Padres announcer Coleman dies at 89
War hero won four titles with Yankees, called games in NY, San Diego
SAN DIEGO -- Iconic broadcaster Jerry Coleman, who spent 71 years in the game as a player and later in the broadcast booth, passed away on Sunday. He was 89.
Coleman, who won the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting in 2005, was an infielder for the Yankees from 1949-57 and was the only active Major League player to see combat in two military conflicts -- World War II and the Korean conflict.
According to UT-San Diego, Coleman died at Scripps Hospital after complications of head injuries he suffered in a fall recently and that he had been in and out of the hospital.
Coleman called games on radio for the Padres from 1972 through last season. The only exception was when he managed the team in 1980.
The team released a statement on Sunday: "The San Diego Padres are deeply saddened by the news today of the passing of Jerry Coleman. We send our heartfelt sympathy to the entire Coleman family, including his wife, Maggie, his children and grandchildren.
"On behalf of Padres' fans everywhere, we mourn the loss of a Marine who was truly an American hero as well as a great man, a great friend and a great Padre."
Coleman was elected to the Padres' Hall of Fame in 2001.
Even in his later years, when he had more than enough time to be introspective about his life and all he accomplished, Coleman did his best to steer clear of the spotlight. Coleman never understood what all the fuss was about and would much rather talk about his buddy -- 11-year-old German shepherd Gus -- who he dutifully took for walks each morning before sunrise near his home in La Jolla.
"Jerry was a great human being," Padres manager Bud Black said on Sunday. "What I loved about Jerry was he was a guy that truly loved life, loved being around the ballpark, loved the Padres, he was very well-liked within our clubhouse, stadium and the city.
"It was his presence for so long here in San Diego and his connection with the Padres and the military. He was so far-reaching in the amount of people that he touched over the years. He's going to be truly missed but never forgotten."
In 2012, the Padres had a pregame ceremony to unveil the Jerry Coleman statue at Petco Park. He was humbled by it, but, again, didn't feel like he was deserving of such an honor.
Commissioner Bud Selig issued the following statement Sunday evening regarding the passing of Coleman:
"Jerry Coleman was a hero and a role model to myself and countless others in the game of Baseball. He had a memorable, multifaceted career in the National Pastime -- as an All-Star during the great Yankees' dynasty from 1949-1953, a manager and, for more than a half-century, a beloved broadcaster, including as an exemplary ambassador for the San Diego Padres. But above all, Jerry's decorated service to our country in both World War II and Korea made him an integral part of the Greatest Generation. He was a true friend whose counsel I valued greatly.
"Major League Baseball began its support of Welcome Back Veterans to honor the vibrant legacy of heroes like Jerry Coleman. Our entire sport mourns the loss of this fine gentleman, and I extend my deepest condolences to his family, friends, fans of the Padres and the Yankees, and his many admirers in Baseball and beyond."
Coleman's military service record includes 120 missions, earning him two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy citations. He retired from the United States Marine Corps at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
If you tried to get Coleman to talk about his time in the Marines as a bomber pilot, he would do so, but only reluctantly. The harrowing bombing runs, especially in Korea, as well as the friends that he lost in both wars bothered him to no end.
"The guys who didn't come back ... they were the real heroes," Coleman often said.
Coleman was, to all who knew him, one of a kind.
"I have a theory about Jerry, that there is no one like him in American sports," said longtime Padres broadcaster Ted Leitner in 2012.
"No one has left their career to fight in combat for their country twice and never once complained," said Leitner. "… Jerry will always say, 'Don't tell anyone I'm special, and don't tell anyone I'm a hero.'"
One of Coleman's former teammates during his time with the Yankees, Charlie Silvera, grew up in the Bay Area with Coleman.
"Jerry is an All-American, a bona fide hero," Silvera said in 2012. "He's my hero."
Coleman met Silvera in 1934 when they were 10 and playing baseball on old dusty fields at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Silvera and Coleman were later joined in baseball circles by Bobby Brown. The three would become stars on local diamonds and played together in the fall and winter on a team sponsored by the Yankees.
Coleman was such a good athlete that he was given a scholarship to play baseball and basketball at USC -- "I wasn't a good shot, but I could run like the devil," he said -- but those plans were interrupted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of his senior year of high school.
"That changed everything," Coleman said.
Coleman, still nearly a year from turning 18, signed with the Yankees, as did Silvera, and they headed off to a Class D team in Wellsville, N.Y. Coleman was an instant hit, batting .304 in 83 games, although he was merely biding his time until he was old enough to enlist in the Marines to become a fighter pilot.
Coleman returned from the war in 1946 and reported for Spring Training. Despite missing four seasons, Coleman played as though he hadn't missed any time at all. He spent three seasons in the Minor Leagues before arriving in New York for good in 1949.
A shortstop by trade, Coleman hit .275 for the Yankees during his rookie year as a second baseman, teaming with Phil Rizzuto for a potent double-play combination. He was named the Associated Press Rookie of the Year in 1949.
He played alongside Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio, who was a hero to Coleman, as DiMaggio -- 10 years Coleman's senior -- grew up playing on those same fields in San Francisco.
"My family was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Jerry Coleman," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. "First and foremost, he was an American hero whose service to this country is his lasting legacy. He was also a great Yankee, a true ambassador for baseball, and someone whose imprint on our game will be felt for generations. On behalf of the entire New York Yankees organization, we send our deepest condolences to the Coleman family."
The 1949 team was the first of five consecutive World Series champion teams that Coleman was a part of, even though his second stint in the military (Korean War) would cost him Major League service time in 1952-53.
He never considered it time lost, though. Coleman always held his time in the military in high regard and often said he was born to be a Marine.
Coleman played his last game in 1957 before getting into broadcasting in 1960. But he scoffed when the opportunity first presented himself.
"The last thing I thought I would become was a broadcaster," Coleman once said. "Howard Cosell, who was a good friend of mine, asked me if I would be interested in it. I told him he was nuts."
Coleman started out calling the national game of the week for CBS, and he began calling Yankees games in 1963. Working and living in New York, Coleman said, was intense. He lived in Ridgewood, N.J., which was "19.9 miles from Yankee Stadium, but a million miles from New York."
Craving a change of scenery, Coleman bolted for the West Coast -- without a job -- before getting a job as part of the Angels' broadcast team. Not long thereafter, Buzzie Bavasi, the first general manager of the Padres, convinced him to come to San Diego, where he became the lead broadcaster in 1972.
He never left.
Coleman delighted fans with his quick wit in the broadcast booth. Fans laughed with him, especially in those moments that later became known as "Colemanisms," the funny comments and remarks he made during games -- "Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen" -- and the one directed at 1976 National League Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones.
"I remember one day I was in the bullpen throwing in between starts," Jones said. "Jerry looked down there and said, 'There's Randy Jones on the mound with the Karl Marx hairdo.' I had the big curly hair back then. But he called me a Communist. Instead of calling me Harpo Marx, he called me Karl Marx. I loved that one."
Coleman had worked Sunday afternoon games and weekday day games at home in recent years, but even on days when he wasn't scheduled to work, he would often be at the ballpark, making his rounds through the clubhouse. A cup of coffee in one hand and a hot dog pierced by a plastic fork in the other, Coleman often stopped to talk to players before games.
"Being around him, he was excited every day. He had energy and passion for the game," Padres third baseman Chase Headley said. "He was still very aware of what was going on [on the field]. You could have a conversation with him about a certain play and he'd be right on top of things.
"[Seeing him] was a bright spot every day."