Baseball lost a bit of its history last week when Don Zimmer died. Zimmer was the starting second baseman the day the Dodgers won their only championship in Brooklyn. Twenty-three years later, he spent Rosh Hashanah managing the Boston Red Sox to their most famous defeat ever as Bucky Dent's three-run home run dashed the Red Sox pennant chances. He was the starting third baseman in the first game the New York Mets ever played; and 27 years after that spent Yom Kippur managing the Chicago Cubs as they got eliminated from the NLCS on a clutch single by Will Clark. Zimmer, however, wasn't Jewish, so probably was not aware of the connection between important defeats and Jewish holidays in his life.
Zimmer used to boast that he had never made a dollar outside of organized baseball. This is an extraordinary statement demonstrating the singularity of Zimmer's focus; as well as his passion for the game. It is even more extraordinary given that Zimmer began his career at a time when player salaries were low enough that most worked at other jobs in the winter.
Zimmer was born in Ohio and lived his last years in Florida, but had an enduring relationship with New York City. Zimmer played for two New York teams and coached a third. He played alongside Jackie Robinson, for Casey Stengel and coached Derek Jeter. Few people have a connection to New York baseball that spans so many eras, teams and people.
The financial situation for ballplayers has changed dramatically since Zimmer finished his career as a Washington Senator in 1965. Salaries are much bigger today; and almost any player who played for 12 years like Zimmer did, barring personal financial catastrophe, would never have to work again. Baseball is also a bigger and different industry than it was for much of Zimmer's life in the game. Management is no longer dominated by former ballplayers. While most big league managers and coaches still have playing experience, front offices and player development departments now have more people with advanced statistical training and business and other professional backgrounds than they did even ten years ago. Compared to 30 or more years ago, the difference is quite stark. It seems likely that in the next decade we will begin to see more managers who were not players. These changes will make it tougher for people like Zimmer to stay in the game for more than half a century.
For decades, people like Don Zimmer have been part of the sinew of baseball. They connect players across generations and thus connect fans to things that happened on the ball field long before they were even born. For fans who never saw Robinson or Pee Wee Reese play, seeing Zimmer made those players seem a little more real. As a coach Zimmer was able to pass down wisdom from some of the game's greatest managers. Sitting on the bench in the 21st century, Zimmer could draw on what he learned playing for Stengel who, of course, played for the legendary John McGraw.
Despite the changes in the industry there are still people who spend a lifetime in baseball. Baseball lifers a few years younger than Zimmer include people like Joe Torre and Frank Robinson who both have spent more than half century as players, coaches, managers, announcers or league officials. The next generation of baseball lifers could include Giants manager Bruce Bochy, and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle who have both been in organized baseball in one capacity or another for 39 years. Bochy's longtime pitching coach began his minor league career in 1977, so is only a few years behind these two. It is not difficult to imagine these men managing or coaching somewhere for another decade or more. Even in baseball's current financial context,the draw of a lifetime in baseball remains strong, not just for Bochy and Hurldle but for hundreds of others who manage and coach in the major and minor leagues after retiring. New Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams made just short of $80 million during a playing career than ended in 2003, but has still spent much of the last decade as a coach and a manager, frequently at the minor league level.
Bochy and Hurdle demonstrate that there are people who continue to spend a lifetime in baseball. Although the financial imperative may not be what it was when Zimmer quit playing in 1965, and the competition for jobs on and off the field may be greater, the opportunity to make money in baseball creates an incentive that did not exist in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Additionally, there are new positions doing things like being a league official or working on the international development side of the game that barely existed 30 or more years ago.
Although there will never be another Don Zimmer with his unique collection of baseball memories and experiences, baseball itself will go on and 20 years from now it is possible that few fans will remember baseball without people like Bochy, Righetti, Hurdle or other newer baseball lifers.