The Padres open their 2005 home schedule tonight against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team begins its second season at Petco Park among the favorites to reach the playoffs, a rare occurrence in franchise history. Jerry Coleman has witnessed a large part of that history as a member of the Padres' broadcast team since 1972. Later this year, Coleman, 80, will be honored with the Ford C. Frick Award at baseball's Hall of Fame.
West Coast to Wellsville
Before Jerry Coleman was known as the Voice of the Padres, the Master of the Malaprop, or the Colonel, he was born Gerald Francis Coleman in San Jose on September 14, 1924. His boyhood years were spent playing baseball in San Francisco.
Coleman drew the attention of Yankees talent scout Joe Devine, who had been instrumental in signing Joe DiMaggio years earlier. Devine had put together a semipro team in San Francisco, the Keanelly Yankees, which was sponsored by a bar and grill at 14th and Valencia.
"Keanelly was named after a bar that was owned by a guy who never drank," Coleman remembers.
All through high school, Coleman played third base and shortstop for the Keanelly Yankees and for Lowell High. Two other Bay Area ballplayers, Charlie Silvera and Bobby Brown, also played on the Keanelly Yankees. In 1949, the three would be teammates in the major leagues.
The summer after graduating from high school, Coleman went to Wellsville, New York, to play for the Wellsville Yankees, a Yankees farm team. But late that summer, as Coleman approached his 18th birthday, the dream of playing baseball was overtaken by a desire to serve his country.
"We were all a bunch of kids," Coleman says, "and when [World War II] started, we all wanted to be heroes. I was trying to get into USC at the time, but when our season ended September 6, we went down to the recruiter, and that was it. They got us all."
Coleman joined the Navy and was accepted into the naval aviation cadet V-5 program. "It took a year and a half to learn to become a pilot. From October 1942 to April 1, 1944. With April 1st being April Fools' Day, I thought they were joking!"
After opting for a commission as second lieutenant in the Marines, Coleman, in August 1944, shipped out to Guadalcanal, where he joined his squadron, VMSB-341, also called the Torrid Turtles. He flew a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber, completing 57 combat missions in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.
When the war was over, Coleman retired to the inactive reserve list and once again turned to his love of baseball. For the next three years, he played on farm teams. In 1946, he played for the Binghamton Triplets under Lefty Gomez; in 1947, for the Kansas City Blues. "I spent time in spring training with the Kansas City Blues under Bill Meyer," Coleman says. "I was the last to get cut. I was always the last to get cut." In 1948, playing for the Newark Bears, Coleman left his regular positions at third base and shortstop to fill their need for a second baseman.
The next year he went to the New York Yankees' spring training, and they kept him on the squad. "I showed up to the Yankees organization as a second baseman under Casey Stengel," Coleman says. "Casey always liked having the younger guys on the ball club. I got lucky because Frankie Crosetti was no longer with the team and George 'Snuffy' Stirnweiss, the regular second baseman, got injured and was out for three weeks. I was able to start Opening Day as the Yankees' starting second baseman."
The Bronx Bombers
In the preseason of 1949, the polls were split as to whether the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees would take the American League pennant. It was questionable whether Yankee veterans such as Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich would be able to play regularly. The experienced stars were battling menacing ailments and soreness, not to mention the conjecture of fans and writers that they were past their prime. Without DiMaggio's and Henrich's bats in the everyday lineup, most polls predicted that the Yankees would not be able to contend.
"Everyone liked to say that the Yankees were known for their home run hitting," Coleman acknowledges. "But they actually had some great pitching, with guys like Ed Lopat, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Joe Page, our closer."
On April 20, 1949, Coleman made his debut with the Yankees. Jerry Coleman's ability to turn the double plays and make use of his bat got him instant recognition and helped put the Yankees in contention for the pennant. The last day of the regular season is most memorable for Coleman. The rivalry between the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio and the Red Sox's Ted Williams led to an unforgettable pennant race, with New York one game behind Boston in the standings.
"The AL pennant was it," says Coleman. "We go into the final series a game behind the Red Sox for the pennant. If the Red Sox win 1 out of 2, they win it and we're out of it. We're down 4-0 in the first game and come back. The pennant comes down to the last game of the season, and we take it. The bases were loaded and they decided to walk..." He trails off and to punctuate his point says, "These were the Red Sox. With Dom DiMaggio, Mel Parnell, and Ted Williams. That was definitely the highlight of my career."
Earlier in the inning, Joe DiMaggio had hit into a double play, bringing Coleman up to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Coleman got a hit to right, which resulted in three critical runs. Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr threw Coleman out trying to stretch his hit into a triple, but the damage was done. Those three runs were the difference in a 5-3 win that put the Yankees in the World Series.