Don Zimmer's wife documented every day of his 66 years in pro baseball (w/video)

Carol Jean Zimmer, nicknamed “Soot” by her grandmother, holds one of more than 70 scrap and photo books she created to archive the life of Don Zimmer, who she married at a home plate ceremony before a night game in 1951.
Carol Jean Zimmer, nicknamed “Soot” by her grandmother, holds one of more than 70 scrap and photo books she created to archive the life of Don Zimmer, who she married at a home plate ceremony before a night game in 1951.
Published Dec. 15, 2015


Times Staff Writer

SEMINOLE — The last scrapbook has lots of blank pages. ¶ It ends on the first day of January, with the Boston Globe's Year in Review. "Gone but not forgotten," the headline says. The full-page photo is of her husband wearing his Red Sox uniform, smiling sideways in the sun. ¶ Since then, no newspaper had printed his name. At least not that Soot Zimmer has seen. ¶ After seven decades, she thought her scrapbooking days were done.

Then someone from the Tampa Bay Rays called. The team was going to retire her husband's number — 66, the number of years Don Zimmer had been in professional baseball, longer than anyone else. They were going to hang his jersey at the top of Tropicana Field. Would she come to the ceremony on opening day?

Soot laughed. She had been at every opening day for all 14 teams her husband played for, coached or managed. Since 1949. "Of course I'll be there," she said. "Oh, he would get a kick out of this. I mean, a .235 hitter and they're going to retire his number?"

On a rainy Monday, a few weeks before the Major League Baseball season was to begin, Soot sat beside the mahogany cabinets that line the living room of her Seminole condo. The top shelves hold bobbleheads of her husband's famous round face, troves of silver trophies, balls signed by Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, Robert Redford, Ronald Reagan.

The bottom shelves are filled with scrapbooks — 70 of them, stacked in chronological order. Everything ever printed about Don: photos, stories, score sheets, programs, baseball cards and team bios, even box scores in tiny type. Soot carefully cut out each entry, underlined his name with blue pen. Then she pasted the pieces onto pages that now crumble to the touch.

She pulled out the last volume. A navy leather binding embossed with gold letters: "In memory of Don Zimmer 1931-2014." Tributes from across the country fill the first half.

She flipped to the empty back. "Good thing there's still room in here," she said. "I'm 84. Too old to start a new scrapbook."

• • •

He was famous by the time she met him, in that high school letterman kind of way. Everyone at Western Hills High School — and anyone who followed high school sports in Cincinnati in the late 1940s — had heard of Don Zimmer. Quarterback of the football team, guard on the basketball squad, shortstop for the Ohio state champion baseball team. His picture was always in the paper.

But he had no idea who she was.

Her real name is Jean Carol. Her German grandmother called her something that she thought sounded like "my little Sootleleh," loosely translated as sweetie pie. "My whole life," she said, "I've been Soot."

A warm woman with a quick laugh and dark, smiling eyes, Soot played softball and field hockey at Western Hills High. During her junior year, there was a school hayride where the girls were supposed to bring dates. A friend suggested Soot ask Don.

"But I don't even know him," Soot said. So the friend offered to talk to Don for her, sort of break the ice. The friend never told her Don said no.

"So I walk up to this popular athlete in the hall and ask him out, and all the kids start laughing. They'd all heard him tell my friend no," Soot said. But Don didn't want to embarrass her, so he agreed to go. "We were 16," she said. "And we were together from then on."

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He died of heart and kidney ailments June 4. "Two months before our 63rd wedding anniversary," Soot said. All summer, she cut out obituaries.

• • •

The first scrapbook is wine-colored, a four-ring binder with thin pages that smell like glue. The spine is beginning to crack. On the cover, in her teenage handwriting, Soot had penned "1945-1949."

"Sport Highlights of Don Zimmer," say squared-off letters that fill the first page. She had cut out drawings of a football, basketball, and baseball player and glued them around the words. She ensconced his name in quotes, as if he were already an icon.

"I started it our senior year, just saving everything," she said. She bought the scrapbook at a dime store, along with some of those cardboard corners people used to use to hold pictures.

After doing her homework and having dinner with her parents, and when she wasn't cheering for Don at a game, she would sit in her room with a stack of newspapers, clipping stories about her boyfriend, underlining each mention of his name.

"This is the story of Don Zimmer in the field of sports," says Page 2. "His many feats and outstanding achievements will long be remembered at West Hi and surrounding areas."

In 1947, the American Legion baseball team Don played on won the world championship in California. The boys' coach took them on a tour of Hollywood, where they posed for pictures with Lana Turner and Clark Gable. Soot taped those black and white photos into the first scrapbook. Underneath, in big letters, she inked, "Outstanding Player."

"Remember the name, Don Zimmer," said an article from the championship game, when Don was 16. "He can't miss becoming a major league star even if he never hits a lick. With his head always in the game, he made plays that many veteran observers haven't seen in years."

The last page of that first book has no photos, no stories. Just Soot's careful printing: "Thus ends my story of Don Zimmer. Both glorious and miraculous."

When she saw those lines recently, Soot burst out laughing.

• • •

At first, it was easy. Soot subscribed to every paper in Ohio whose city had a ballpark. Her first bibliography page cited nine newspapers.

But as Don earned the nickname Popeye, then Zim, as his role in baseball grew, so did Soot's scrapbooks. More stories, bigger photos, larger headlines; from an inside page of the Western Hills Breeze to the front of the New York Times. Clippings from more than 10,500 games played in hundreds of ballparks. In each city, she asked someone to mail her the paper.

What started as a gift for her high school boyfriend turned into an epic undertaking.

The first volume spans four years. By the time Zim made it to the majors, a single season filled an entire scrapbook. Each trip to the World Series has its own album.

The pages preserve every detail of Zim's storied career and, along the way, provide an intimate perspective on the evolution of professional baseball: 68 years of history, recorded as it was happening.

1953: There's Zim lying in a hospital bed after being beaned by a pitch that fractured his skull. Soot peers over him, looking worried. Zim slipped into a coma for two weeks, and doctors drilled four holes into his head. The incident persuaded Major League Baseball to use batting helmets.

1955: That's Zim in the baggy wool Brooklyn Dodgers uniform during his first full season in the majors. He and teammates Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Pee Wee Reese helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win their only World Series.

1962: When the Mets formed as an expansion team, they signed Zim from the Cubs. Here, he got to model the first-ever Mets uniform.

1989: By now, he is managing the Cubs, who were picked to finish last. But there's Zim, celebrating winning the NL East Division crown. "His proudest moment in baseball," Soot said.

1999: Another hit in the face, this time from a foul ball into the Yankees dugout, where Zim was bench coach. After that, the Yankees installed fences in front of their dugouts and other teams soon followed.

2003: The worst moment? Zim face-first in the dirt during the Yankees' American League Championship Series. As bench coach, at age 72, he had gone after Boston's Pedro Martinez — who leveled him. "I didn't cut out all those photos," Soot said. "After a while, I just couldn't look at them."

2014: Opening day last year, he's wearing his Rays uniform as the team's senior adviser. He had to ride across the diamond in a golf cart because he was too weak to walk. The fans gave him a standing ovation. He had broken the record for the most seasons in Major League Baseball.

"We were always just grateful he was getting paid to play ball," Soot said. "We really didn't know how much this was all going to mean."

• • •

As she flipped through the pages of her husband's career, Soot stitched the patchwork together with her own stories. Of weddings and babies, moving and driving, and above all, devotion. Though she doesn't call it that. "I was just along for the adventure," she said.

Other albums cradle family photos, personal correspondence, kids' and grandkids' accomplishments. But baseball permeates those pieces, too. Every highlight of their personal life was chronicled in a public headline.

"When he got signed by the Dodgers right out of high school, his mother asked if I wanted to pack his bag. So I did," Soot said. "I wound up doing that for the rest of his life."

The second scrapbook has yellow roses on the front and spans two years: 1949-1950, Cambridge, MD — Hornell, NY. "Out into the professional world," Soot wrote. "Yes, you guessed it . . . baseball!" That season, Zim earned $150 a month; his dad sent him $50 more for food.

Soot started nursing school and wrote to Zim every day. He sent her sports sections from the local papers. Two summers, and two teams later, they got married on the ballfield in Elmira, N.Y.

She followed him to ballparks criss-crossing the country with AAA maps. Once, she drove from Florida to Los Angeles, set up a new apartment and was relaxing by the pool when a maintenance man told her he'd just heard on the radio that Zim was being traded to the Senators in Washington, D.C.

They went to Cuba and Puerto Rico, even Japan. She cut out stories in Spanish and Japanese, wherever she saw his name. Programs and menus, toothpicks and chopsticks, everything seemed worth saving.

When their son Tommy was born in 1952, Zim was returning from a road trip. Soot drove herself to the hospital. Zim started calling her Mom. From then on, she called him Dad. Their daughter, Donna, came the next year. By summer, Soot was packing both babies into a stroller and rolling them to home games. Her scrapbooks got less artistic, with fewer commentaries. But they kept swelling with stories.

1955: "Dodgers Dood It!" shouted a huge headline after the World Series. "Bums Ain't Bums Any More!" Soot was even more excited about another headline: "Players to receive $9,684 each." That became the down payment for the pink house they built on Treasure Island, where they lived for 50 years, scrapbooks piling up.

She bought a new one when he went to work for the Rays, then another after he died. By Christmas, for the first time in forever, she had caught up on all the clippings. It seemed there was nothing more to commemorate.

• • •

The last scrapbook will be full soon.

Ever since the Rays announced they were going to retire Zim's number, Soot has been busy culling articles from across the country. Her grandson, a local television reporter, even started printing out tweets to send her. "I don't do that Internet," she said. "But he's all over it."

Almost a year after her husband died, he's still making news. Today, he'll make opening day again.

And Soot is still expecting him to come home from that road trip.

In the evenings, after she meets their son for dinner or calls one of the grandkids, she slides into her side of the bed, where her husband's photo sits on the nightstand, beside her pillow.

There he is in the World Series parade, squinting above that Popeye smile, a Yankees hat shading his round, ruddy face. In the picture he's waving.

Soot always waves back.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.