Coleman's greatness extended beyond the game
At some point in the 1998 baseball season, I urged Jerry Coleman to visit the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, the one that had been remodeled some 24 years earlier when the House that Ruth Built was rebuilt, top to bottom. He said he'd like to see it if an opportunity presented itself. One did when the Padres defeated the Braves in the National League Championship Series that year. Coleman, then in his 27th season as a Padres broadcaster, came to New York on Oct. 16, the day before Game 1 of a World Series that would become a Yankees sweep.
I met him just outside the press entrance where the Padres' busses parked. We took the stairs down to the clubhouse level and cut through the press dining and work rooms, passing walls covered with enlarged photographs of many of Coleman's Yankees contemporaries. He paused at a photo of Joe DiMaggio and subtly genuflected.
I had made arrangements to gain entry into the Yankees' clubhouse, so we walked in as if we were the Steinbrenners. Coleman was struck first by a miniature version of the distinctive Stadium frieze atop each locker. "Very nice touch," he said. He pointed in the general direction of the showers. "That's where Casey's office was," he said. I said "I knew it as Houk's."
And he pointed out the clubhouse neighborhoods where he, Dr. Bobby Brown, Scooter, Yogi, Whitey and Mickey had lockered.
After he had moved deeper into the large, rectangular room, he turned to his right. His eyes closed a bit, and he was struck again by what he saw. His voice changed into hushed tones. With conspicuous reverence, Jerry Coleman said "That was Joe D's." He pointed to the locker that had belonged to Catfish Hunter and Don Mattingly after the remodeling. In 1998, it was where Tino Martinez kept his belongings. But then Coleman corrected himself.
"No," he said. "Joe was over here."
And he moved a few feet to the right to a blank wall, maybe eight feet wide, that separated Martinez's locker from the others on that wall.
"Joe's locker was here," he said. "They probably didn't want to put another one in the same place. That area is sacred. That was Joe D's spot."
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It was a warm and wonderful moment I spent with a warm and wonderful man, a man who died Sunday in San Diego and took from us one of the last links to the Yankees teams that won five successive World Series -- 1949-1953 -- for Stengel. Moreover, Coleman's death took away one of the foremost gentlemen in the game, one of the finest, most wholesome people anywhere.
Even a quick hello and a passing conversation with him made me feel as if I had been refined. Finding him in his booth at Shea or in San Diego for a longer chat always was atop my to-do list. Coleman was my personal pick-me-up, a booster shot of wholesomeness. Vin Scully served the same purpose for me in Los Angeles, and Hank Greenwald in San Francisco. George Steinbrenner never knew what he had when Hank worked Yankees games in the late '80s.
Coleman was 89 when he joined what he used to call "the great majority." He didn't look his age the last time I saw him in 2011. He had his hair, he was so trim. He dressed so well. He was tan. He and I once spoke of Bob Sheppard, the great Yankee Stadium PA announcer who began his job when Coleman was active. "Shep always looked so neat in his pullover sweaters and plaid shirts," he said. "I took some style pointers from him."
That was my cue to compliment his attire. I did, but my words went beyond his civvies. Few big leaguers ever looked better in a uniform than Coleman. Each part of his uniform fit as if it had been custom made. I noticed that the first time I saw him play in person in 1955. And when he wore a turtleneck under his uniform top, he looked like a GQ model. "I liked wearing turtlenecks," he said. "It usually meant it was chilly and we were in the World Series."
He played in six of them; the Yankees won four. He was the MVP of their sweep of the Whiz Kid Phillies in 1950 and batted .364 in 22 at-bats in a seven-game series against the Braves in 1957. Coleman missed the '54 Series because of the Indians and the '52 and '53 Series because of the Marine Corps. He participated in the Korean conflict as a fighter pilot, playing in merely 19 games in the 1952 and '53 seasons combined.
He was quite proud of his military background. He also had flown missions in World War II as well. No other big leaguer had flown in both wars.
"I'm proud of that distinction," Coleman would say. "But it wasn't about anything I did."
Ted Williams flew in Korea but not in World War II, though he served.
A statue in Coleman's honor -- he is depicted in his flight suit -- stands outside Petco Park in San Diego. Days before it was unveiled to the public in 2010, the retired lieutenant colonel said in an interview, "Your country is bigger than baseball."
He had flown more than 120 missions in the two wars and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Navy Citations and 13 Air Medals. The most compelling chapter in Bill Madden's book "Pride of October -- What it Was To Be Young and a Yankee" is entitled "A Hero Just the Same" and is about Coleman and his military experiences.
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Coleman wasn't the perfect play-by-play man announcer -- he once described Dave Winfield's pursuit of a fly ball thusly: "'Winfield hits his head against the wall and it's rolling toward the infield" -- but he became beloved in his home market as much for his decency as his calls of games. He received the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
He "borrowed" the phrase "Oh doctor!" from Red Barber, who worked Yankees games in the 50s. But what did San Diego listeners know of that? "We run a clean show," he told me once after interrupting a recorded pregame interview. He had asked me to describe the Mets' dreadful 1993 season in one word. I said "wretched."
He scolded me. "We can't say that with kids listening," he said. We backed up, and I substituted "conspicuously poor." He said "That's better."
Jerry Coleman wasn't a sensational player either. He knew that. He played from 1949 through 1957 and batted .263. His failure to charge a ground ball hit by Eddie Mathews hurt the Yankees in the '57 Series. After spending time with him, I learned to say "so what" about that miscalculation, though it had bothered me so when I was nine.
He wore No. 42 throughout his career. That number belongs to Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera now. Nothing against the Hall of Famer and the future Hall of Famer, but on my personal roster of numbers, the name Jerry Coleman is next to No. 42.