Characters like Don Zimmer, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 83, help make baseball great. And this has nothing at all to do with WAR or any of that other statistical mumbo-jumbo. Zimmer was a baseball lifer, spending most of his life either playing the game, coaching the game or embodying the game. His cherubic face and wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek made him an archetype of what a baseball man should look like. Because that’s just what he was: a baseball man.
But the greatest legacy that Don Zimmer left to the game he devoted his life to happened sixty-one years ago. Yes, that’s how long he was involved with the game. After being drilled in the head in a minor-league game in 1953, Zimmer’s hazy mental state in the days that followed convinced the game’s powers that be that something needed to be done. As a result, players were required to wear protective batting helmets from that point on.
How many lives have been saved by this rule? We can’t know for certain, but the idea of stepping into a batter’s box against a 98 to 100 mile an hour pitcher without a protective helmet on seems like lunacy to me. And we can thank Don Zimmer for that.
The year 1953 was so long ago that it was the first time an NBA game had ever been televised, and the broadcast rights were sold for $39,000. Much has changed since 1953, in baseball and in society, but one rule has not changed, nor is it likely to ever be revised in any meaningful way. Each player steps into the batting box with a protective helmet on his head, no questions asked. And somewhere today, Don Zimmer is looking down on this with a smile.