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When Don Zimmer outshined Mays and Clemente

Don Zimmer, 83, passed away June 4, 2014 in Dunedin, Fla.
Don Zimmer, 83, passed away June 4, 2014 in Dunedin, Fla.
Photo by Jeff Carlick/Getty Images

With a lineup that included Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, it was very unlikely that a career .235 major league hitter would steal the spotlight, but for a week during the 1955 Caribbean Series, Don Zimmer reigned supreme.

Zimmer was the starting shortstop on arguably the greatest winter league team ever assembled, the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers. The team boasted a mix of talent that featured established stars of the Negro Leagues, young upstarts from the major leagues, and homegrown players from Puerto Rico.

“We had a team that I thought that could beat two-to-three of the lesser teams in the National League,” Zimmer said in a 2011 interview. “We had Bus Clarkson at third base, I played short, Ronnie Samford at second, and George Crowe played first. Valmy Thomas and Harry Chiti caught. Mays, [Bob] Thurman and Clemente played the outfield. People laugh when I tell them that. They say, ‘No!’ I say, ‘Yes, that was our outfield.’ … That was a great club!”

Zimmer almost played his way out of Puerto Rico that winter, but was saved by the last minute due to some quick thinking by Santurce’s manager Herman Franks.

“I was struggling with Mayaguez and they let me go. There was some kind of rule that if I left Puerto Rico, then any other club could bring me back to Puerto Rico to play … went to Miami, and Herman Franks called me to play for Santurce … got on an airplane to Puerto Rico,” Zimmer said in Thomas E. Van Hyning’s “The Santurce Crabbers.”

Holding down the middle of the infield, Zimmer helped Santurce breeze through the Puerto Rican Winter League for a spot in the Caribbean Series in Caracas. They were the clear favorites going into the series, much to the chagrin of Bobby Bragan who managed the Cuban entry from Almendares.

“I remember going to Caracas,” he said. “Bobby Bragan was managing the Cuban team. He said, ‘They said you got a good team, huh? You’ll wind up second.’ Ronnie Samford was in a bar that night with us, having a beer. I didn’t want to say nothing to Bragan, but Ronnie said, ‘You couldn’t beat us.’”

Samford was right, as the Santurce team ran over the competition, winning their first five games to clinch the championship. Zimmer hit .400 with three home runs, including a leading off Game 2 against Panama with a circuit blast.

Zimmer was crowned with MVP honors for his performance, besting his teammate Mays, who hit .462 after starting the series 0-14.

“I was a cinch to be the Most Valuable Player of the Caribbean Series, except Mays got hot the last two days and took over,” he said.

While Zimmer couldn’t duplicate the success that he had in Puerto Rico in the major leagues, the experience he gained from playing with all of the veterans from the Negro Leagues and the Caribbean was invaluable in shaping the rest of his career.

“I was just 21 years old,” he said. “Just being around them was good enough for me, learning and watching the way they went about things.”