looking to see if Zimmer as a utility guy was a good fielder. He was decent enough and gave him a 1.9 dWAR for his career. He played nearly an equal distribution that totaled 975 games at shortstop, third base and second base. Second base appeared to be his best position.

But it was while looking at those fielding positions that I noticed something interesting. Don Zimmer also caught in 35 games. Upon looking further, I discovered that all of those games were during his last two seasons in the big leagues. I looked at his minor league career and he never caught prior to reaching the Majors and once again caught some in the minors after his days in the Majors were over. Why did that happen?

His first foray into catching was in the last two games of the 1964 season, his penultimate in baseball. He was then playing for the Washington Senators, a terrible team managed by Gil Hodges who would go on to have success later as the Mets’ manager. In the next to last game of the 1964 season, in a 7-0 loss, Zimmer pinch hit for the pitcher in the seventh inning. It would cause a double-switch and you would figure that the backup catcher would finish the game taking Zimmer’s place, but Zimmer stayed in the game to catch for two innings.

The same thing happened the next night except it was in the eighth inning and Zimmer caught just one inning of yet another loss to end a very bad season. Two things worth noting here are that Zimmer struck out both times he pinch hit and the games were his 999 and 1,000th as a Major League ballplayer.

If that has been the end of Zimmer’s catching highlights, the story would make more sense. It would be just two brief glimpses and two blips on what was essentially a career utility infielder.

The questions I cannot answer are how this came about. Had Zimmer fooled around as a catcher in practices? Had Zimmer presented the idea to Hodges? Was it simply an end of the season goof thing like Casey Stengel starting Mickey Mantle and short and Yogi Berra at third on the last day of a lost season a decade earlier?

But it turned out not to be a blip thing. In his last season in the big leagues in 1965, Don Zimmer played 33 games as a catcher and was the starting catcher for 27 of those games for the Senators! In fact, he caught more games than he played any other position that season.

Again, the Senators were terrible and the catching position was a black hole offensively for the team that season. Think 2013 Yankees bad. But Don Zimmer was at the end of the line in his career and did not offer any real relief offensively. There must have been an injury involved or something because there were two stretches where Zimmer would start every day as the catcher for a week or two each time.

According to what scant statistics we have for fielding back then, his range was higher than league average, but his fielding percentage as a catcher was below league average. Remarkably, he did throw out 50% of the twenty base steal attempts made against him. The league average was 34%. I also cringed when I thought of the danger of a guy with a plate in his skull playing all those games as the catcher!

It’s not much of a story and only a footnote of the long baseball life that Don Zimmer enjoyed. The highlights (and lowlights) of his career have been covered. But I wanted to write something because I was fond of the moon face of Don Zimmer and will miss his presence around the game. May he rest in peace.