Zimmer’s memories of Robinson remain strong

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Don Zimmer can sense that something has been lost with the passing of time.

Perhaps it’s a new generation’s fixation on the now, attention spans fit for a 140-character age or the fact that legacies – even great ones like Jackie Robinson’s  tend to fade among some when living witnesses turn few. Life’s a cycle, turnover part of the experience, and ties between the past and present become rare but valued when preserved. 

On a recent Friday, Zimmer, 82, a Tampa Bay Rays senior adviser, sat in the home dugout at Tropicana Field and brought history to life. This is the time of year when Robinson, Zimmer’s Brooklyn Dodgers teammate from 1954 to ’56, is honored across the country for breaking the majors’ color barrier with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. This is a moment to consider the strength of a man who rose above his era’s ignorance and allowed other African-American players such as Larry Doby, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella to overcome hate and create chance. 

“I am proud to say,” Zimmer said, “I was a teammate of Jackie Robinson.” 

Zimmer looked toward right field, near where Rays players tossed balls to one another before playing the Cleveland Indians. Baseball has been his life — this is his 55th season in the majors as a coach, player or manager and his 10th with the Rays  and the icon has noticed change in many ways. Change in the way young players remember Robinson. Change in the way the trailblazer’s legacy is retained in clubhouses in a different America. Change in the way, for many, how Robinson, the man, has become Robinson, the history lesson. 

Yes, this is the time of year for No. 42, a month of tribute for someone who transcended his sport and touched his nation. But to Zimmer, a witness to Robinson’s courage and a tie between baseball’s past and present, the memory lasts much longer. It’s more full. 

“There are so many young guys,” he said, his voice trailing off, “who don’t know what 42 means.”

* * * *

He’ll never forget the first time he saw Robinson play.

It was 1947, and Zimmer was just 16. His American Legion baseball team, representing Robert E. Bentley Post 50 in Cincinnati, won the national championship in Los Angeles that year. As a gift, Zimmer and his teammates traveled to Yankee Stadium to watch a World Series game between the Dodgers and New York Yankees.

Robinson played first base that day. His skills quickly caught the attention of Zimmer, a mere dreamer at that point. Zimmer saw how Robinson, a versatile athlete in earlier years in Pasadena, Calif., could affect the game in a number of ways: With a bunt or a double, with a home run or a stolen base, with power or finesse. There were no limits. 

“He could beat you so many ways — it was unbelievable,” Zimmer said. “And he was a tough competitor. He had to be.” 

Zimmer saw that trait up close when he joined the Dodgers as an infielder in 1954. Over parts of the next three seasons — almost a decade removed from Robinson’s ’47 debut against the Boston Braves before 26,623 fans at Ebbets Field  memories were made that showed the duality of Branch Rickey’s experiment.

For Zimmer and Robinson, it included images of both progress and pain. There was both joy and setback. 

The positive: Zimmer remembers Robinson as fearless on the field. Once, the two players sat on the bench between at-bats. Zimmer recalls Robinson telling him, “If I get on first base, I’m going to get in a pickle, because I can get out of it.” Sure enough, a short time later, Robinson did just that and escaped pursuit of him.

Another day, Sal Maglie, an intimidating right-hander for the New York Giants, was knocking down Dodgers hitters with unforgiving aggression from the mound. Robinson approached the batter’s box, and as Zimmer recalls it, told Maglie, “First of all, you can hit me. And if you hit me, you won’t hurt me. Now, I want to push that bunt down the first-base line.”

Sure enough, Robinson did just that, and Maglie stood frozen on the mound as the ball skirted the line but stayed fair. 

“That’s one of the few ways he could get back at somebody,” Zimmer said. “He was a tough cookie.”

The negative: Bigotry stayed part of Robinson’s life in the majors, even as he worked to prove he belonged.

Zimmer recalls Robinson’s separate hotels and the different restrooms and drinking fountains for whites and African-Americans. Zimmer recalls hearing stories about Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a native of Nashville, Tenn., who berated Robinson with mention of shoe shines and cotton fields, cackles of “boy” and other words much, much worse. (Chapman reportedly gave his pitchers the green light to hit Robinson on 3-0 counts instead of walking him.)

Zimmer recalls learning about the tension between Robinson and outfielder Dixie Walker, a native of Villa Rica, Ga., who was traded from the Dodgers to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the ’47 season, in part, because of a desire not to play with an African-American. Little was easy. 

“First of all, you never thought it would happen, that people would think that way,” Zimmer said. “But that’s the way it was. Him coming into the big leagues, he was going to have to accept that. As for Larry Doby, Newcombe and Campanella coming in, there were more black players coming in to where he could at least have a little fight back.”

Almost 66 years after Robinson’s fight began, signs of his influence are everywhere. 

* * * *

The talk with Zimmer in the dugout turned to “42,” a film directed by Brian Helgeland released Friday about Robinson’s first season with the Dodgers. A few weeks ago, Zimmer, usually not a big movie fan, took in an early showing in Tampa, Fla.. He turned emotional.

“I saw that movie, and it brought tears to my eyes — some of the crap (Robinson) had to take,” Zimmer said, a touch of anger in his voice. 

To this day, Zimmer remains a wealth of knowledge. He considered Robinson a friend, and the two kept in touch before Robinson’s death on Oct. 24, 1972. In Zimmer’s condo in Seminole, Fla., there’s a photo on a wall of him and Robinson holding putters from a golf game in Gulfport, Fla., in 1957. 

A conversation with Zimmer about Robinson or any other baseball topic is like taking a museum’s verbal tour. Zimmer is unafraid to offer advice to players and Rays manager Joe Maddon, despite age making it harder for him to do so. His spring-training appearances this year in Port Charlotte, Fla., were more rare. He was hospitalized last spring because of kidney problems, and he requires dialysis eight hours a day each day of the week. Time slows even the most driven. 

Ask around Tropicana Field, though, and mention of Zimmer draws reactions ranging from the deep to reverential. He hopes to be at all Rays home games. His presence is proof that the past is never far away. 

“To be a part of history like that, which he (Zimmer) is, and for us to have that resource and to not take advantage of it, we would be crazy,” Maddon said. “That’s how I look at it. I’m always asking him questions. He has not really related any kind of specific stories (about Robinson), inspirational or not, about him. It’s just that he was so impressed with Jackie as a player and as a person.” 

The current Rays have a lot of respect for Zimmer, who played 12 years in the majors from 1954 to 1965 — Zimmer finished his playing career batting .235 with 91 homers and 352 RBI.

“The players he has been around — the teams, the managers, everything, it’s just so much history with him,” Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings said. “When he walks in the room, it’s just like, ‘It’s Don Zimmer.’ It’s just the level of respect that you have for somebody who has been through so much.”

Zimmer’s managerial career started in 1972 with the San Diego Padres and concluded with the Chicago Cubs in 1991. He won the NL Manager of the Year in 1989 when the Cubs finished 93-69 to win the NL East before losing to the San Francisco Giants 4-1 in the NLCS.

“I wish I had him home with me every night,” Rays reliever Joel Peralta said. “Here, he’s probably the guy who understands more about the game than anybody else. He sees things that probably nobody else can see. He’s been in the game so long that he’ll come to me sometimes and say stuff that just one word makes sense. And it helps.” 

Said Freddy Berowski, reference librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum: “I think the farther away we get from the past, these ties tend to slip away. I think it’s always good when a ballclub can connect to the past, whether it’s their own franchise’s past or the greater past of the game. The thing is, if these guys can remember history – if the players know a little bit about history, the teams know about history and they’re not trying to ignore it – only good things can come of that.”

Back in the dugout, Zimmer continued to watch the Rays warm up in an empty dome. Another day of his life’s rhythm unfolded before him. Gloves popped between catches. Rock music blared through speakers. This is his comfort. This is a life Robinson made possible for many. 

“I’m just tickled that I got to be part of it and play with him,” Zimmer said, shortly before walking away. 

Life speeds, times change. Respect for some, though, is never lost. 

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.