Tribute to Jerry Coleman, Pro Athlete, Announcer, Veteran of Two Wars
“You can hang a star on that one!”
San Diego Padres announcer Jerry Coleman used that phrase whenever an outstanding play was made on the baseball field. It was one of the most famous and endearing of his many “Colemanisms,” quips that players, the media and especially fans listening to his broadcasts heard and enjoyed for the 41 years that he was a Padres broadcaster. Coleman died Sunday, January 5, 2014, at the age of 89.
He was also an infielder for the New York Yankees from 1949–1957, AP Rookie of the Year in 1949 and the second baseman who served up double plays with Phil Rizzuto on championship Yankee teams that also included Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio. He managed the Padres in 1980 and received numerous network broadcast assignments and awards, including the Ford C. Frick award for broadcasting in 2005.
Despite this illustrious 71-year career in baseball—he was also a star multi-sport athlete in San Francisco and was recruited by USC—Jerry’s proudest accomplishments lay elsewhere, in the skies over the war-torn Pacific and Korea. He told me in a 2009 interview:
“Nothing matches the service. That to me was the most important and emotionally traumatic as well as rewarding thing in my life. Baseball had all the World Series but that was just a game.”
Jerry gave up a full scholarship to USC after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the U. S. Navy as soon as he turned 18. During the previous summer he had attracted the attention of the New York Yankees and received a contract, but once he was of age, he was off to the first stages of the Navy’s pilot training program, finally moving over to the Marines and receiving his wings and second lieutenant’s bars on April 1, 1944. He flew in the Pacific through the victory over Japan, returned to baseball, and then left his position as a major leaguer to fly again for the Marines during the Korean War. A promotion and his safe return to Major League Baseball earned him the nickname “the Colonel.”
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig issued the following statement on Sunday, January 5:
“Jerry Coleman was a hero and a role model to myself and countless others in the game of Baseball. He had a memorable, multifaceted career in the National Pastime—as an All-Star during the great Yankees’ dynasty from 1949–1953, a manager and, for more than a half-century, a beloved broadcaster, including as an exemplary ambassador for the San Diego Padres. 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.”
Despite his many citations, medals and awards, Jerry was a modest individual who was quick to credit others. His humility and humor were qualities that he carried always, including in his autobiography, An American Journey: My Life On the Field, In the Air and On the Air, written with Richard Goldstein. Veteran Padres broadcaster Ted Leitner shared the booth with Jerry for many years and knew well the accomplishments and modesty of his broadcast partner. He remarked in 2012, when a statue of Jerry was dedicated at the Padres’ Petco Park (the statue a tribute Jerry was also humbled by):
“I have a theory about Jerry, that there is no one like him in American sports. No one has left their career to fight in combat for their country twice and never once complained. Jerry will always say, ‘Don’t tell anyone I’m special, and don’t tell anyone I’m a hero.’”
(Baseball’s Ted Williams, known as “the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived,” also left pro sports twice for military service. He became an instructor during World War II and flew combat missions during the Korean War.—Editor)
Beyond his family and his dog “Gus,” Jerry’s later years were spent with the Padres team he loved. His presence at the ballpark was appreciated by all those around him, including current Padres third baseman Chase Headley:
“Being around him, he was excited every day. He had energy and passion for the game. You could have a conversation with him about a certain play and he’d be right on top of things. [Seeing him] was a bright spot every day.”
A remembrance for Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Coleman was held at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D. C. on January 9 and a flag flew in his honor the same day over the U. S. Capitol. (See photos below from the memorial event.)
On January 18, 2014, the Padres will hold a special Jerry Coleman memorial service at Petco Park.
About the Author
Jay Wertz is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com. He has interviewed dozens of World War II veterans for the War Stories book series.