SI Vault
Leigh Montville
September 25, 1989
This is the malleable mug of Don Zimmer, a 40-year baseball man who has sagely managed the Cubs to the top
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September 25, 1989

The Face Of Genius

This is the malleable mug of Don Zimmer, a 40-year baseball man who has sagely managed the Cubs to the top

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Social events never mattered that much to Zimmer. Nor did schoolwork. Jean Bauerle, nicknamed Soot by her grandmother, became his girlfriend in the 10th grade and his wife four years later. And Frey's girlfriend from high school, Joan, became his wife. The two couples have been double-dating ever since the 11th grade. A date almost always meant a ball game.

"The rest of us in school thought that maybe we could play baseball, but we also were protecting ourselves," says Frey. "We were thinking about going to college. I went. Ohio State. Don just wanted to be a ballplayer. He put the importance where he thought the importance should be, which is great. I hear these guys today say something like, 'I want to put baseball in its proper priority.' Well, if baseball's paying you $2 million a year, baseball better damned well be your first priority."

To Zimmer, the academic schedule at Western Hills High in Cincinnati was something to be endured to remain eligible for football and baseball. In 11th-grade English, Zimmer had "Itchy" McKinley, who gave the football players in her class a B plus for every touchdown they scored in a big game. For math one year he had Mr. Ehler, who also doted on athletes. "Plane geometry," says Zimmer. "I never even knew how to spell it. I still don't. I convinced Frey to take it, and I'm sitting in the back and he's sitting in the front. I'm doing fine. I'm getting my B's. Then one Saturday night, Mr. Ehler drops dead. I hear it on Monday morning, and my first thought is, Phew! I ain't got a chance. This young woman appears and she puts a problem on the board. Calls on me. First one out of the chute. 'Mr Zimmer, can you explain this problem?' I don't even try to fool her. I say, 'No, ma'am, I can't.' I sit down. Class ends. I go straight to the principal's office and transfer to shop."

To this day, Frey talks about Zimmer deserting him. He says, "I'm still sitting up there, studying geometry and Zimmer is in the basement making lamps."

Kentucky and Oregon wanted Zimmer to play quarterback for them. McKinley wanted to send him to Miami of Ohio. Said she would pay his way. But baseball came first. After graduating from Western Hills, Zimmer signed with the Dodgers and was off to the minors, one of 600 hopefuls trying to climb the greased pole to Brooklyn. The 40-year trip had begun.

"I've kept a scrapbook from every one of those years," says Soot. "It's amazing, the number of clippings. The years he managed, I've had to keep two scrap-books. They seem to write twice as much about a manager. This is a two-scrap-book year already."

Rented apartments. Rented houses. Rented rooms. A trailer in Salem, N.H. A hotel room in Japan, where in 1966 Zimmer hobbled through his final year as a player on a broken toe. Small towns. Big cities. Winter ball in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Day games. Night games. Cut. Traded. Hired. Fired. Soot once drove with the two kids from St. Petersburg to a new apartment in Los Angeles. Her husband called from Cincinnati three days later to tell her he had been sold to the Washington Senators. She began driving again.

"You know that we rented Bucky Dent's house in '83, don't you?" says Soot. "Everybody knows."

Bucky Dent's house?

"I've been fired by Texas, and I take a coaching job with the Yankees," recalls Zimmer. "Dent has been traded by the Yankees to Texas. I rent his house in Wyckoff, New Jersey. I go in there and on every——wall, there's a picture of him with that swing for that home run. Every——wall. I call him up and I tell him I turned every——one of them around, facing the wall."

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