Yankees legend, war hero Coleman dies at 89

Jerry Coleman, truly a man for all seasons – a decorated war hero, Yankee World Series MVP and iconic, 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, a baseball treasure, signed originally 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 theatre of World War II, flying 57 combat missions over the Solomon Islands. Upon returning from the service in 1946, Coleman worked his way back up through the Yankees’ minor league system, joining them in 1949 when he hit .275 and led all American League second basemen in fielding (.980).

Jerry Coleman reads the New York Daily News report of the Yankees' 1949 World Series victory.

Wally, S.O.

Jerry Coleman reads the New York Daily News report of the Yankees’ 1949 World Series victory.

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 fatal mistake of removing his ace, Ellis Kinder, who’d been dominating to that point, for a pinch hitter. After Tommy Henrich made it a 2-0 game for the Yankees 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 wound up scoring all three runners and putting 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.”

Jerry Coleman attends Yankees Old Timers' Day in 2012.

Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News

Jerry Coleman attends Yankees Old Timers’ Day in 2012.

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 that year and then played a pivotal role in the Yankees’ 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 inning to go ahead 2-1 in Game 3. But in the Yankee eighth, Coleman started the Yankees’ 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.

Jerry Coleman shows why Casey Stengal called him the best second baseman ever on the double play.

Charles Knoblock/AP

Jerry Coleman shows why Casey Stengal called him the best second baseman ever on the double play.

It looked as if Coleman was on his way to being a Yankee mainstay for years to come. But injuries and another call to duty to his country 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 same 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.”

Jerry Coleman and Yankee teammate Joe DiMaggio

Hoff, Charlie

Jerry Coleman and Yankee teammate Joe DiMaggio

Upon being discharged from Korea in September of 1953, Coleman returned to the Yankees, who had a day for him at Yankee Stadium, September 13, in which a crowd of 48,492 came out to pay tribute to him. 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 3 ½ months of the season 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 regular second base status with the Yankees, and he finished out his career as a utility infielder in ’56 and ’57 – his final bow hitting .364 in the ’57 World Series against the Milwaukee Braves. Though only 33, Yankee owner Dan Topping came to him after the season and offered him a job in the Yankee 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 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 and ill-conceived idea as they finished last in the NL West, 73-89 and he was openly criticized by a number of his players.

Back in the booth in 1981, Coleman, over the years, became one of the most beloved figures in San Diego, 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.”

In 2005, Coleman received the Ford C. Frick Award, for the broadcaster’s 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 September 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 better a better place to spend my final days than in San Diego.” He is survived by his wife, Maggie, and two daughters.


Daily News – Sports

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