It was certainly a bittersweet Sunday in San Diego. Hours after the Chargers secured an impressive playoff victory in Cincinnati, and moments after the city’s top 15 college basketball team became the first non-Big 12 school to win in Lawrence, Kan., since 2006, San Diego lost perhaps its most legendary sports icon not named Tony Gwynn.
Jerry Coleman died Jan. 5 from complications from head injuries he suffered during a fall in December. He was 89 years old.
One could surmise “The Colonel,” as he was affectionately known (he actually ended his military service a lieutenant colonel), accomplished more before age 30 than 95 percent of people do in a lifetime. Like many of the Greatest Generation, Coleman postponed his baseball aspirations by volunteering to fight the Second World War. During three years as a marine bomber pilot in the Pacific theatre, he flew 57 combat missions.
After the war, the native Californian worked his way through the New York Yankees’ farm system before arriving in the big leagues on Opening Day in 1949. Still just 24, Coleman captured American League Rookie of the year honors, helping the Yankees to their first of five consecutive world titles.
Avoiding a sophomore jinx, he was an All-Star in 1950 and, after key hits in the Fall Classic against Philadelphia, was named World Series MVP. Spectacular defensively, Coleman became the first and only Major Leaguer to see active combat in two wars when he was recalled for the Korean War (I want readers to ponder this self-sacrifice, devotion to duty and patriotism, and compare it with today’s athletes).
Coleman flew another 120 missions in Korea, was nearly killed, and earned numerous honors, including 13 air medals and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. He stayed in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves until 1964, seven years after his playing days were over. The Colonel finished his career in 1957 as a four-time World Series champion.
Following five years in the Yankee front office, a position he attained at just 33 years old, Coleman broadcast games for the Bronx Bombers from 1963-1970, calling former roommate Mickey Mantle’s 500th career home run in 1967.
He returned to California with the Angels announcing team for two seasons, then began a four-decade career as the San Diego Padres play-by-play, and then eventually color man. Coleman’s military experience and appreciation for servicemen was perfect in the city’s large veteran community.
As someone raised in San Diego, I recall one famous phrase from listening to Padres games on radio and watching on television: “Oh doctor, you can hang a star on that baby!”
Young fans like myself would peer down from our third deck seats at Jack Murphy Stadium toward the press box to see if the venerable voice of the Pads had indeed hung a star (Coleman had an actual star attached a pole that he would wave out of the broadcast booth) to signify a Roberto Alomar diving stop, Benito Santiago pick off or Tony Gwynn lunging grab had earned the honor.
One of my childhood friends is Josh Stein, Padres Director of Baseball Operations since 2010. He knew Coleman personally.
“Jerry was an uplifting presence on a daily basis, always quick with a quip or to point out a bright spot in the previous night’s game,” Stein told me. “He was also a pure gem of a man, accomplished at pretty much everything in life, yet humble as they come.”
Coleman was given the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. The Padres also unveiled a statue of Coleman on September 15, 2012. It is just the second statue in the park, the other belongs to Gwynn.
Humble, humorous, self-effacing, statesmanlike and, in a simple word, legendary.
Jerry Coleman, Rest in peace, sir. You are a true American icon.