Jeffcoat Death Brings Back Memories

Most younger generation fans don't remember the name Hal Jeffcoat, who died August 30 in Tampa at the age of 82. But one former Dodger remembers -- Don Zimmer. Zimmer, to many fans, is remembered as the ex-bench coach for the Yankees, but he was a whole lot more.

Jeffcoat hit Zimmer in the face with a fastball in 1956 and the player who was to be Pee Wee Reese's replacement when he retired, was never the same player again.

Zimmer grew up in Cincinnati and was a shortstop on their American Legion Championship team that played in the finals in Los Angeles in 1947 and got to meet Babe Ruth who was doing promotional work for the Legion. The townspeople gave the team a trip to New York and tickets to the first two games of the World Series between the Dodgers, with rookie Jackie Robinson at first base, and the Yankees.

Zimmer made all-Ohio as a quarterback and received scholarships in both football and baseball from a number of colleges, including one from Bear Bryant of the University of Kentucky.

He was scouted by both the Reds and by Cliff Alexander, the legendary Dodger scout, who invited him to Brooklyn for a tryout. He hit a few balls into the Ebbets Field seats and was offered $2,500 to sign.

Cincinnati offered $2,000 and promised to start him in Class B instead of D as Brooklyn would, telling him they were not sure of his arm strength. He took the Dodger offer.

He finished the season with a .227 average in 304 at bats, four homers and 27 errors, including six in one game.

He reported to Vero Beach the next spring and they surprisingly jumped him to Class A Elmira and began talking about him being the successor to shortstop Pee Wee Reese. At that time it was an organization full of shortstops including Eddie Miksis, Rocky Bridges,m Tommy Brown, Billy Hunter, Chico Carrasquel and Jim Pendleton, all of whom later played in the major leagues.

Zimmer moved to AA Mobile and then to AAA St. Paul and at the tender age of 22, the Dodgers told him "You deserve to make the team, but we're going to send you back to St. Paul and if anything happens to Reese, I promise you we'll call you up."

By July Zimmer was leading he league in home runs, holding a five HR advantage of Wally Post and Al Smith. Then in Columbus in a twilight game, the ball was hard to pick up against a bunch of trees in center field.

Righthander Jim Kirk's second pitch to Zimmer nailed him on the left side of his head (no one wore batting helmets at that time) and he went out like a light. He suffered a fractured skull which resulted in blood clots on his brain that required spinal taps every two or three days.

Doctors had to drill three holes in the left side of his head to relieve the pressure and then, when his eyesight didn't return to normal, drilled another in the right side of his skull.

Folklore says they had to put a metal plate in his head but they only filed the holes with tantalum buttons. "All those players who played for me and said I had a hole in my head were wrong. I actually had four holes," he said in his book "ZIM."

His reflexes were out of whack and he developed a stutter. GM Buzzie Bavasi and Farm Director Fresno Thompson visited the hospital and told him he would never have to worry about a job, he always had one with the Brooklyn organization. That was little consolation to a 22-year-old kid.

But things cleared up for him although he didn't play again that season. He got telegrams from the Columbus Cardinals and from their pitcher, Jim Kirk who had hit him with the pitch, wishing him luck.

The Dodgers financed a winter in Florida to allow Zimmer time to recuperate and he decided to play softball to sharpen his reflexes. The only opening was on a prison team. "How will I know them," he asked before his first game. "They are the ones who come to the game in a yellow truck with a wire fence around it and a guard with a shotgun," he was told.

When 1954 rolled around he was sent to St. Paul again and started hitting home runs on a regular basis. Reese was injured and Zimmer, who was hitting .291 with 17 home runs and 53 runs batted in over 73 games, got the call.

On his first at-bat in the major league, against the Phillies in Shibe Park, he slammed a shot to left field that bounced back off the fence and Zimmer had a triple. Only later did a Philadelphia player tell him the ball actually hit the overhang of the left field upper deck and should have been a homer.

Reese recovered and took back his job at shortstop but Zimmer stayed with the Dodgers the rest of the season.

Pee Wee didn't open the 1955 season after his back went out and you can stump your friends by asking who was the opening day shortstop that year. Don Zimmer is the answer and the Dodgers rang up 10 straight wins to open the season and win the pennant going away.

Zimmer played second base much of the season and backed Reese up at short. In one game he hit two drives into the upper deck in Ebbets Field and when he returned to the dugout, Roy Campanella grabbed him by the biceps and said, "No wonder this little guy can hit the ball like that. He's got arms like Popeye." The nickname has stuck the rest of his life.

Zimmer was vitally involved, sort of, in the seventh game of the series. Manager Walter Alston replaced Zimmer at second base with Jim Gilliam, who had been playing left field, and sent Sandy Amoros into left -- just in time to make a game- and series-winning catch of Yogi Berra' slicing shot down the left field line with two on an none out in the seventh. Amoros turned the catch into a double play and the Dodgers won the game 2-0 to record their first World Series victory.

On June 23, 1956, Zimmer replaced Reese at shortstop to give the future Hall of Famer a day off. Hal Jeffcoat was pitching for Cincinnati and in the second inning, Campanella and Gil Hodges slugged homers. In the fourth inning, Jeffcoat hit Zimmer on his left cheekbone and Zimmer woke up in a hospital bed.

His Dodger teammates were furious, insisting Jeffcoat was throwing at Zimmer in retaliation for the two homers early in the game. Zimmer was not sure if that was the case. But he wrote in 2001, "Only Jeffcoat knows and he never called me or sent me a card when I was in the hospital. He lived in Tampa and I lived just across the bridge in Treasure Island but I've never seen him or talked to him to this day."

Zimmer underwent an operation on his cheekbone, which had been caved in, and he nearly had a detached retina. After two weeks of wearing a blindfold, and six weeks of wearing pin-hole glasses to keep him from moving his eyes, he began to recover.

He didn't play again that season and in his book he noted, "I never told anyone when I was still playing but to this day there's a black spot in my right eye. I notice it in games when there'd be a ball hit in the air and the spot would appear and disappear."

"I don't think I was ever the same hitter again."

The numbers bear that out. He played 84 games in 1957 but hit only .219. In 1958, moving to Los Angeles, he banged 17 home runs over the short leftfield fence in the Coliseum and knocked in 60 runs but hit .262.

That same season, playing in 127 games, he led the National League with a range factor of 5.59 plays per nine innings at shortstop. The mark stands to this day as a Los Angeles record.

Zimmer bounced to Cincinnati, to the Mets, back to the Dodgers for a short time in 1963, and then on to Washington before hanging his glove up in 1965. He never hit over .258 again and finished his career -- that looked so bright at one time -- with 91 career home runs.

Zimmer managed in the minors and coached for the Expos and Padres before being named the Red Sox manager in 1976. His team won 99 games but lost the American League East title to the Yankees in a one-game playoff.

He managed the Rangers, coached for the Cubs and Giants, then was named the Cub manager in 1988. He won the division title and was voted "Manager of the Year" by the Associated Press.

He was Joe Torre's bench coach for a number of years and is now coaching for Tampa Bay. He is unique in many ways, and particularly in that he has, since 1947, never had a job outside of baseball.

LA Dodgers Insider Top Stories