Jerry Coleman, a onetime infielder for the New York Yankees who later became a Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster in San Diego, known for his inside knowledge of the game and his endearing verbal gaffes, died Sunday at a hospital in La Jolla, Calif. He was 89.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that he had complications from head injuries sustained during a fall in December.
Coleman played with the Yankees during their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s under manager Casey Stengel and was considered one of the smoothest-fielding second basemen in the game.
He helped his team win four World Series championships in New York, then became a revered institution in San Diego, where he announced Padres games for more than 40 years. He came out of the broadcast booth for one season to manage the team in 1980 before going back to the microphone.
The teams were often mediocre, but Coleman was a steady, likable presence in San Diego. He had an ex-player’s inside knowledge of baseball and a folksy delivery. He was known for such expressions as “Oh, Doctor!” and “Hang a star on it!” - as well as for his occasional malapropisms.
“Ozzie Smith just made a play that I have never seen before,” he once said. “And he’s done it more times than anyone else.”
Coleman disputed whether he said a relief pitcher was “throwing up in the bullpen.” But he did once memorably describe a fly ball chased by Padres outfielder Dave Winfield:
“Dave Winfield goes back to the wall, he hits his head on the wall and it rolls off! It’s rolling all the way back to second base. This is a terrible thing for the Padres.”
Nonetheless, Coleman’s “handling of a baseball game deserved more praise than it received,” author Curt Smith wrote in his authoritative 1987 book about baseball broadcasters, “Voices of the Game.”
Coleman, who also announced weekly baseball games for CBS radio for 22 years, received the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting in 2005. He is one of 37 broadcasters honored in a special wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“I couldn’t hit,” he quipped at the time, “so I had to get there with my mouth instead of my bat.”
As a player, Coleman had his finest season in 1950, when he hit .287, drove in 69 runs and was an All-Star. His double-play partner, shortstop Phil Rizzuto, was the American League’s most valuable player that year as the Yankees won the pennant, then swept the Philadelphia Phillies in four games in the World Series.
Coleman drove in the winning runs in the first and third games and was named the MVP of the series.
It was the highlight of a playing career that was shortened by military service. During World War II, Coleman spent three years as a Marine Corps pilot, flying dive-bombers and other aircraft during 57 missions in the Pacific Theater.
During the Korean War, he was recalled to action for almost two years, becoming the only major league player to see combat in both wars. (His fellow Marine pilot, Hall of Famer Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, served in both wars but took part in combat only in Korea.)
Coleman flew 63 missions in Korea and survived an upside-down crash landing when the engine of his bomb-laden airplane gave out. As a pilot, he was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and received 13 Air Medals.
“In truth, I left a lot in Korea,” he wrote in a 2009 essay for the U.S. Naval Institute. “I never was as good on the ballfield as I’d been before the war.”
When Coleman was being honored at Yankee Stadium in 1953, the widow of his tent mate in Korea came to the ballpark, holding out hope that her husband might have been taken prisoner instead of killed in action.
Coleman had to tell her that he saw his plane go down and explode before his eyes.
“It took me a year to care about baseball again,” he told The Washington Post in 1980. “Something was missing in me. I had seen the game for what it was - a game.”
Gerald Francis Coleman was born Sept. 14, 1924, in San Jose, Calif., and grew up in San Francisco. He played one season of minor league baseball before entering the Marine Corps.
After he finally made the Yankees in 1949, he played alongside such all-time greats as Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Johnny Mize, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle. Coleman was named the Associated Press rookie of the year in 1949.
“I’ve been watching second basemen for 50 years,” his teammate Bobby Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, “and nobody could play the position the way Jerry Coleman could. He was the best ever at turning the double play.”
Coleman retired in 1957, then worked in the Yankees front office before becoming a broadcaster in the early 1960s. He spent seven years announcing Yankee games, learning his craft from Hall of Fame broadcasters Red Barber, Mel Allen and Joe Garagiola.
Coleman briefly was a studio sports announcer in Los Angeles before joining the Padres broadcast team in 1972. He was unexpectedly named manager in 1980 and led the team to a last-place finish in the National League’s Western Division.
“We started out last on Opening Day,” he later said, “and we held that position all year long.”
He was married twice and had three children, but complete information about survivors could not be confirmed.
Coleman served in the Marine Reserve, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. His broadcast partners often called him “Colonel,” but they said he seldom talked about his wartime experiences.
“The service was the highlight of my life,” Coleman told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2005. “Without question the peak of my life, and I love baseball, still love it.”
Once asked whether it was tougher to bat with the bases loaded or prepare for battle, Coleman replied, “You strike out in combat, you’re dead.”