It’s funny how when you live in a city with somebody famous, you take them for granted. For autograph collectors, you probably got their autograph at one point, but you see them at so many functions you lose interest.
Here in San Diego, there are many people that are huge all over the world, but I’m at many events with. Those would include sports Hall of Famers like Bill Walton, Dan Fouts, Tony Gwynn, Ladanian Tomlinson, and Chris Chellios. Athletes like Tony Hawk or Cy Young winner Randy Jones. Musicians like Jason Mraz, blink-182, and Rita Coolidge.
Somebody that I had many conversations with and even wrote a story on, recently passed away. The entire city of San Diego is grieving.
Jerry Coleman was the Padres announcer for 41 years. He passed away at 89, and I thought about how sad it is that most people outside of New York and San Diego don’t know much about this former major leaguer.
He only managed the Padres for one season, and when he played for the Yankees, he was overshadowed by Hall of Famers like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, and Yogi Berra.
He was on five World Series winning teams, and was named the American League Rookie of the Year in 1949, as well as a World Series MVP in 1950, and named to the All-Star team.
He won the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting, but there’s a much more interesting stat associated with the man. He’s the only baseball player to have fought in two wars (World War II and Korea).
In the Marines he served with Ted Williams and often told a story about his plane being shot down during a combat mission, and Williams brought the plane in on its belly and survived.
Coleman had a number of harrowing experiences flying his plane, too. In one such incident, his plane was having problems. He could’ve gotten rid of the bombs to make for a safer landing, but that would put other military personnel at risk, so he instead decided to crash-land with the jet knowing the bombs would probably explode upon impact. The plane flipped over. The bombs didn’t detonate, but his crash helmet was suffocating him as he was pulled from the wreckage and had to be revived.
A stat more impressive than anything you’ll find on the back of one of his old baseball cards: He flew 120 combat missions, earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals, and three Navy Citations. And how did the team reward him upon his return to the Yankees? Coleman once told me, “The contract they offered me was for less than the one I had in 1952. I asked why that was and they said, ‘You haven’t done anything for us in two seasons.’ It was a good point.”
This was also during a time when a player batting .200 or a pitcher with a high ERA wasn’t rewarded with $4 million-a-year contracts. He had to take a job in the off-season at a clothing store.
At a few functions, I got his autograph on baseball cards for friends that were baseball collectors. I never thought to get his autograph for myself until I co-wrote a story on him for the San Diego Reader. Since a few times people had asked me for my autograph on cover stories I had written, I figured I’d have him sign the cover of the magazine for me.
The guy that co-wrote the story also worked with him on a baseball video game for PlayStation. When he drove him home one day they had a great conversation about baseball, and life. My friend said, “He really seems interested in what you have to say, and finding out about your life, too.”
He asked for his autograph, and Coleman went in and got a Yankees magazine and signed it for him.
The stories in the local papers about the various things he did for people are endless. One the other day talked about a guy with a terminal illness who had on his bucket list; “Playing catch with a major league player.”
Coleman heard about the story and showed up with a baseball autographed by the Padres, and a glove. They threw the ball around for a bit, and the guy was in heaven.
I like to think those guys are playing catch again in heaven.