Jerry Coleman’s life in broadcast baseball

The man who hung the stars

The Padres open their 2005 home schedule tonight against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team begins its second season at Petco Park among the favorites to reach the playoffs, a rare occurrence in franchise history. Jerry Coleman has witnessed a large part of that history as a member of the Padres' broadcast team since 1972. Later this year, Coleman, 80, will be honored with the Ford C. Frick Award at baseball's Hall of Fame.

West Coast to Wellsville

Before Jerry Coleman was known as the Voice of the Padres, the Master of the Malaprop, or the Colonel, he was born Gerald Francis Coleman in San Jose on September 14, 1924. His boyhood years were spent playing baseball in San Francisco.

Coleman drew the attention of Yankees talent scout Joe Devine, who had been instrumental in signing Joe DiMaggio years earlier. Devine had put together a semipro team in San Francisco, the Keanelly Yankees, which was sponsored by a bar and grill at 14th and Valencia.

"Keanelly was named after a bar that was owned by a guy who never drank," Coleman remembers.

All through high school, Coleman played third base and shortstop for the Keanelly Yankees and for Lowell High. Two other Bay Area ballplayers, Charlie Silvera and Bobby Brown, also played on the Keanelly Yankees. In 1949, the three would be teammates in the major leagues.

The summer after graduating from high school, Coleman went to Wellsville, New York, to play for the Wellsville Yankees, a Yankees farm team. But late that summer, as Coleman approached his 18th birthday, the dream of playing baseball was overtaken by a desire to serve his country.

"We were all a bunch of kids," Coleman says, "and when [World War II] started, we all wanted to be heroes. I was trying to get into USC at the time, but when our season ended September 6, we went down to the recruiter, and that was it. They got us all."

Coleman joined the Navy and was accepted into the naval aviation cadet V-5 program. "It took a year and a half to learn to become a pilot. From October 1942 to April 1, 1944. With April 1st being April Fools' Day, I thought they were joking!"

After opting for a commission as second lieutenant in the Marines, Coleman, in August 1944, shipped out to Guadalcanal, where he joined his squadron, VMSB-341, also called the Torrid Turtles. He flew a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber, completing 57 combat missions in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.

When the war was over, Coleman retired to the inactive reserve list and once again turned to his love of baseball. For the next three years, he played on farm teams. In 1946, he played for the Binghamton Triplets under Lefty Gomez; in 1947, for the Kansas City Blues. "I spent time in spring training with the Kansas City Blues under Bill Meyer," Coleman says. "I was the last to get cut. I was always the last to get cut." In 1948, playing for the Newark Bears, Coleman left his regular positions at third base and shortstop to fill their need for a second baseman.

The next year he went to the New York Yankees' spring training, and they kept him on the squad. "I showed up to the Yankees organization as a second baseman under Casey Stengel," Coleman says. "Casey always liked having the younger guys on the ball club. I got lucky because Frankie Crosetti was no longer with the team and George 'Snuffy' Stirnweiss, the regular second baseman, got injured and was out for three weeks. I was able to start Opening Day as the Yankees' starting second baseman."

The Bronx Bombers

In the preseason of 1949, the polls were split as to whether the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees would take the American League pennant. It was questionable whether Yankee veterans such as Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich would be able to play regularly. The experienced stars were battling menacing ailments and soreness, not to mention the conjecture of fans and writers that they were past their prime. Without DiMaggio's and Henrich's bats in the everyday lineup, most polls predicted that the Yankees would not be able to contend.

"Everyone liked to say that the Yankees were known for their home run hitting," Coleman acknowledges. "But they actually had some great pitching, with guys like Ed Lopat, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Joe Page, our closer."

On April 20, 1949, Coleman made his debut with the Yankees. Jerry Coleman's ability to turn the double plays and make use of his bat got him instant recognition and helped put the Yankees in contention for the pennant. The last day of the regular season is most memorable for Coleman. The rivalry between the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio and the Red Sox's Ted Williams led to an unforgettable pennant race, with New York one game behind Boston in the standings.

"The AL pennant was it," says Coleman. "We go into the final series a game behind the Red Sox for the pennant. If the Red Sox win 1 out of 2, they win it and we're out of it. We're down 4-0 in the first game and come back. The pennant comes down to the last game of the season, and we take it. The bases were loaded and they decided to walk..." He trails off and to punctuate his point says, "These were the Red Sox. With Dom DiMaggio, Mel Parnell, and Ted Williams. That was definitely the highlight of my career."

Earlier in the inning, Joe DiMaggio had hit into a double play, bringing Coleman up to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Coleman got a hit to right, which resulted in three critical runs. Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr threw Coleman out trying to stretch his hit into a triple, but the damage was done. Those three runs were the difference in a 5-3 win that put the Yankees in the World Series.

The Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games to win the World Series. Coleman, who scored a run in the ninth inning to give the Yankees a win in Game 3, was named the Associated Press Rookie of the Year. Not a bad year for a rookie second baseman.

The following year, 1950, proved to be better in terms of Coleman's stats. He hit .287 and drove in 69 runs. His performance got him named to the 1950 American League All-Star Team. Coleman was also named the Most Valuable Player in the 1950 World Series, when the Bronx Bombers successfully defended their World Championship. As he had the previous year, he stepped up to the plate in the late innings of Game 3 in the World Series and had a game-winning hit, going 3 for 4 with 2 RBIs. The Yankees swept the Philadelphia Phillies in four straight games, thanks to the handiwork of World Series Most Valuable Player Jerry Coleman.

The Pinstripe Pilot

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford C. Frick was concerned about the effect the Korean War would have on baseball. It had been only five years since teams had lost players to World War II.

"In the winter of 1951 I was back at my home on the West Coast," Coleman says, "and they asked me how I'd like to go back to the service. I said, if you want me, take me -- take me now. The reason ballplayers went to war was that we were short on pilots. Forty pilots is the normal complement of pilots in a squadron, where we had only 16 at Los Alamedas."

Coleman played a few token games for the Yankees before he was recalled for active duty in May 1952. Yankee players Whitey Ford and Billy Martin were also called. Coleman flew the Chance Vought F4U Corsair on 63 missions with his squadron, VMA-323, the Death Rattlers. He was the only baseball player called to active combat duty in both World War II and the Korean War. San Diegan Ted Williams also served in both wars, but Williams remained stateside during World War II.

In a 2002 article in Officer magazine titled "The Splendid Splinter," the late Ted Williams remembered an incident in Korea involving Coleman:

"We were not in the same squadron," said Williams. "I was in jets and he was in F4Us. Corsairs.... Jerry went out on a bombing run, [and] he had a heck of an experience. If it had happened to me I would have been useless over there. Jerry had a full load of bombs and he was on this dive-bombing mission. He was the third one to go in. He rolled out of formation and started his run, he was lining up on target behind his buddies...gathering speed...and the Corsair right dead in front of him was totally blown away. One minute he was there and the next minute there was a flash and he was completely gone. Well, that was enough to take the starch out of anyone."

Coleman remembers another incident, which happened on the K-6 airfield at Pyongtaek, in northwestern South Korea. "We had a short runway at K-6. We had 55 runways in Korea, named K-1, K-2, K-3, and so on. We had 3500 pounds of bombs strapped on and only a short distance at K-6. There was a little bump in the path on the runway, and every time someone would hit that bump, they would be bounced up and down and sideways. One time I hit the bump and the engine stopped. Here I am with the screeching brakes at about 100 yards off, so I let the bombs go. One of the bombs hit a part of the tail on its way out, which tipped the plane and the propeller caught the ground. The plane flipped over. When it hit, I found my knees behind my ears and the strap choking me." The ground crew rescued him before he suffocated. "I had passed out. I told them that I had a big migraine headache. They put me in the hospital, and I was up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, business as usual."

In August 1953, Coleman's active-duty service ended and he was given a Medal of Decoration. He went back on the reserve list, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1964. His combat service in two wars stands with an impressive 120 missions to his credit. He received 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals, and 3 Navy citations.

Second Chances

Coleman returned to the States in the fall of 1953 and played a few token games at the end of the season.

In 1955, the Yankees took the American League pennant but lost the World Series to the Brooklyn Dodgers in a Game 7 shutout.

Coleman appeared on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town.

"I made appearances on the Toast of the Town a couple of times," Coleman says. "One was with Elston Howard, the first black Yankee player. Another was with Pee Wee Reese and other ballplayers. I have never been comfortable with the hero status. The show was not always about ballplayers in the war. Sometimes they just wanted to discuss baseball."

In 1956, the Yankees won the World Series again. Don Larsen, from Point Loma High, pitched a perfect game in Game 5. No other pitcher has ever thrown a no-hit game in the postseason (although another Point Loma High pitcher, David Wells, would pitch a perfect game for the Yankees in the 1999 season).

The 1957 Yankees were looking to win another American League pennant with an All-Star lineup, when on May 16, at a birthday bash for Billy Martin at the Copacabana Club in Manhattan, Yankee players including Martin, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer, Johnny Kucks, and their wives were on their way to see the headliner, Sammy Davis Jr., when they found themselves in an altercation. Some accounts had the Yankees involved in a brawl with a drunken heckler who was found lying in the bathroom passed out with a broken nose. Coleman remembers that the evening also involved someone forging the signature of Yankees owner Dan Topping Jr.

"I was invited along with the others, as were all of the wives," Coleman says. "But I did not drink, so I said, 'I don't think I'll make that one.' Those guys did like to have a good time. This time it was unfortunate. Someone in the group signed the bill to Dan Topping Jr. Signing someone else's name is illegal, but they did it, and Topping was livid. He fined the ballplayers $500 each. At that time $500 was quite a lot of money."

A month after that evening, Billy Martin, who was considered a bad influence on his roommate Mickey Mantle, was traded to the Kansas City Athletics. Coleman became Mickey Mantle's roommate and he was given a chance to play the remainder of the 1957 season. That year Coleman hit his 16th career home run over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, not knowing that this one would be his last.

In the 2002 Officer magazine article, the late Ted Williams remembered Jerry Coleman's 1957 season:

"We're in a pennant race with the Yankees. Coleman's playing for the Yanks, and of course I was at Boston, and I'll be darned if he doesn't get the winning hit. He hit this little fly into the right-field corner. Our right fielder darn nearly broke his neck trying to get to it. Jerry gets a triple, two or three runs score in the ninth inning and the Red Sox lose. Jerry Coleman won the game and the series for those Yanks. He was one heck of a guy, a handsome guy, a real scrapper, a heck of a ballplayer."

In late September, the Yankees clinched the pennant, and Coleman played his final regular season game as a Yankee. The Yankees faced the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series and ended up losing the Championship. On December 29, 1957, after nine seasons with the Yankees, Coleman was released. He ended his career having played on six World Series teams. He batted .263, with 723 games played, 2119 at bats, 558 hits, and 17 runs batted in.

Coleman was offered a job in the Yankees' front office as director of player personnel. "It was after the last half of the season that George Weiss offered me a job in the Yankees organization," Coleman says. "It was either that or move back to the West Coast. We were living in New Jersey at the time, and that was one of the things that I did right. I took the job he offered as a player rep in the Yankees' front office so that my kids could finish out their school in the same school system in New Jersey."

As a player rep, Coleman was instrumental in negotiating a player contract with Sy Berger of Topps. Topps Chewing Gum, which made Bazooka bubble gum, had entered the baseball trading card business in 1951, competing with industry leader Bowman. Berger was the creative mind behind the modern practice of including statistical and personal player information on baseball cards.

"Topps was coming in over Bowman cards," Coleman says. "A lot of players began signing with both Bowman and Topps, which did not seem right. But finally this guy at Topps says, 'Okay, here's a two-year contract! Go for it and get out of my life!' "

Asked if it bothers him that some players sign autographs only if they are paid at a memorabilia show or convention, Coleman says, "Well, I've done three or four of those myself. I have to. I have a daughter in college I'm paying for. I've never solicited it; people have asked me to do them. If a player doesn't sign at the ballpark and only at shows where they are paid, that's wrong. And there are some kids that can't afford it or are disadvantaged and from poor families. Nobody should refuse to give a child an autograph."

Coleman remained with the Yankees front office until 1959. Two years after he left, his former roommate, Mickey Mantle, was in a race with fellow teammate Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth's long-standing single-season home run record. Coleman's future broadcasting partner Mel Allen referred Mantle to a doctor who botched an injection and put him in the hospital, thus ruining his chances of breaking the record.

Roger Maris did break the record, hitting 61 home runs, but an asterisk was placed by the new record because the schedule had been lengthened that year. The record has since been broken by Mark McGwire, who hit 70 home runs, and Sammy Sosa, who hit 66. They've both been accused in the recently published book Juiced, written by McGwire teammate Jose Canseco, of taking steroids. Barry Bonds, who hit 73 home runs in 2001 and currently holds the record, has also been implicated in steroid use. Should they have asterisks by their names?

"Well, any player that has been proven to have taken steroids should have an asterisk by any record or award they have won," Coleman offers. "And that includes these players that may have won MVP awards," he adds.

That could be a reference to the recently deceased Padre Ken Caminiti. The 1996 National League Most Valuable Player was the first major league player to admit steroid use. In a February 28 San Diego Union-Tribune article, general manager Kevin Towers revealed that he did nothing about Caminiti's suspected steroid use because it was helping the club win games.

Asked if he suspected Cammy of taking steroids, Coleman replies, "No. No, I didn't. He was such a nice person. It's really sad what happened. The worst thing is, he lost his kids, he lost his life, everything. He was really a delightful person, he really was. But he was weak. He had this weakness that he never was able to overcome. If I was the commissioner, you'd get a one-month suspension for the first offense, a year for the second, and you would be out of baseball on your third strike. The new testing rules that baseball is implementing are certainly a step in the right direction."

Give My Regards to Broadcast

In 1960, Coleman began doing pregame interviews for the CBS television show Game of the Week. "I worked for CBS with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese on games that were broadcast to a national audience, to over 3 million listeners dialed in," Coleman recalls. "I was petrified."

In 1963, Coleman started doing play-by-play broadcast for the Yankees on WCBS Radio and WPIX TV in New York. The broadcast lineup consisted of Mel Allen, Red Barber, Phil Rizzuto, and Jerry Coleman. Yankee fans would remember a time when Red Barber and Mel Allen were in the broadcasting booth covering Coleman and Rizzuto.

"Red was a true professional," Coleman recalls. "Phil and I were ex-jocks coming in without any experience. In fact, I tell the youngsters who ask what it would take to make it in broadcasting today that they need to go to bed with a dictionary and learn a new word once a day. And then you need to send out about 5000 biography sheets, and maybe you got half a shot."

After the 1964 regular season, Mel Allen was fired for unspecified reasons. He was replaced by Joe Garagiola. In 1964, Rizzuto and Garagiola covered the skid that would be the end of the Yankees' dynasty. The Cardinals, led by star pitcher Bob Gibson, became World Series Champions with a win at Busch Stadium.

The legendary Red Barber was fired in September 1966, after he insisted that the cameraman show empty seats in Yankee Stadium. The number of Yankee fans who came out to the ballpark was a record low of 413.

In 1968 Frank Messer replaced Garagiola. In 1969 Whitey Ford was added to the mix. After the 1969 season, Coleman moved back to Southern California.

Oh Doctor!

Coleman found immediate work after moving to Southern California, covering pregames and postgames for the then-California Angels on KTLA Radio. He would cover the CBS Radio Network's Game of the Week for 22 seasons and call Major League Baseball's annual All-Star game for 20 seasons.

The previous year, 1968, Buzzie Bavasi, the former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, had come to San Diego as a minority owner and president of the San Diego Padres. It was at that time, when Coleman was still living in New York, that he first considered working for the Padres.

"I was in Vero Beach," Coleman says. "Buzzie said to me, 'I know you are going to California...' He tells me he would like to hire me, and then he proceeded to hire Jerry Gross and Duke Snider instead."

Under Bavasi, the San Diego Padres entered Major League Baseball as an expansion team in 1969.

Two years later, after Coleman had moved to L.A., "I ran into Buzzie in Chicago," says Coleman, "and he said he'd like to hire me. He did, and in 1972 I worked with Bob Chandler, Dave Campbell, and of course now with Ted Leitner. At that time I had preferred to work with jocks because I was comfortable talking to jocks."

The Padres struggled to put a winning team on the field. Bavasi says, "I made some good acquisitions here...Colbert, Cito Gaston, Winfield, Randy Jones, Rollie Fingers, Ozzie Smith. The best acquisition I made for this town was Jerry Coleman."

Master of the Malaprop

An article about Jerry Coleman would be incomplete if it did not mention his famous flubs, known as "Colemanisms." Although not as popular as Yogi Berra's "It ain't over 'til it's over" or Casey Stengel's "Most ball games are lost, not won," Coleman's quips are just as memorable.

What does Coleman think of people being critical of his flubs?

"Dizzy Dean and Harry Caray are two others that made mistakes," he says. "I don't pay any attention to it. I really don't care. It doesn't bother me."

Coleman on the truth: "You never ask why you've been fired, because if you do, they're liable to tell you."

Coleman on extra base hit: "He slides into second with a stand-up double."

Coleman on swinging strike: "McCovey swings and misses, and it's fouled back."

Coleman on Randy Jones's Harpo haircut: "On the mound is Randy Jones, the left-hander with the Karl Marx haircut."

Coleman on Joltin' Joe DiMaggio: "DiMaggio seldom showed emotion. One day after striking out, he came into the dugout and kicked the ball bag. We all went 'ooooh.' It really hurt. He sat down and the sweat popped out on his forehead and he clenched his fists without ever saying a word. Everybody wanted to howl, but he was a god. You don't laugh at gods."

Coleman's call of "Oh doctor! You can hang a star on that one" would be his trademark phrase.

On January 25, 1974, Ray Kroc, fast food pioneer and owner of McDonald's, as well as Coleman's neighbor in La Jolla, bought the Padres for $12 million to keep them from moving out of state. Coleman was part of the '70s Padres organization that saw future Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Dave Winfield, veteran Willie McCovey in a brief stint, Randy Jones winning the Cy Young Award, and a 1978 All-Star game at Jack Murphy Stadium.

That same year, 1978, the Baseball Hall of Fame established the Ford C. Frick Award, named after the radio broadcaster and baseball commissioner. The award honors recipients for "major contributions to baseball broadcasting." Coleman's mentors Red Barber and Mel Allen were the first to be recognized.

A year later, the San Diego Padres named Coleman their manager for the 1980 season. "I managed for one year," Coleman says. "I'd say that we started in dead last and were able to hold on to that position in the standings for the entire season."

Although the team enjoyed a fast start with an Opening Day win and took three of four games against the Giants at Candlestick Park, the Padres faded and placed last in the National League West.

"People would come up and say, 'You have three Hall of Famers in Ozzie Smith, Rollie Fingers, and Dave Winfield. Why can't you win?' I'd tell them, 'Yeah, but there are 22 players that you are forgetting about.' "

Just as quickly as he was hired, Coleman was let go in October 1980, after posting a 73-89 record. He returned to the broadcasting booth. It's not uncommon for ex-jocks to make the transition into the broadcast booth from managing. NBA coach Pat Riley, who at one time played for the San Diego Rockets, did the exact opposite. After his playing career, he worked one season in the broadcast booth with the legendary Chick Hearn, before becoming the Lakers' head coach and having a successful coaching career.

When Coleman made it back to the broadcast booth for a second stint, Padre players were critical of his tenure as manager. When it was his turn to critique from the booth, the players were surprisingly receptive.

"I never had a problem with any of the Padres players," Coleman says. "Tony Gwynn is a man I consider as one of my best friends. If I go out there one night and say something like Gwynn should've caught that one -- that's the end of it. You can't let it go on. Some players let it go on. He knows he should have had it too, but it's easy for guys sitting on the bench to second-guess when they just don't know."

Coleman had a broadcast highlight in 1984, calling the game that included the greatest single hit in Padres history. With the Padres down two games to one against the Cubs in the National League Championship series, Steve Garvey hit "The Shot Heard 'Round San Diego," blasting a home run in the ninth inning to force a deciding Game 5. In that game, the Padres overcame a 3-0 deficit to best the Cubs and advance to the team's first World Series.

Another great year for Coleman was 1999. He celebrated his 50th season in Major League Baseball and also saw his good friend Tony Gwynn immortalized into the 3000-hit club, accomplishing the feat in 2284 games.

On June 23, 2000, Major League Baseball honored those baseball players called up to duty in a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. Coleman represented the players as Commissioner Bud Selig laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

After the laying of the wreath, Coleman addressed reporters: "This is one of the highlights of my life," Coleman said. "Coming in, I was flabbergasted by the number of headstones here. I mean, I've been to Arlington before, but this is the first time I looked at all the cemetery. Joining the Marines in 1942 was the defining moment of my life," he said. "I'm proud of being a Marine; I'm proud of being a veteran."

Coleman and Buzzie Bavasi were inducted into the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame the following year. In place of a number, Coleman entered with his signature star.

Beyond 2005

This January the Padres announced the addition of their former player and third-base coach Tim Flannery to the broadcasting booth, as Coleman cuts back on his work. He's had a stellar career in baseball, a career that you could hang a star on.

Coleman will be honored during Hall of Fame Weekend, starting July 29, in Cooperstown, New York, along with Hall of Fame inductees Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg.

By being named the recipient of the 2005 Ford C. Frick Award, Coleman will once again join Red Barber and Mel Allen as well as legendary broadcasters Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell, Curt Gowdy, Harry Caray, Joe Buck, and many more.

Regarding Allen and Barber, Coleman says: "I broke in with them and worked with them. To be mentioned with them is an honor."

Eligibility requirements are a minimum of ten years of continuous major league service with a club, network, or combination thereof. Coleman ran against and finished ahead of his old counterpart Dizzy Dean and other award finalists such as Gene Elston, Tony Kubek, and Ken Coleman.

Having broadcast over 6000 games as the voice of the Padres, you'd figure Coleman would have some elaborate pregame ritual or secret recipe to keep his voice going strong.

"Nope. Just menthol cough drops. I forget the name, but you can get 'em at Longs."

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