Jerry Coleman: Legendary San Diego Padres announcer passes away at 89

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.

Jerry ColemanOne 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!”

Jerry Coleman statue fans

Fans gathered near the Jerry Coleman statue at Petco Park to pay their respects.

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.



About AJ Kaufman

A former schoolteacher and military historian, A.J. now works in public relations. As an MSF columnist since 2009, he supports anything baseball-related. Raised in San Diego, A.J. has since resided in numerous parts of America, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Washington State. After departing the coasts in 2005, he's traveled the back roads of all 50 states and prefers the Heartland. Married to Maria, A.J. is the author of three books and enjoys reading presidential biographies.

Comments

  1. Neat summary of a truly great man. A hero in a world where today’s athlete is far removed from tge sacrafises of the greatest generation both in time and in deed

  2. Bill Morgan says:

    Ted Williams also flew in two wars

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      Thanks, Bill.

      Williams was indeed involved in both wars, but did not see “active combat” in WW2. After extensive training in North Florida, he was actually in Hawaii awaiting orders as a replacement pilot when the war ended.

      As a former military historian, this was important for me to get correct. I checked and re-checked all Sunday evening. Every single story (and I read 14) clearly noted that Coleman was “the only Major League player to see active combat in two military conflicts.” Here is a detailed summary (not written yesterday):

      http://www.militarymuseum.org/Williams.html

      Like Coleman, Williams was an incredible patriot. I hope you were able to learn more about “The Colonel” despite your questions about that portion.

  3. left hander says:

    Nice synopsis of a great man. Did not know he worked for the Yankees in the 60’s before SD, interesting. The radio men of his generation were/are just classic and legendary (vin scully, ernie harwell, jerry coleman, bob murphy, etc) and exmplify the humbleness and no-ego of days gone by.

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      Not only worked for Yanks, but played on 5 WS champ teams with them, won ROY, WS MVP and much more.

      “The best second baseman I ever saw on the double play,” said Yankee manager Casey Stengel.

  4. Aren’t many men like Jerry Coleman left in America….just a bunch of androgynous pajama-onesie wearing pole smokers.

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      Heh, some truth to that, though our servicemen today are as tough and dedicated as ever. But yes, as I noted, Coleman accomplished more (of consequence) before age 30 than most will in a lifetime. No debate on that. Greatest Generation grew up in the Depression. That molded them. No other group since has actually struggled economically. Every restaurant, theatre, stadium, concert hall is full during our current “recession.”

  5. Thank you for summarizing the accomplishments of a truly great man. There are many sports figures who are not really worthy of praise when you look deeper. However, from all indications, it looks like Mr. Coleman was not only a legend in baseball (on and off the field), but one as a human being. His service to his country is the most impressive on his list of accomplishments. Similarly, as a Dodger fan, it’s going to hit me like it did you, when Vinny steps down or no longer graces this earth.

  6. He did not pass away, he died (I know that was just the headline).

    I was waiting with my mom for the La Jolla fireworks to start one year (1987? ’88?), the JC/Dave Campbell heyday. Game goes into extra innings (early start for post game fireworks at the Murph), Padres win on walk off home run. To hear everyone reacting, listening to the game as Coleman goes ‘IT’S AT THE WALL, TO THE WALL…..IT’S OVER THE WALL!!’ made me realize how legendary he was.

    Here is a great story of Campbell defending Coleman the year he was managing…

    http://www.gaslampball.com/2014/1/6/5280344/a-story-of-dave-campbell-standing-up-for-his-friend-jerry-coleman

    And then there is Keith Olbermann’s tribute:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-OHPjIsisI

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