Grave Story: Jerry Zimmerman (1934-1998)

Here lies Jerry Zimmerman, a good-fielding, light-hitting catcher and a part of the first-ever Montreal Expos’ coaching staff. He played for the Cincinnati Reds (1961) and Minnesota Twins (1962-68).

Gerald Zimmerman was born in Omaha, Neb., on September 21, 1934. He played basketball and baseball at Milwaukie High School (that’s not a typo – the school was in Milwaukie, Ore.), but his skills at baseball earned the interest of almost every team in the major leagues. Scouts from as many as 14 of the 16 teams pursued him, with only the Senators and Browns holding off. In the end, the Boston Red Sox won the bidding war for Zimmerman, and about a week after his graduation in 1952, he signed a contract rumored to be worth anywhere from $65,000 to $80,000.

“Jerry has a wonderful future ahead of him,” said the Sox chief scout, Ted McGrew. “There’s no one in front of him in the Red Sox farm system. We have Sammy White, Del Wilbur and Gus Niarhos at Boston but there’s no one with our minor league clubs ready to move up.”

In spite of the open pathway to the majors, Zimmerman spent more than seven seasons in the Red Sox organization without getting close to Boston. He hit .230 for the San Jose Red Sox of the California League in 1952 and got his average as high as .302 a couple of years later, with the Corning Red Sox, in 1954. He also hit 7 homers, which would be his career high at any level of pro ball.

By 1957, Zimmerman hadn’t done enough with his bat to warrant consideration for the majors, but his excellent defense and strong arm kept him as a starting catcher wherever he played. He hit .266 for the Oklahoma City Indians in 1957 and frequently batted next to another Jerry in the lineup – Jerry “Pumpsie” Green (whose given name was Elijah, but nobody called him that). The two were also teammates for the Minneapolis Millers in 1958, which was the Red Sox AAA affiliate. Also on the team was veteran infielder Gene Mauch, who would become important to Zimmerman in the years to come.

The 1958 Millers, led by player/manager Mauch, finished in third place in the American Association but went on a postseason tear, winning 11 games in a row and sweeping the International League’s Montreal Royals to win the Little World Series. Due to an injury to catcher Ed Sadowski, Zimmerman caught all 11 games, becoming a postseason good luck charm and hitting over .300 in the process.

Jerry Zimmerman as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. Source: The Journal Herald, June 15, 1961.

In 1959, the two Jerrys had dramatically different seasons. Green hit .320 and made history as the man who integrated the Boston Red Sox. Zimmerman was hurt at the Red Sox Spring Training camp and missed much of the spring with back spasms. When he came back to the lineup, he hit .186 in 20 games and put on the inactive list in June. Rather than sit on the sidelines, Zimmerman asked to be traded. A month later, he was sold to the Vancouver Mounties, the Baltimore Orioles AAA team, where he hit .176. At the end of the season, he was acquired by the Seattle Rainiers, the AAA team for the Reds.

Playing for his third team in two seasons, Zimmerman started off slowly in 1960 but got red hot in July. He went 7-for-9 over three games in mid-July, acting as a one-man wrecking crew against his former Vancouver team. He beat them with a 3-run homer in the 9th inning one night and led off the 9th with a double and scored the winning run the very next night. He brought his batting average up to .279 by the end of the season, with 6 homers. The Reds purchased his contract at the end of the season, throwing him into the mix for the starting catcher job in 1961.

The ‘61 pennant-winning Reds had a fearsome lineup that included Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Gordy Coleman and Wally Post, but catcher was a big weakness. A total of six Reds saw time behind the plate that year. Starter Ed Bailey was traded after a dozen games to San Francisco in late April leaving the backstop position open for Zimmerman, Johnny Edwards, Bob Schmidt (acquired in the Bailey trade) and Darrell Johnson. Zimmerman had the inside track, since his manager in Seattle, Dick Sisler, was named the Reds first base coach.

“There is one great guy,” Zimmerman said of Sisler. “He was the first fellow in baseball who ever managed to build up my confidence as a hitter.”

Sisler, son of the legendary George Sisler and a fine player in his own right, said that Zimmerman needed a confidence boost after getting kicked around by a few different organizations. “I never saw a more defensive hitter,” he told The Journal Herald of Dayton, Ohio. “All he seemed interested in doing was avoiding striking out. So I told him to take his full swing and be aggressive… This is a hard-working boy.”

When Schmidt failed to claim the starting catcher job, Zimmerman took over and ended up appearing in 76 games for the Reds, more than any of the other catcher. He hit better than the others as well, though that’s damning with faint praise. Zimmerman hit .206, while Edwards and Schmidt couldn’t break .180. When it came time for the World Series, though, manager Fred Hutchinson relied on Johnson and Edwards; Zimmerman caught 3 innings in 2 games and never batted, as the Yankees won the Series in five games.

The Reds traded Zimmerman to the Minnesota Twins on January 30 for outfielder Dan Dobbek. He and Hal Naragon would serve as backups to Earl Battey. For Zimmerman, it was a familiar place, as he’d spent a season in a half in Minneapolis with the Millers.

As a backup catcher, Zimmerman’s role was to be excellent behind the plate when he got a start and not embarrass himself at the plate, and for the most part, he did exactly that for the Twins. Battey was a very underrated, All-Star catcher until injuries cut short his career. While the Twins lost some offensive pop when Battey was out of the lineup, Zimmerman worked well with pitchers and occasionally provided some offense himself. On September 3, 1962, Battey injured his ring finder in the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader. Zimmerman played the rest of game one and all of game two and ended with 4 hits and 2 RBIs on the day.

Zimmerman only got into 34 games in 1962, as he was sharing time with Naragon, but he hit a career-high .274 in limited action. Naragon retired after that season, and Zimmerman fended off any rookies who tried to usurp his role in the next few seasons, even as his batting average dropped to .200 in 1964.

Zimmerman had one of his best days at the bat on August 15, 1964, driving in 4 runs in a 9-3 win over Cleveland, including a bases-loaded double. He got plenty of ribbing from his teammates for being the center of media attention.

“I’m in charge of Zimmerman’s press conference,” said coach Ed Fitz Gerald when the media arrived.

“The boys are giving me heat today,” Zimmerman said. “because some of the writers are talking to me today.

“Believe me, it’s nice to play and feel you’re contributing a little something to the ball club,” he added.

Zimmerman was one of the team’s most popular players. His corner locker became known as “Zimmy’s Corner,” and it was a gathering place for his many friends on the team.

Zimmerman was a part of the Montreal Expos’ original coaching staff, from 1969-1975. Source: The Ottawa Journal, October 2, 1975.

Zimmerman’s first MLB home run came on June 6, 1965, in his fifth season in the big leagues. It was a 2-run blast off Washington’s Phil Ortega that was estimated at 402 feet. He’d hit his first major-league triple just days before, but he didn’t show any extra emotion on the field or in the clubhouse afterwards, even as a post-game interview was interrupted by coach Billy Martin shouting, “Zim, you’d better get out here early for running practice tomorrow. You don’t even know how to run on home runs.”

“First homer in the majors, sure, but I hit some in the minors,” was about as pumped up as Zimmerman got. (He hit 31 in the minors.)

The ’65 Twins won the AL pennant after a couple years of finishing in second place. Once more, Zimmerman was largely a spectator, playing in two games as a defensive replacement in the World Series loss to the Dodgers. He hit into a double play in his only postseason at-bat.

Injuries to Battey (and ineffective hitting when he was in the lineup) led to Zimmerman ascending to the starting catcher role in 1967. He struggled to his worst offensive season, though, hitting .167. At one point, he was hitless in 12 straight games and 37 plate appearances before breaking out of his slump with three hits, including a home run.

“You’ll have to move if these reporters keep hanging around,” he kiddingly told rookie Rod Carew, who had the locker next to the catcher.

Earl Wilson, the Tigers pitcher who gave up that slump-breaking homer, was less than enthused. “He’s only hit three in the majors, and I’ve got to be in on it,” he said, shaking his head.

After the 1967 season, Battey retired due to an accumulation of injuries, and it was plain that Zimmerman wasn’t a starting catcher. The Twins brought in veteran Johnny Roseboro to catch in 1968. He hit just .216, but even that was better than Zimmerman’s .111 average in 24 games. That was Zimmerman’s final season as a player.

In his 8 years in the majors, Zimmerman slashed .204/.269/.239, with 203 hits that included 22 doubles, 2 triples and 3 home runs. He had 72 RBIs and scored 60 runs. He led the AL in fielding percentage as a catcher in 1965 with a .997 percentage and was third in 1967 at .992. He had a .991 career fielding percentage and threw out 42% of all base-stealers.

Zimmerman jumped right into coaching. He was originally set to manage a Seattle Pilots farm team in Montana in 1969 but ended up as the bullpen coach for the Montreal Expos under manager Gene Mauch. During his tenure there, he saw the arrival of one of the game’s best catchers, Gary Carter. Carter was so eager to do well in his 1974 debut that he asked Zimmerman and Dave Bristol for help.

“They told me, ‘You look all right on the field, but a little tight at bat.’ They just said, ‘Be yourself,’” Carter explained. Sometimes simple advice is the best advice, but it obviously paid off for the eventual Hall of Fame catcher.

Mauch and his coaching staff were fired on October 1, 1975. He wasn’t unemployed for very long though, as he took the vacant Minnesota managerial position. Zimmerman headed back to the Twin Cities as his bullpen coach. He went 1-1 as an interim manager in 1978 when Mauch was ill. He also served as a third base umpire for an inning during an umpire’s strike in ’78 when only two amateur umps were available at the game’s start. He and Blue Jays coach Don Leppert worked the first inning as umpires until another replacement ump was located and brought into the game in the second inning.

That might make Zimmerman the only person in MLB history to work as a coach, manager and umpire in the same season.

Zimmerman worked some as a first base coach in 1980, when Mauch was fired and replaced with John Goryl. He left coaching after the 1980 season and became a scout for the Yankees and Orioles before his retirement.

Jerry Zimmerman died of a heart attack on Sept. 8, 1998 at his home in Neskowin, Ore. He was 63 and had been left alone for a few days while his wife was helping a daughter move. He is buried at Skyline Memorial Gardens in Portland, Ore.

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