Monday, January 06, 2014

Jerry Coleman, Yankees legend, war hero and Hall of Fame broadcaster, dies at 89

A four-time World Series champion who spent his entire career with the Yankees, Coleman served tours of duty in World War II and Korea. He made the transition from player to broadcaster, first with the Yankees, before becoming the radio voice of the San Diego Padres.



Jerry Coleman, truly a man for all seasons — a decorated war hero, Yankee World Series MVP and Hall of Fame San Diego Padres broadcaster — died Sunday at age 89 after a career of more than 70 years in baseball, the Padres announced.

Coleman died in Scripps Hospital in San Diego from complications from a head injury sustained in a fall at his home in December as well as pneumonia.

“It’s hard to put into words what Jerry meant to this franchise,” Padres president Mike Dee.

Coleman, a baseball treaure, signed with the Yankees out of the San Francisco sandlots in 1942 only to spend the next three years as a Marine bomber pilot in the Pacific theater of World War II, flying 57 combat missions over the Solomon Islands. Upon returning from the service in 1946, Coleman worked his way through the Yankees’ system, joining the big club in 1949 when he hit .275 and led American League second basemen in fielding (.980).

Coleman was named Sporting News AL Rookie of the Year in 1949 and finished third in the baseball writers’ balloting. He got perhaps the most important hit that season for the Yankees in their final game in which they completed a two-game weekend sweep of the Red Sox to win the pennant. In the eighth inning, with the Yankees clinging to a 1-0 lead, Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy made the mistake of removing his ace, Ellis Kinder, who’d been dominating to that point, for a pinch-hitter. After Tommy Henrich made it 2-0 with a home run off Kinder’s successor, Mel Parnell, to start the eighth, Coleman came to the plate with the bases loaded later in the inning and sliced a sinking liner into right field that drove in all three runners and put the game away.

“I was almost ashamed,” Coleman said in a 2002 interview with the Daily News. “I mean, I came in afterward, and everybody was patting me on the back and congratulating me for what I felt was just a lucky hit. As long as I live my greatest thrill in baseball will always be (Red Sox catcher) Birdie Tebbetts popping up to Henrich at first base to end that game. We were picked everywhere from fourth to eighth that year and nobody thought we had a chance to win.”

In 1950, Coleman hit a career-high .287 and set a Yankee record for double plays by a second baseman with 137. He was named to the All-Star team and then played a pivotal role in the four-game sweep of the Phillies in the World Series. After losing the first two games, 1-0 and 2-1, the Phillies took their only lead in the Series when they scored two runs in the seventh to go ahead 2-1 in Game 3. But in the Yankee eighth, Coleman started the tying rally by drawing a two-out walk, and in the ninth, singled home the winning run. His .286 average, two runs scored and Series-high three RBI earned him the Babe Ruth Award as the World Series Most Valuable Player.

“The best second baseman I ever saw on the double play,” said Yankee manager Casey Stengel.

It looked as if Coleman was on his way to being a Yankee mainstay. But injuries and another call to duty diminished his career. He missed 25 games in 1951 with injuries and after the season was recalled into the service for the Korean conflict. Coleman flew another 120 missions in Korea and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He had a brush with death on one of his last missions when the engine on his Corsair fighter jet failed on takeoff about 100 feet from the ground. Coleman was carrying three 1,000-pound bombs, which were heavier than the plane itself, and he didn’t dare jettison them. Instead, he made a crash landing and, as the Corsair flipped over, the bombs broke loose and miraculously failed to detonate. Coleman, however, was pinned inside his plane, his crash helmet tilted forward with the straps around his neck, choking him. Only the quick thinking of a Navy corpsman, reaching inside the cockpit and cutting the straps, saved his life.

“Nothing is as desperate as your life,” Coleman said in that 2002 interview, summing up his war service in which he received a multitude of honors including two Distinguished Flying Crosses. “We were scared just like everyone. We weren’t heroes. The only heroes I know are dead.”

Upon being discharged from Korea in September 1953, Coleman returned to the Yankees, who had a day for him at Yankee Stadium, Sept. 13, in which a crowd of 48,492 came out to pay tribute. But, as Coleman later conceded, the second tour of duty had taken its toll and he wasn’t the same player. “My depth perception was gone,” he said. Then, in 1955, he missed 3½ months after breaking his collarbone on April 22, and also suffering a concussion from being beaned by Chicago White Sox pitcher Harry Byrd on July 20.

Despite Stengel’s affection for him, Coleman never regained the regular second base starting job with the Yankees. He finished out his career as a utility infielder in ’56 and ’57, his final bow coming when he hit .364 in the ’57 World Series against the Milwaukee Braves. Though he was only 33, Yankee owner Dan Topping came to him after the season and offered him a job in the front office as assistant farm director. The Yankees were turning second base over to Bobby Richardson. So Coleman retired with a .263 average over seven full seasons with the Yankees.

Coleman spent five years in the Yankee front office, then entered the last phase of his baseball career — broadcasting — when Topping hired him to handle the play-by-play duties in the Yankee TV booth. He left the Yankees in 1969 and spent 22 seasons calling CBS Radio’s “Game of the Week” as well as the Padre games since 1972. There was one brief interruption when he went back on the field to serve as Padres manager in 1980 — by his own admission an ill-conceived idea as they finished last in the NL West at 73-89, and he was openly criticized by a number of his players.

Back in the booth in 1981, Coleman became one of the most beloved figures in San Diego — he was known for calls of “Oh, Doctor!” and “You can hang a star on that!” after big plays — as well as achieving some unwanted notoriety for his hilarious unintentional “Colemanisms” malapropos such as: “Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen,” “Grubb goes back, back. He’s under the warning track” and “There’s a deep drive to right. Winfield goes back to the wall. He hits his head against the wall. It’s rolling back toward the infield.” Coleman is survived by his wife, Maggie, and two daughters.

In 2005, Coleman received the Ford C. Frick Award for the broadcasters’ wing of the Hall of Fame. At the unveiling of a 7-foot, 5-inch bronze statue in his honor outside of the Padres’ Petco Park on Sept. 15, 2012, in which four F-18 jets from the same Marine squadron as his did a flyover, Coleman said: “I start getting tears in my eyes when I start thinking about the past. I couldn’t find a better place to spend my final days than in San Diego.”  

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