The second pitch was an overhead curve. Zimmer lost sight of it. His baseball instincts told him to duck. But the ball followed him and hit him on the left temple. He dropped to the ground. "Am I bleeding?" he asked.
"No," replied the St. Paul manager, Clay Bryant. Then Zimmer lost consciousness and remained semicomatose for the next 13 days.
Soot was in St. Paul, pregnant with Donna. The radio in their apartment was broken, so she was not listening to the game. One of the other players' wives knocked on the door and told her Don was hurt. "I guess I was too young to realize how dangerous all of this was," she says. "It wasn't until we were leaving the hospital that I heard the doctor who performed the operations point to Don and say, 'See that young man? He's very fortunate to be alive.' "
The impact of the pitch slammed Zimmer's brain against the right side of his skull. The doctors drilled two holes on the left side of his head to release the pressure. The operation didn't work. Then they performed it again on the right side. This time it worked.
"A lot of people think he has a steel plate in his head, that he sets off metal detectors," says Soot. "That's not true. How do these things get started? All he has is some little buttons to fill the holes in the skull. They're made of tantalum, some kind of rare metal."
Zimmer remembers seeing everything in triplicate when he awoke. He could not walk or talk. His weight dropped from 170 pounds to 124. Buzzy Bavasi, the Dodgers' general manager, came to the hospital and said there would always be a place for Zimmer in the organization. That was supposed to be the end. Zimmer was 22 years old.
Somehow Zimmer made it back to training camp the next spring. In a game against the New York Giants during the first week of the exhibition season, he hit a foul ball that shot back and bounced off his forehead. He went back to St. Paul for the season and found himself ducking a lot of beanballs. "There were some crude people in the minors in those days," he says. "Not like today. We played in Toledo, and they knocked me down five times in three games."
Fresco Thompson, the Dodgers' minor league director, saw that series. Afterward he told St. Paul's pitchers that if they didn't start retaliating, Zimmer couldn't play baseball. The pitcher the next day was a small lefthander named Wade Browning. He told Zimmer before the game that he would knock down any player Zimmer wanted. All Zimmer had to do was tug on his belt.
"When I'd left the day before, some of the Toledo players were sitting in the parking lot," says Zimmer. "Bob Thorpe. Kermit Wahl. George Crowe. I said something like, 'I'll be glad to get out of here. Someone could get hurt.' It was a joke. They didn't laugh. One of them said, 'If you can't take it, kid, you better go home.' "
Thorpe was Toledo's first batter. Zimmer tugged. Thorpe went down. Zimmer tugged again. Thorpe was hit by Browning's pitch. Wahl was the next hitter. First pitch. Tug. Wahl went down. Second pitch. Tug. Browning hit Wahl. Crowe was next. "He was standing up there on tiptoes," says Zimmer. "Browning looked at me. I said that was enough. We got the message across. Things got better after that."