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Ashway: Coleman a true American hero

POSTED: January 21, 2014 2:41 p.m.
 

Saturday, the Padres opened up Petco Park so that San Diego could say goodbye to one of America’s greatest heroes.

Jerry Coleman, who spent seven decades in baseball, died on January 5. He was 89.

Coleman had a fall in December, and developed bleeding in the brain. Surgeries before Christmas and in January couldn’t save him.

Until his fall, Coleman still rose at 5 a.m. every morning to take his dog on an hour-long walk. Last summer, he was still at work, broadcasting the Padres’ home day games.

"Being around him, he was excited every day," Padres third baseman Chase Headley told Paul Casella of MLB.com. "He had energy and passion for the game. He was still very aware of what was going on. You could have a conversation with him about a certain play, and he’d be right on top of things. A bright spot every day."

Coleman arrived in San Diego in 1972 as the Padres lead radio announcer, and never left. He became a Hall of Fame broadcaster, winning the Ford C. Frick award in 2005.

In 2012, Coleman became the second person honored with a statue outside Petco Park. The first was Tony Gwynn. But Coleman’s statue is different. It depicts him in a flight suit.

Coleman was the only major leaguer to fly combat missions in both World War II and Korea. Ted Williams also served in both wars, but was a flight instructor during World War II.

In all, Coleman flew 120 combat missions. He earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals. He’s also a member of the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.

On the day his statue was unveiled, Coleman said he never regretted that his military service interrupted his baseball career. "Your country is bigger than baseball," Coleman said. He once told Michael Kay of the Yankees YES Network that the proudest day of his life was April 1, 1944, the day he received his pilot’s wings.

Coleman was born on September 14, 1924, in San Jose, California. Upon graduating from high school, he took the train cross-country to play for the Yankees Class D team in Wellsville, New York. He enlisted upon reaching age 18.

Coleman didn’t make his major league debut until April 20, 1949, when he was installed as the Yankees regular second baseman. He led the league in fielding, and hit .275 to win the associated press Rookie of the Year award.

He had his best year in 1950, batting .287 while scoring and knocking in 69 runs. He capped that season by winning the Most Valuable Player award in the World Series as the Yankees swept the Phillies.

"We won the first game, 1-0, and I drove in that run," Coleman recalled for espn.com in 2012. "We won the second game, 2-1. I scored one of the two runs, and DiMaggio hit a home run in the 10th to win it. In the third game, I drove in the winning run in the last inning. And in the fourth game, I rested. I was exhausted!"

Coleman actually played that fourth game, and made a couple of slick fielding plays, but went hitless. His account is typical of his modesty.

Service in Korea caused Coleman to miss most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons. In 1954, he hit only .217, and the Yankees sent him to an eye doctor. He was told that he had lost his depth perception.

"If you’re trying to hit a baseball, and you don’t have depth perception," Coleman told espn.com, "you have a problem!"

With his vision corrected, Coleman suffered a broken collarbone in April, 1955. The night he returned to the lineup, he was hit in the head with a pitch. Coleman would never again be the Yankees regular second baseman.

Until the 1957 World Series, when he ended his career with a bang. He hit .364 against the Braves, but the Yankees lost in seven games.

Yankee general manager George Weiss named Coleman his personnel director in 1958. While in that post, Coleman had a conversation with sportscaster Howard Cosell. It was Cosell who steered Coleman into broadcasting.

In 1960, Coleman began handling the pregame interviews before Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese called the Game of the Week on CBS. Coleman survived despite conducting an interview with Cookie Lavagetto right through the national anthem.

From 1963 through 1969, he was part of an excellent Yankees broadcast crew that included Red Barber, Mel Allen, Joe Garagiola, and Phil Rizzuto. In 1970, Coleman returned to his native west coast and began a two year run as voice of the Angels.

His 41-year stint as the Padres’ voice was interrupted only in 1980, when the club named him its manager. After one last-place season, he gladly returned to the booth.

In 2005, he used his bully pulpit to declare war on steroid users. "If I’m emperor," Coleman declared, "the first time, 50 games, the second time, 100 games, and the third strike, you’re out." By the end of that year, MLB had adopted Coleman’s penalty structure.

"He was a wonderful human being and a great guy," recalled Padres manager Bud Black in a statement. "He was one of a kind. He sort of blazed his own path from San Francisco and ended up a war hero and major league ballplayer, and doing so many things in our game. As much as he’s remembered for all he accomplished as a baseball man, he was more proud of his military service.

"You wouldn’t know walking down the street that he was a World Series champion and also a guy that flew fighter planes."

Jerry Coleman. Just a humble American hero.

 

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