On the last day of the last Cubs home stand of the 1990 season, the manager's wife decided to skip the game. She'd said good-bye over the weekend to the regulars who sat around her all summer, and to the ushers and other personnel who tended to her during the season.
She doesn't miss many home games, but when she does she looks out the window of her high-rise apartment in the direction of Wrigley Field so she can check the flags to see which way the wind is blowing. On the last day there was a crosswind--and the Cubs beat the Mets.
Soot Zimmer, the city's first lady of baseball, spent the day packing linens, dishes, pots, and pans and putting them into a storage locker. "One season, I packed it all up and brought it over to the ballpark," she says. "But it was so much trouble getting it there and back. This is much easier, since we'll be back in the same building next year."
As Don Zimmer left on the Cubs' last 1990 road trip to Pittsburgh, Soot packed their clothes and personal items into the car and drove back to their home near Saint Petersburg, Florida. "Because Don was never stable in one area and we were never situated, we decided to make our home where we wanted," says Soot. "When Don started in baseball, there was no such thing as a multiyear contract--you could be traded at any time. So we stayed put--where we wanted to live. At one time we were tempted by California--the new frontier--when Don was with the Dodgers. But we knew we could never get the value in a home in California that we have in Florida. Our kids grew up in Florida, and I always stayed behind every spring until school was out. And then I'd join Don where he was."
They have lived in several cities during the playing season, and this is Zimmer's third Chicago stay of his career--he was here in the early 60s and mid-80s, and came back in 1988. "I've taken people to the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, and I enjoy walking on the lakefront," says Soot. "But to me, the best part of the city is the fans. What's so great is that the fans are with you through thick and thin. The fans support you whether you win the [division] or whether you're in fourth, fifth, or sixth place. That's a good fan. The fans here enjoy baseball as a game, as entertainment--which is as it should be.
"Once I looked around at a game we were playing with the Phillies--or maybe it was Houston--and I thought there's more fans in one afternoon game here than in Cincinnati at night. These are not fair-weather fans here in Chicago. They come whether the weather's chilly or whether or not they have school."
But Soot does hear disparaging words about her husband's decisions from people sitting around her in the stands who don't realize their comments are being overheard by someone who may take them to heart. "It doesn't make me feel that bad," she says. "Maybe at first it did, when I first became a manager's wife. But those people pay to come to the game, and talking like that is part of the fun for them. But it's easy to say what should have been done after it's done. Don only has a second or two to make a decision. Last season, those decisions worked the majority of the time. This year, he managed the same, but things don't always work the way you want them to. Anyway, the criticism is a lot less here than it was in Boston. Toward the end in Boston, every time he changed pitchers he got booed. It wasn't his fault the pitchers needed to be changed. It was rough, but he took it. He never sent his pitching coach. He went himself."
She laughs, which she does a lot. "In baseball you're up one year and down the next. I never butt in on the baseball field. Don doesn't like that. I just make friends with whatever team we're with, and I still correspond with people all over the country."
"Even in baseball, no one knows my name is really Jean Carol unless I write a check or pull out my charge card," says Soot. "When Don introduces me, people will ask, 'What did he say?' And then they'll call me Sue, or something else. Even if they see it written, they can't figure out what to call me. My grandmother, who was of German descent, used to call me 'Sootala'--that was a little pet name that meant 'sweetie pie'--and my sister shortened it to Soot and told all the kids and teachers at school that was my name. And everyone's called me that ever since."
Don and Soot Zimmer met in high school in Cincinnati. As Don worked his way into the major leagues (a feat in those days, because there were fewer teams), Soot took up nurse's training. She was content to put her career aside, however, after she realized what a whirlwind life she would have as a baseball wife. "I don't know where or when I would have worked," she says. "The nurse's training I had, though, definitely came in handy for raising my kids--and with Don's injuries."
Soot says her husband's injuries over 42 years in baseball have a lot to do with the safety measures taken in the game today, such as wearing helmets and keeping a portion of the center-field seats empty. Once he was smacked in the cheekbone by a pitched ball and had to sit completely still day after day, wearing pinhole glasses so his retina wouldn't detach. A few years before, in 1953, a similar accident nearly killed him. It was twilight in Saint Paul when he took his turn at bat for his Triple A Columbus team. He lost sight of the pitched ball in the spectators' shirtsleeves and ducked right into it. Soot didn't know about the accident until later because her radio was on the fritz. For several weeks, her husband lay semicomatose while she and their toddler son watched. According to Soot, the pitcher was so upset that he couldn't play after that.
Zimmer's brain bled and swelled. Soot didn't know whether her husband could hear what she and the doctors said. "To this day, I'd watch what I say in front of a person in a coma, because you just never know what's getting through," she says. "The doctors told me if Don hadn't been young and in good shape, he never would have made it."
Finally the doctors drilled four small holes in Zimmer's skull to drain the fluid--the scars are still visible. There are persistent rumors in the media that Zimmer has a metal plate in his head--one reporter wrote that he stands near Zimmer when he wants to improve his radio reception. Soot wants to make it clear once and for all that he does not. He has four small nonmetallic buttons that plug the drainage holes.
Soot Zimmer is now a grandmother. Her son Tom, a baseball scout, has three sons; her daughter Donna, a retired flight attendant, has a four-year-old daughter. Soot also takes great pride in her work for the Cubs' wives' pet charity, a home for abused wives and children. And she works hard at keeping her weight down. "Don didn't do too well on that this season," she admits. "He did a lot better on his acting."
She's referring to her husband's commercial for newspaper subscriptions that he made for his employer, the Chicago Tribune. "I saw the outtakes tape--he and [Joe] Altobelli worked from 9 AM until 7 PM and had so much fun," she says. "The mistakes are the funniest things you've ever seen. Every time Don said 'thank you,' he couldn't stop laughing."
This fall and winter will be full of baseball-related meetings, appearances, and trips to Los Angeles, Japan, Arizona, South Carolina. "When I'm asked," says Soot, "I go and have fun."
But she pefers to stay out of the spotlight. "I don't like to use my name, and a lot of people have no idea who I am. But when people see or hear my name and if they ask me if I'm any relation, I don't deny it. I'm proud of it. I'm amazed how recognizable Don is. Maybe it's his build or his hair. But I like it. It's fun. It's a plus."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.