Don Zimmer, a true baseball character whose remarkable 65-year career in the game took him from Brooklyn to Queens to the Bronx, passed away Wednesday night, the Rays announced. He was 83.
Zimmer, affectionately known as "Zim" or "Popeye" for his resemblance to the cartoon spinach-eating sailor, met Babe Ruth as a boy, played alongside Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers and earned four World Series rings as the Yankees' bench coach during the franchise's return to prominence.
Zimmer was an infielder on the Brooklyn team that won the 1955 World Series. Seven years later, he lost 120 games as an original member of the Mets. Recently employed as an advisor for the Rays, Zimmer had been in a Florida rehab center since April heart surgery.
"Don spent a lifetime doing what he loved," Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said Wednesday night in a statement. "He was an original -- a passionate, one-of-a-kind baseball man who contributed to a memorable era in Yankees history. The baseball community will certainly feel this loss."
As much as Zimmer was always part of the baseball fabric in New York, his fame reached new levels when he joined the Yankees as Joe Torre's bench coach in 1996. Zimmer was the perfect partner for Torre, a sage baseball lifer who brought his wisdom and wit to a Yankees' team looking to recover from the instability of the early '90s.
Torre often credited Zimmer for many of his successful decisions on the field, and the pair won four World Series titles together. Zimmer even took over the manager's chair when Torre was recovering from prostate cancer during the 1999 season. The Yankees went 21-15 during that stretch.
"I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me," Torre said Wednesday night in a statement. "He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali's. We loved him. The game of baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man."
For a new generation of fans unaware of Zimmer's lifelong exploits, his on-field tussle with Pedro Martinez during the 2003 ALCS at Fenway Park elevated him to even greater cult status. With the two teams brawling, Zimmer charged from the dugout and was thrown to the ground by Martinez, who later apologized. Zimmer, always respectful of the game, was in tears himself when he later said he was sorry for his behavior.
"Like everyone in Major League Baseball, I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Don Zimmer, one of our game's most universally beloved figures," commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
Zimmer's celebrity soared during the Yankees years, but he had established himself as a baseball icon long before his arrival in Bronx. He played 12 seasons in the majors -- for six different franchises -- and even a year in Japan. Twice he suffered terrible beanings, but still logged 1,095 games and finished a career .235 hitter.
Only Zimmer could manage baseball's two most cursed franchises in the Red Sox and Cubs, then -- as a former Brooklyn Dodger of all things -- become an integral part of a 21st century Yankees' dynasty.
As Selig described Zimmer, "a unique baseball man."