SAN DIEGO — Hall of Fame broadcaster Jerry Coleman, a former second baseman for the New York Yankees who interrupted his pro career to fly as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and Korea, died Sunday after a brief illness, the San Diego Padres said. He was 89.
Coleman spent more than four decades with the Padres as a broadcaster. He managed the team in 1980.
Padres president Mike Dee said Coleman died at a hospital Sunday afternoon. He said the team was notified by Coleman’s wife, Maggie. Dee said the team had no other details.
“It’s a sad day,” Padres manager Bud Black said. “We’re losing a San Diego icon. He’s going to be missed.”
The Padres planned to keep Coleman’s statue at Petco Park open until 11:30 p.m. Sunday so fans could pay tribute.
While recounting his military career in an interview days before the statue was unveiled in September 2012, Coleman said: “Your country is bigger than baseball.”
Coleman spent some seven decades in pro baseball, a career that included four World Series titles with the Yankees and was interrupted by his service in World War II and the Korean War. He flew 120 missions combined in the two wars. Coleman was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.
Around Petco Park and on Padres radio broadcasts, Coleman was known as “The Colonel,” having retired from the Marines with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was the only major leaguer to see combat in two wars.
“He was a wonderful human being and a great guy,” Black said. “He was one of a kind. He sort of blazed his own path from San Francisco and ended up as a war hero and a 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.”
Coleman’s broadcast schedule had been reduced to home day games. He also did a pregame interview with Black, who said Coleman was self-deprecating and preferred to talk about the Padres rather than anything he’d done with the Yankees or in the Marines.
“You wouldn’t know it walking down the street that he was a World Series champion and also a guy that flew fighter planes,” Black said.
Coleman was known for calls of “Oh, Doctor!” and “You can hang a star on that!” after big plays. He received the Ford C. Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
He also was known for malaprops, like the time he was describing Dave Winfield going back for a long fly ball.
“I said, ‘Winfield hit his head against the wall and it’s rolling toward the infield.’ I meant the ball, of course,” Coleman said in 2012.
In a statement, commissioner Bud Selig said Coleman “was a hero and a role model to myself and countless others in the game of baseball. … But above all, Jerry’s decorated service to our country in both World War II and Korea made him an integral part of the Greatest Generation. He was a true friend whose counsel I valued greatly.”
After graduating from high school in 1942, Coleman traveled three days by train from San Francisco to Wellsville, N.Y., to report to the New York Yankees’ Class D affiliate.
Still 17, he was too young to enlist and fight in World War II, so he got to spend the summer playing ball. After he joined the military, he flew Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers in the Pacific in World War II. He played three more seasons of minor league ball before making his big league debut with the Yankees on April 20, 1949. He was The Associated Press Rookie of the Year that season.
Coleman’s best season was 1950, when he was an All-Star and was named MVP of the Yankees’ four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. Among his teammates were Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Johnny Mize.
“We won the first game 1-0 and I drove in that run,” Coleman recalled 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.”
By “rested,” he means he went 0 for 3. “I was exhausted,” he said.
In October 1951, Coleman found out that Marine pilots from World War II were not discharged but rather on inactive status, and he’d be going to Korea for 18 months. He missed the bulk of two seasons.
Coleman said he took his physical along with Ted Williams in Jacksonville in 1952. Williams, a San Diego native, also was a Marine pilot in World War II, but didn’t see combat duty. He did fly combat missions in Korea.
When Coleman returned to the Yankees, he hit only .217. He was sent to an eye doctor, who told him he’d lost his depth perception.
“If you’re trying to hit a baseball and you don’t have depth perception, you have a problem,” Coleman said.
He got that corrected but then broke his collarbone in April 1955. The night he came back from that injury, he got beaned.
His last season was 1957, when he hit .364 in a seven-game World Series loss to the Milwaukee Braves.
Coleman worked in the Yankees’ front office before beginning a broadcasting career that eventually brought him to San Diego.
“First and foremost, he was an American hero whose service to this country is his lasting legacy. He was also a great Yankee, a true ambassador for baseball, and someone whose imprint on our game will be felt for generations,” Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “On behalf of the entire New York Yankees organization, we send our deepest condolences to the Coleman family.”
Coleman managed the Padres in 1980, when they went 73-89 and finished last in the NL West. Coleman was fired and returned to the booth.
“I should never have taken it,” he said. “I look at it now and see the mistakes I made. If I wanted to be a manager, I should have gone to the minor leagues and developed there.”
Coleman’s statue at Petco Park depicts him in a flight suit.
Coleman said the closest he came to being killed was in Korea when the engine in his Corsair quit during takeoff and his plane flipped. He preferred to talk about his comrades.
Coleman remembered a mission over Korea when a plane piloted by his buddy, Max Harper, blew up and flew straight into the ground.
“I knew there was no need for help. It was an unpleasant thing,” Coleman said.
In describing the two-seat Dauntless he flew in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines, Coleman said the gunner “was the bravest man I knew. If I did something wrong, he died, too.”
Longtime San Francisco Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper mentioned the various halls of fame Coleman belonged to and added: “More than anything he’s just a Hall of Fame guy. If he had a bad day, it was never around us. He was always in a good mood. He was quite funny. Northern California guy. Really just a great guy. I’m shocked and saddened that he passed away.
“Here’s a guy, what didn’t he do in life?”