Monday, January 6, 2014

Jerry Coleman, RIP

By Jeff Kallman

Like Herb Score who preceded him to the Elysian Fields a little over five years ago, Jerry Coleman in the broadcast booth probably thanked God that Yogi Berra never sought a post-playing career as a baseball announcer. Upon Score's death in 2008, Coleman stood supreme as the master malapropper of the microphones from his loft as the San Diego Padres' broadcaster, even if the former second baseman scaled his working time back until this past season.

"Ozzie Smith just made another play that I've never seen anyone else make before, and I've seen him make it more often than anyone else ever has! Coleman once hollered on the air, with a flair even Score at his best found elusive. But then Coleman never quite had Score's flair for geographic displacement, even if he might have been funnier with his own: The Padres need one to tie and two to win, so going into the ninth the score is San Francisco one, the Yankees nothing."

Now Coleman is gone, having died Sunday following a short illness, and bearing as well the distinction of having been the only major league baseball player to see live combat in two wars. (Ted Williams learned to fly in World War II, but didn't see combat as he would in Korea.) He flew dive bombers in World War II; he flew in the Korean War, after discovering World War II-veteran Marine pilots hadn't been fully discharged but merely designated inactive.

He didn't mind one bit. As he said when the Padres unveiled a statue of him outside Petco Park, "Your country is bigger than baseball." (He left the Marines a lieutenant colonel with two Distinguished Flying Crosses and thirteen Air Medals among other decorations.) He probably felt right at home in San Diego, where Camp Pendleton is situated and where the region's prominent military presence embraces such men as Coleman who tended to speak far more of the men he fought with than of himself when speaking of his wartime service.

But it was how Coleman spoke of live baseball from the Padres' broadcast booth that endeared him to Padres and other fans and, finally, enshrined him in the Hall of Fame in 2005 as a Frick Award winner. If you were there when they threw Dave Winfield out at second but he was safe, when Johnnie LeMaster speared a hard shot and threw Bill Madlock into the dugout, when Jesus Alou was in the on-deck circus, when George Hendrick lost a sun-blown popup, or when Winfield lost his head (There's a fly ball deep to center field—Winfield is going back, back, back—he hits his head against the wall and it's rolling toward second base!), you were one of this Jerry's kids.

Coleman was a better than useful Yankee second baseman in his playing days, who won the World Series MVP in 1950 and even managed to secure 9 at-bats in three games against Score, during his next-to-last playing season and Score's sophomore season, 1956. He went 3-for-9 against the Cleveland howitzer with 2 runs batted in, 2 strikeouts (both looking), a .333 batting average and on-base percentage, and a .556 slugging percentage.

As a player he's probably remembered best for what he did on the final day of the 1949 season, with the Yankees and the Red Sox entering the day in a dead heat for the American League pennant: in the fabled season-ender at Yankee Stadium, Coleman bagged what proved the game-winner when he broke a one-all tie and drove what proved the insurances runs in the bargain in the bottom of the eighth.

The hit was set up in the top of the inning when Joe McCarthy — in a move that lived in Red Sox infamy for decades — inexplicably lifted his starting pitcher Ellis Kinder for a pinch hitter despite Kinder seeming to get stronger as the game got deeper. He'd surrendered only one earned run all day and the Red Sox bullpen that season wasn't considered particularly strong.

Tommy Henrich opened the Yankee eighth with a home run off Mel Parnell, who was usually a starting pitcher. Then Yogi Berra (this was his coming-of-age season) singled but Joe DiMaggio hit into a double play. But the Yankees then loaded the bases on back-to-back singles (Johnny Lindell and Billy Johnson, with Hank Bauer running for Lindell) and a walk (Cliff Mapes) before Coleman barely got his bat on the ball and dumped a quail into short right near the foul line that turned into a three-run double ... too far out for Bobby Doerr to make a play running out from second, and too shallow for Boston right fielder Al Zarilla to reach when it sliced away from him.

Coleman was near second when he knew the ball would drop (everyone was running on the pitch) and he cleared the bases, but got thrown out at third on the play. The hit actually bothered Coleman—he thought it was a cheap hit. Then he ran into Joe McCarthy at a banquet three years later, according to David Halberstam in Summer of '49, and McCarthy told him, "You swung at it, didn't you?" Coleman took that to mean, "you didn't strike out and they didn't put anything past you. So don't apologize, you did your job."

McCarthy's lifting Kinder and Coleman's hit were the keys; Henrich's homer only tied the game at one, and the Yankees themselves thought Kinder was only getting stronger as the game got later. The Red Sox scored three in the ninth with Vic Raschi looking like he was tiring. Ted Williams drew a one-out walk and took second on a wild pitch, Vern Stephens singled him to third, and Bobby Doerr tripled them home, after which Billy Goodman followed a fly out (by Al Zarilla) with an RBI single to center, before Raschi got Birdie Tebbets to foul out near first base for the side, the game, and the first of Casey Stengel's five straight pennants.

Coleman would come back from a loss of depth perception incurred during his Korean wartime flying, endured a collarbone fracture, and lasted long enough to hit .364 in a 1957 World Series the Yankees lost in seven to the Milwaukee Braves. He spent time in the Yankee front office, the CBS baseball booth, then the Yankee booth (it was Coleman who had the privilege of calling Mickey Mantle's 500th career bomb) before migrating briefly to Anaheim and permanently to San Diego.

His broadcasting career was interrupted only once from there, when the old second baseman consented to try managing the team in 1980. His Padres finished dead last in the National League West, though. "I should never have taken it," he admitted frankly. "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."

It was just as well. Coleman didn't belong in the dugout any longer. He belonged in his broadcast perch, telling Padres and other fans Bruce Benedict might not have been hurt as badly as he really was. Or, that if Pete Rose had gotten a post-hitting streak base hit while the streak was still on, they'd be throwing babies out of the upper deck. Or, that Willie McCovey swung and missed and fouled it back. Or, that Rich Folkers was throwing up in the bullpen. Or, that Billy Almon had all his in-laws and outlaws in the stands. Or, that a player lost to memory slid into second with a standup double. Or, that you never ask why you've been fired because they're liable to tell you.

That'll be Herb Score pushing his way to the front of the line at the Elysian Fields to hand Coleman a drink and a challenge to out-malaprop him while calling a game up there within Casey Stengel's earshot. Indeed they were blessed never to have had Yogi as their broadcast competition.

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