Nothing short of heroic

Selfless Jerry Coleman remembered for more than baseball

January 05, 2014
Former big leaguer, war heor and 2005 Ford C. Frick Award winner Jerry Coleman. (NBHOF Library)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Jerry Coleman’s record as a ballplayer, announcer and hero is well documented.

But his greatest accomplishment may be his collection of friends – accumulated from over half a century in baseball.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything negative about Jerry,” said Jeff Torborg, a former major league player and manager who worked with Coleman from 1994-97 on CBS Radio.

The San Diego Padres announced that Coleman, the winner of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters in 2005, died on Sunday at the age of 89. The longtime San Diego Padres announcer became a fixture on the radio for more than 50 years. Coleman worked his way into the broadcast booth after a nine-year playing career with the New York Yankees that included four World Series appearances with Yankees teams that won the title, including 1950 when he took home World Series MVP honors.

Before Coleman ever picked up a bat or a microphone in the major leagues, he was already a hero. Coleman risked his playing career, his managing career and his announcing career before it even began 69 years ago.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, Coleman – who was slated to make his big league debut in 1943 – said he “couldn’t wait” to enlist in the United States Army. He reported for duty in the Marine Air Corps alongside Hall of Fame outfielder Ted Williams on May 2, 1943.

Coleman returned home from World War II and later the Korean War having flown in 120 missions. He was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for aerial heroism by the United States armed forces. Coleman remains the only major leaguer to have ever been involved in combat in two different wars.

“Jerry Coleman is a true American hero,” Williams said.

With overseas tensions calmed, Coleman got back to pursuing his big league dreams with the Yankees. Coleman got his career started by helping lead the Yankees to three straight World Series titles from 1949-51. Coleman also appeared in the Fall Classic for the Yankees from 1955-57 – helping the Bronx Bombers win again in 1956 – before retiring following the 1957 season.

Three years after his retirement, Coleman got back into baseball as a broadcaster. The former middle infielder joined the CBS television Game of the Week crew where he spent three seasons before returning to the Yankees as a broadcaster in 1963. A seven-year stint working with his former team was followed by a two-year gig hosting the California Angels pregame show. Coleman reached his destination job in 1972 when he took over play-by-play duties for the upstart Padres.

The rest is history.

Coleman became a fan favorite in the Padres’ radio booth for his famous calls of “Oh Doctor!” or “Hang a star!” With the exception of a one-year stint as the Padres manager in 1980, Coleman was a part of the broadcast team for over 40 years.

“He has been Padre baseball,” said his radio partner Ted Leitner. “As Tony Gwynn has been and Trevor Hoffman (was).”

Leitner took over for Coleman during his one-year stint as the Padres manager in 1980. After Coleman returned to the booth in 1981, the duo broadcasted more than 30 consecutive seasons of Padres baseball together.

“I’ve told people this before that broadcasting with Jerry is like broadcasting from Cooperstown,” Leitner said. “Being in the booth with Jerry is like being at the Hall of Fame, with all the people he has met in the game and all the stories he has.”

Coleman’s lengthy career on the airwaves included a pair of World Series. As a former big league player, Coleman’s efforts as a broadcaster were appreciated by fans and players.

“He’s never going to think of himself of being anything important. But he is,” said Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn. “To me – and I told Vin Scully this – he’s like Vin Scully. He’s like Ernie Harwell. He’s like Jack Buck.

“He’s like that guy that has been in one place for a long time and when you turn on the radio or you turn the TV on, you expect to hear Jerry’s voice.”

Coleman received the highest honor for a baseball broadcaster when he received 2005 Frick Award, given annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And while it was his broadcasting that Coleman was honored for in the later days of his career, it was far from the only thing that defined him.

“He brought excitement to the game and a lot of fans love that,” said former broadcast partner Dave Campbell. “It sounds trite and gratuitous, but I’ve worked with probably 50 people in broadcasting and as a human being, he’s still right there as the best person I’ve ever worked with. He checked his ego at the door.”