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Appreciation: Jerry Coleman—Broadcast Legend, American Hero

Jerry Coleman died Sunday at age 89, but he was more than just the broadcaster for the San Diego Padres.

Marine Corps pilot Jerry Coleman.
Marine Corps pilot Jerry Coleman.

By Martin Henderson

In May of 2012, Patch published a story about Jerry Coleman, the San Diego Padres announcer who died Sunday at age 89. It was a fitting piece for Coleman because much of the article centered on his war record—he flew combat missions in World War II and Korea. He did so while a major leaguer, and like several other players—perhaps the most notable being Ted Williams—lost some prime time in the big leagues in order to serve his country.

Although he played for the Yankees, most of his Hall of Fame broadcast career was spent in San Diego and, with the exception of Tony Gwynn, no one was embraced more by fans as a member of the Padres. And even then, it might be a dead heat between the two legends.

When I arrived in San Diego in 1984 as a rookie sportswriter and began spending time in the Padres press box the following year, I mostly stayed out of Coleman's way. He was always cordial when we bumped into each other and never big-timed me.

On my office desk hung a four-inch star with Coleman's picture on it with his trademark slogan, "Oh Doctor! You can hang a star on that baby!" Whenever something good happened in the office, someone would reach over and flick the star so that it dangled conspicuously. They would usually repeat the mantra, too. 

"Oh Doctor! You can hang a star on that baby." 

It made people feel good, feel happy. That star hung for years.  

Not surprising given his generation and background, Coleman was a gentleman.

His Colemanisms are legendary in San Diego, but painted an unfair picture of him, portraying him as the funnyman who wasn't all together. Such is the peril of live broadcast gaffes; you say things and they don't always come out right. Yet it was a role he relished, a gag he played along with. 

But many people didn't know about his past. Clearly, he was a terrific baseball player and he was a better man than most, having served his country twice in war. Jerry Coleman was, and is, a hero like many others from that generation. 

His was a lifetime you could hang a star upon. 

# # #

Editor's Note: Below is the text from Bill Zavestoski's story from May 24, 2013, about Coleman. For anyone who loves baseball history, it's must reading. This is a link to the original story.

Jerry Coleman Put Baseball

On Hold To Serve Country

By Bill Zavestoski

For more than 40 years, Jerry Coleman has served as a San Diego Padres broadcaster, thrilling fans with his “Oh, doctor!” and “Hang a star on that one!” calls, as well as amusing and sometimes puzzling them with a well-turned "Colemanism" from time to time.

At 88, he can look back on a baseball career that started the summer he graduated from high school in San Francisco in 1942. He had a choice to make. The New York Yankees had signed him to a minor-league contract, but a baseball career would have to wait, despite the fact that he hit .304 for the Yankees' Class D club in Wellsville, N.Y.

The U.S. was at war, and as soon as he turned 18 that September, he wanted to do what so many others in that "Greatest Generation" felt was their duty: enlist and protect our freedom.

We'll let Jerry tell the story here of his biggest challenge, what inspired him to take it on and how he succeeded, but here is a bit of background on the only big leaguer to see active combat in two wars. His playing career was interrupted twice, first as a Marine pilot during World War II and later in the Korean War.

His military service record includes 120 missions, and as a result, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy citations. He retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel, and proudly bears the nickname of "Colonel."

As far as his biggest challenge goes, let's let Jerry take the mike:

This goes back to the day I was 18 years old, in fact I was 17 when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. Of course, every young red-blooded soul like me wanted to get into the war and save our country, since we took quite a beating.

I decided, you know, I'd love to be a Naval aviator because in those days flying was a real mystery. Not many people ever got in an airplane. But I couldn't do it (at age 17). That's why I started baseball that year because I had to kill the summer until Sept. 14, when I turned 18.

So I go into this program, and I'm in there with a bunch of college guys from St. Mary's, and from Stanford, and Cal and USF. I really felt insecure, and as it turned out, I got better grades than they did, believe it or not. But it was something I wanted. I was not a student in high school. I was more interested in sports. But when it was something that I wanted, I worked my buns off and I did quite well.

I got through it, and on April 1, 1944, I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, and got my Navy Wings of Gold. That, to this day, was the happiest moment of my life.

And exactly what inspired him?

You know, you can't compare the New York Yankees to the United States. Our country's in jeopardy at that time, and everybody my age couldn't wait to get into the service to help.

But basically, in baseball, it's a totally different animal because when I came out, it was 1946, I was now 21, and I thought I'd love to get back into baseball if I could because I had those three months (in the minors) in the summer of '42.

I got started (in the Yankee farm system) in Binghamton (1946), then I went to Kansas City (late '46 and all of '47), and the next year I went to Newark (N.J.). I was the last man cut by Bucky Harris on the (1948) Yankee ballclub, and they brought me up again in September.

I didn't have a very good year, so I started talking to people, and Bill Skiff, my manager in Newark, said, "Jerry, I'm going to tell you two things you've got to do if you want to get to the big leagues: you've got to learn to use your bat and you've got to quit smoking."

I didn't even like smoking, but it was the thing to do in those days. I quit smoking, and I learned to use my bat. I got a lead bat in the wintertime and worked it all winter long.

I went to spring training (in 1949) under a guy by the name of Casey Stengel. You may have heard of him. He liked me, and I got lucky because George Stirnweiss, second baseman for the Yankees, hurt himself opening day. It gave me a chance to play, and I never gave up the spot.

I guess I was better than I thought I was, but it was really a struggle. When you're starting like that, against the Joe DiMaggios of the world, the Ted Williams and the Stan Musials and the Bob Fellers, and all those great stars, you don't feel very secure. It's hard work, but I finally came out of it OK. I got the AP Rookie of the Year that year. The next year (1950) I had my big season. I was on the All-Star team, and I got the MVP award in the World Series that year.

In 1951 I was so-so, but in 1952 and '53 I was back in the service again, and in 1954 I had an off season. In 1955, on opening day I broke my collarbone, came back three months later and got beaned that night. In '56 and '57 I got a little better, but by then they had a young guy by the name of Bobby Richardson that they wanted to bring along.

Note: Jerry played nine seasons as second baseman with the Yankees (1949-57), missing all but a few weeks of the 1952 and '53 seasons serving in Korea. In those nine seasons, the Yankees went to the World Series eight times, winning six of them, including five in a row from 1949-53. He could write a book about his experiences as Mickey Mantle's roommate on the road, but that's another story.

So (in 1958) they put me in the front office as personnel director for the Yankees, and I staffed nine minor league teams. It was some challenge. I called (Yankees GM) George Weiss and asked him, "Can I stay in California and keep this job?" And he said no.

So then I had to make a decision. I sold my house, and got out of the front office completely. But in the meantime, they offered me a job as a broadcaster. It was Mel Allen, Red Barber and Phil Rizzuto, and they wanted another man. That's when my broadcasting career started.

Let me tell you about my first day. This is New York City, something like 18 million people listening, and they said, "Jerry, why don't you do the first inning." I'd never been on the air in my life. I couldn't keep score, I didn't know what I was doing. So I said "OK." I said to myself, c'mon, three ground balls to the shortstop, that's all I want.

This really happened. Twelve men went to the plate. I didn't know what they were doing, where they came from or why, and Mel at the end of the inning said, "Well, Jerry, I think that's enough for you today." I went over in the corner in a fetal position and didn't come out for three weeks. That was a terrible way to start. Eventually from that I worked my way in.

I came out to California in 1968 and worked at KTLA for three years with Tom Harmon. The job that I really wanted was this job in San Diego. I tried for it in '69 (the Padres' first season in the majors) and didn't get it. I finally got down here in '70 and did PR work for them in the winter. Finally in 1972 I started broadcasting.

--------------------

So considering his time as a Yankees and Padres announcer, interspersed with 22 seasons with CBS Radio Network’s "Game of the Week" and even one season as Padres manager (1980), it's no wonder Jerry has been honored by a number of organizations.

He is in the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, the National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. In 2005, he received the Ford C. Frick Award and is in the broadcasting wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And of course, he became a member of the Padres Hall of Fame in 2001, sharing retired uniform number 42 with his compatriot on the field, Jackie Robinson.

He even had a statue dedicated to him at Petco Park last September.

Coleman's major league stats include a .263 lifetime average, 16 homers and 217 RBIs in 723 games. Jerry and his wife, Maggie, reside in La Jolla.

John Webb January 06, 2014 at 06:07 PM
Great story. Thanks for sharing Martin.
Joe Meyers January 07, 2014 at 10:40 AM
For us long suffering Padres fans, Jerry was always a beacon of light that took us through the many lows and the less frequent highs. No disrespect to Tony Gwynn but Jerry will always be Mr. Padre.
Doug Curlee January 08, 2014 at 05:22 PM
in addition to being what everyone says he was.. and more..jerry coleman was without question one of the nicest people ever to walk this planet..i know most conservatives can't stand keith olbermann, but go online and watch the obituary he did on jerry..it's amazing..doug
Joseph Morabito February 01, 2014 at 10:30 AM
I missed this news when it first happened. How sad. I've always enjoyed Jerry Coleman's work.

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