San Diegans and people across the country learned that Jerry Coleman, a decorated baseball player, war hero and broadcaster, had passed away at Scripps Memorial Hospital.
Coleman, considered a local treasure by a heavily military town, was born Sept. 14, 1924 in San Jose and died at the age of 89. He suffered from head injuries in a December fall at his La Jolla home in addition to pneumonia.
Local baseball fans knew Coleman as the voice of the San Diego Padres since 1972, interrupted for only one season when he became the on-field manager of the team in 1980. His occasional verbal malaprops, which became known as “Colemanisms” further endeared him to regular listeners.
A favorite of fans was when Coleman made the call as former Padre Dave Winfield chased a long fly ball to center field.
“Winfield hit his head against the wall, and it’s rolling toward the infield!”
Coleman, ever humble about his many accomplishments, endeared himself to countless people across the United States for his service as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot. He delayed his debut as a professional baseball player to serve in World War II and then left the New York Yankees to serve in the Korean War, flying 120 total career missions, receiving two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.
A member of the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, Coleman is the only major league baseball player in history to see combat in two wars.
A vintage F4U Corsair fighter-bomber in the markings of Coleman’s plane during the Korean conflict and an SBD Dauntless dive bomber like the one he flew in World War II are on display at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, where he was named to the Hall of Fame in 2011.
His military service earned him the nickname “The Colonel,” after he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
In interviews, Coleman fondly recalled his military service as the greatest time of his life.
“Your country is bigger than baseball,” he said.
Coleman’s major league playing career with the Yankees began as a second baseman in 1949 when he hit .275 and was named Associated Press Rookie of the Year. He made the American League All-Star team in 1950 before being named Most Valuable Player in that season’s World Series on a team that included Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Johnny Mize.
In his final season in 1957, Coleman batted .364 in the World Series against the Milwaukee Braves. He appeared in six World Series, earning four championship rings.
A meeting with legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell convinced Coleman to enter broadcasting and he began in 1960 with CBS television. Eventually, after two seasons with the California Angels, Coleman was named lead radio announcer for the Padres.
His signature phrases were “Oh, Doctor!” following an amazing on-field event and “You can hang a star on that, baby!” when an assistant would swing a large gold star hanging from a stick out the window of the stadium’s broadcast booth to the cheers of fans.
Coleman was given the Ford C. Frick Award of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 and entered the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007.
He co-authored an autobiography, “An American Journey: My Life on the Field, In the Air and On the Air” in 2008 with New York Times writer Richard Goldstein.
Coleman also left indelible impressions on the communities in San Diego, especially La Jolla. He and his family had a long and enduring relationship with The Bishop’s School, where the health and fitness room is named The Coleman Family Health and Fitness Center and where annually, the Jerry Coleman Athletic Leadership Award is given to a captain of a Bishop’s upper school athletic team, often presented to the student by Coleman himself.
A free public memorial service will be held Saturday, Jan. 18 at Petco Park. Special guests from throughout his lifetime will be featured speakers.
The gates open at 9:30 a.m. for fans to enter through the East Village entrance on 10th Avenue, or the Park Boulevard gate. Free parking will be available on Imperial Avenue at the Parcel C and Tailgate lots, as well as the Padres Parkade garage at 10th Avenue and J Street.
The Coleman family suggests donations to the Semper Fi Fund (www.sem-perfifund.org), a nonprofit organization that provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support for injured and critically ill members of the U.S. military and their families.
— Dave Schwab contributed