Commentary

How Zimmer lost his job to Wills

Originally Published: May 20, 2008
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Don Zimmer tells a great number of colorful stories, including a variety about how he lost various jobs over the years. In my new book, Zimmer tells about losing his job to rookie Ron Santo. Zimmer figured he would slide over to second base, but instead, he went to the bench while Jerry Kendall -- only "two or three years younger than I was, and I was outhitting by nearly 100 points" -- remained in the lineup.

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Actually, Kendall was nearly four and a half years younger than Zimmer. As for outhitting Kendall, when Santo arrived, Zimmer was hitting .272 and Kendall was hitting .273. So much for 100 points.

That was in the summer of 1960. And just a year earlier, he had lost his job to another 1960s superstar. As Zimmer recalls in a new book, "Tim McCarver's Diamond Gems" …

    From 1954 to 1957, I was a utility infielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers … [I]n 1958, when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, I finally became the regular shortstop. In 1959, Pee Wee [Reese] retired and was our third-base coach, and there was no doubt that I was the Dodgers' shortstop. And I couldn't buy a hit. I stunk up the place. So Walter Alston benched me and played Bobby Lillis. He was no better than I was, so Alston moved us back and forth.

    Alston heard that at Spokane they had made a switch-hitter out of a shortstop named Maury Wills. So, they brought him to L.A. and sent Bobby Lillis out. I don't think Wills hit a ball past the pitcher in a week. So Alston came up to me and said, "I'm done experimenting. You are my starting shortstop even if I have to pinch-hit for you in the third inning."

    That night, I came up to bat against Larry Jackson, of the Cardinals. Dusty Boggess, a big, nice guy, was behind the plate. I would swing at anything, but Jackson threw a pitch that would have hit me in the ankle if I didn't move. So I back up, and Boggess says, "Strike three!" I turn around and say things to him I can't repeat. And he says, "You're gone!" So I was kicked out of the first game that I was a regular. Wills went in and got two hits that game, and I don't have to tell you the rest of the story. We won a world championship that year, and Wills was our Most Valuable Player for the next few years.

Let's take those one at a time.

Did Zimmer become the Dodgers' regular shortstop in 1958?
He did. Zimmer started 110 games that season (Reese started 19, Lillis 17). And Zimmer was pretty good, with 17 homers and 60 RBIs.

Did Zimmer stink up the place in 1959?
Actually, he got off to a good start. On May 3, Zimmer hit his third homer and finished the day batting .290 with solid numbers across the board. Then he pitched into one of the worst slumps anyone has ever seen. From May 4 through the end of the season, Zimmer played in 77 games and batted .117 with one homer. (By the way, it's true that Lillis was little better, but Lillis hardly played, starting only 16 games all season.)

Did Zimmer lose his job to Wills?
Yes, he did. But that process wasn't nearly as linear as you might guess.

[+] EnlargeDon Zimmer
Getty ImagesDon Zimmer played 12 major league seasons and finished with a lifetime batting average of .235.
Wills first played for the Dodgers on June 6. D-Day. He went right into the starting lineup at shortstop, but in his first four games, he collected just one hit (a single) in 12 at-bats. He didn't draw a walk or steal a base.

And here is where we start to lose the main thread of Zimmer's story.

On June 10, Zimmer got his old job back, and that was where he mostly stayed for three weeks. All the while, though, his batting average continued to plummet. Beginning June 28, Zimmer ran off a string of 16 hitless at-bats, dropping his average from .191 to .175.

Meanwhile, Wills rarely was playing and still was not hitting. Nevertheless, on July 4, he started both games of a doubleheader, and he did it again the next day. He finally started hitting. Not hitting much. But some. From July 4 through July 24, the Dodgers played 19 games. Wills started 17 of them. Zimmer started the other two, on July 19 and 20.

Finally, on July 25, we find the game Zimmer recalls. Just as Zimmer says, the Dodgers faced St. Louis' Larry Jackson. Zimmer did strike out in the second inning, and he was ejected by Dusty Boggess. Here's how Zimmer described the incident in one of his memoirs: "I was furious. I couldn't believe he could ring me up on that pitch. I turned to him and screamed: 'You fat bastard! How could you call that pitch a strike?'"

Wills replaced Zimmer and went out 0-for-2.

So that's it, right? That's when Zimmer lost his job for good? All because big Dusty Boggess couldn't tell a ball from a strike?

Nope. Not so linear. After losing his job to Wills again, Zimmer didn't start again until Aug. 15 … but when he got back into the lineup, he stayed there, starting each of the Dodgers' next nine games. Zimmer got another shot because Wills never did start hitting (.215 batting average) or getting on base (.254 on-base percentage) or driving in runs (2 RBIs in 48 games). As one Los Angeles writer put it, "The Dodgers need punch more than any other single thing. You don't spell punch W-I-L-L-S. … The team is crying for power, some sort of change has to be made."

The change was made. In his nine-game run at shortstop, Zimmer lifted his average from .167 to .168. Wills took over yet again on Aug. 22, and from then through the end of the season, he batted .321. For his part, Zimmer started only four more games the rest of the season -- three at third base, one at shortstop -- and his only appearance after Sept. 6 came in Game 5 of the World Series.

In "Zim: A Baseball Life," Zimmer wrote, "I'd like to think if Boggess hadn't thrown me out of the game, I'd have been the shortstop the rest of the year, but we'll never know."

[+] EnlargeMaury Wills
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesMaury Wills was the Dodgers' everyday shortstop from 1960 to 1966.
We'll never know for sure. Maybe if Boggess hadn't thrown him out of the game, Zimmer would have picked up a few hits and never stopped hitting. But Zimmer got three chances in 1959 and never did hit. Considering how well Wills hit and fielded down the stretch, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that if Boggess hadn't thrown Zimmer out of the game, the Dodgers wouldn't have won the National League pennant and the 1959 World Series.

Postscript: In Maury Wills' autobiography "On the Run" (1991), he tells this story:

    One day in St. Louis, I was waiting to get on the elevator in the hotel. The elevator was crowded, but there was room for me to get on. I started in and there was Don Zimmer with a couple of the old Dodgers. He said something disparaging about me loud enough for me to hear. He didn't give a damn if I heard it. Who was I?

    When I heard it, I stepped off the elevator and waited for another one. I've never forgotten that.

Then again, Wills mentions several times that he got Zimmer's job because Zimmer had a broken toe. But I haven't been able to track down any evidence suggesting Zimmer lost his job for any reason but ineffectiveness. Granted, he was so terrible in 1959 that it's easy to believe he wasn't completely healthy. It's just hard to believe that Zimmer, in the years since, hasn't mentioned somewhere that he was hurt.

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.

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