The wedding on Aug. 16, 1951 was the giveaway. Carol Jean Bauerle, nicknamed Soot by her grandmother, had been Don Zimmer's girlfriend since 10th grade at Western Hills High School, so she knew that he really liked baseball. She simply didn't know how much he liked it.
Sure, she had been to a billion games already, had sat in those wooden stands late into the summer nights, the game tied, headed into extra innings. Sure, she had heard all the stories from his grand trip across the country as part of the American Legion team from Cincinnati that won the 1947 national championship in Los Angeles. You met Babe Ruth out there? Shook his hand? Very nice. Sure, she had been happy when he proposed and said they would start their married life in Elmira, N.Y. where he was the starting shortstop for the Elmira Pioneers, a lower level farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
She simply didn't know that their married life would start at home plate.
The wedding was the look into the future.
"Ed Roebuck was a pitcher on that team," Zimmer explained years later. "One day he says he is going to get married and I said I am, too. The general manager, Spencer Harris, hears about it. He had had some home plate weddings in Fort Worth and says the fans like 'em. He asks us to do it. Roebuck's Catholic and Polish and his family doesn't like the idea. I don't care. Roebuck gets married in the morning in a church. I get married at night at home plate. Roebuck pitches the game and gets three days off for a honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Me? The next night I got to hit against Gene Conley."
The bride wore a traditional wedding gown and the groom wore a white Palm Beach suit, but the best man, second baseman Jack Lillis, the other half of the Pioneers' double-play combination wore his baseball uniform. The rest of the team -- the uniformed wedding party, for lack of a better term -- formed an arch of baseball bats for the couple at the end of the service. Zimmer carried Soot through it in his arms as if he were crossing a threshold. It was a public relations pose. He then changed and played the game.
"What was your wedding night like?" a reporter asked Soot, also years later.
"I think he got a couple of hits," she replied. "I can look it up."
And so it began.
* * *
He never earned a paycheck that wasn't from baseball. That was the quiet boast of the 83-year-old character called Zip and Zim and Zimmie and Popeye who died on Wednesday in Dunedin, Fla. of complications from diabetes. His entire adult life was attached to the game. He was a major-league player for 12 seasons for five teams (the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Reds and Senators), a manager for 13 seasons at four different locations (San Diego, Boston, Texas and Chicago with the Cubs), a coach, an advisor, a spring training constant.
That wedding at home plate led to all of these cities and many more. He was a baseball nomad, living on the margins of the game, never secure, not for a moment. He was traded as a player, released, signed, released, traded again. Then there was more of the above. He was hired as a coach or manager, fired, hired, fired, hired again. Then there was more of that above.
"We lived in all kind of places," Soot said. "One year, we rented an apartment in Los Angeles. I drove out there from St. Petersburg with our two children. When I got there, he called from Cincinnati and said he had been traded to Washington. So we started driving back across the country again."
The man of the house played winter ball in Latin America. He played in Japan at the end of his career. He saw and felt everything that the game had to offer. His skull was crushed by a thrown baseball as a player in the minors. His heart was broken as a manager by a pop-fly home run in the majors. At 72, he was involved in a wrestling match on the diamond on national television that went viral and left him flat on the ground. At 80, he was in the clubhouse until two in the morning celebrating an improbable comeback to clinch a playoff.
"I'm 80 years old and I thought I was playing," he told reporters.
His lumpy man-in-the-moon face was almost a caricature of what a baseball face would be. He chewed tobacco. He spit. He rearranged the English language where he saw fit, especially with verb tenses. He swore with gusto. Stories rolled out of him with grand excitement. His eyes flashed. He rubbed his buzz cut. He delivered the expletive-filled punch lines. He laughed. He laughed a lot.
He was wonderful.
"Don was the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
"He was a national treasure and a wonderful man," said principal owner Stuart Stemberg of the Tampa Bay Rays, Zimmer's employer for the past 11 seasons. "Don dedicated his life to the game he loved, and his impact will be felt for generations to come."
The stories now will be about Zimmer rather than from Zimmer. The Bucky Dent home run in 1978 will be mentioned again and again in the next few days, the high fly ball into the net of the Green Monster to kill Zim's Red Sox team in a one-game playoff with the Yankees. There will be mentions about how Bill Lee, the pitcher with the Red Sox, called Zim "The Gerbil" and how he hated the name. There will be memories from his 1989 team in Chicago that reached the playoffs and could have, might have, but didn't. There will be quotes from Joe Torre, who Zimmer helped on the bench at Yankee Stadium. There will be stories about the wrestling match with Pedro Martinez, stories about the time he wore the Army helmet in the Yankees dugout after he was hit by a foul ball, stories from the dog tracks and the horse tracks he visited often.
The most important story from his playing career, sure to be told often, happened back near the beginning, a July night in 1953 in Columbus, Ohio. That was when he was beaned. Zimmer was playing for the St. Paul Saints, having a great season, 23 home runs already. The first pitch from Jim Kirk, a right-hander for the Columbus Red Birds, was a fastball Zimmer found hard to see. This was a twilight game. The background was terrible. The second pitch, Zimmer didn't see at all. He tried to duck, but ducked into the ball, which struck him on the temple. There were no batting helmets in those days. There was no protection.
For 13 days, he was semiconscious. Three holes were drilled on the left side of his skull to relieve pressure from his swollen brain. This did not work. Another hole was drilled into the right side. This was a success because it kept him alive, but his season was finished and his career was changed forever. He would never be the player that he had been. He would never be a star.
"Maybe if you had become a star, you never would have stuck around as a coach and a manager," a reporter suggested.
"I never think of that," Zimmer said. "I don't."
"What about the injury?" the reporter asked. "Do you think about that? What would have happened if you had been wearing a helmet?"
"Wouldn't have put a nick on the plastic," Zimmer said. "It was a curve ball."
He is survived by Soot and his two children and four grandchildren. The wedding at home plate worked fine. He was married for 62 years.