SAN DIEGO — Hall of Fame broadcaster Jerry Coleman, a former second baseman for the New York Yankees who interrupted his pro career to fly as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and Korea, died Sunday after a brief illness, the San Diego Padres said. He was 89.
Coleman spent more than four decades with the Padres as a broadcaster. He managed the team in 1980.
Padres president Mike Dee said Coleman died at a hospital Sunday afternoon. He said the team was notified by Coleman’s wife, Maggie. Dee said the team had no other details.
“It’s a sad day,” Padres manager Bud Black said. “We’re losing a San Diego icon. He’s going to be missed.”
The Padres planned to keep Coleman’s statue at Petco Park open until 11:30 p.m. Sunday so fans could pay tribute.
While recounting his military career in an interview days before the statue was unveiled in September 2012, Coleman said: “Your country is bigger than baseball.”
Coleman spent some seven decades in pro baseball, a career that included four World Series titles with the Yankees and was interrupted by his service in World War II and the Korean War.
He flew 120 missions combined in the two wars. Coleman was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.
Around Petco Park and on Padres radio broadcasts, Coleman was known as “The Colonel,” having retired from the Marines with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was the only major leaguer to see combat in two wars.
“He was a wonderful human being and a great guy,” Black said. “He was one of a kind. He sort of blazed his own path from San Francisco and ended up as a war hero and a major league ballplayer and doing so many things in our game. As much as he’s remembered for all he accomplished as a baseball man, he was more proud of his military service.”
Coleman’s broadcast schedule had been reduced to home day games. He also did a pregame interview with Black, who said Coleman was self-deprecating and preferred to talk about the Padres rather than anything he’d done with the Yankees or in the Marines.
“You wouldn’t know it walking down the street that he was a World Series champion and also a guy that flew fighter planes,” Black said.
Coleman was known for calls of “Oh, Doctor!” and “You can hang a star on that!” after big plays. He received the Ford C. Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
He also was known for malaprops, like the time he was describing Dave Winfield going back for a long fly ball.
“I said, ‘Winfield hit his head against the wall and it’s rolling toward the infield.’ I meant the ball, of course,” Coleman said in 2012.
In a statement, commissioner Bud Selig said Coleman “was a hero and a role model to myself and countless others in the game of baseball. … 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. He was a true friend whose counsel I valued greatly.”
After graduating from high school in 1942, Coleman traveled three days by train from San Francisco to Wellsville, N.Y., to report to the New York Yankees’ Class D affiliate.
Still 17, he was too young to enlist and fight in World War II, so he got to spend the summer playing ball. After he joined the military, he flew Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers in the Pacific in World War II. He played three more seasons of minor league ball before making his big league debut with the Yankees on April 20, 1949. He was The Associated Press’ Rookie of the Year that season.
Coleman’s best season was 1950, when he was an All-Star and was named MVP of the Yankees’ four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. Among his teammates were Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Johnny Mize.
In October 1951, Coleman found out that Marine pilots from World War II were not discharged, but on inactive status and that he’d be going to Korea for 18 months. He missed the bulk of two seasons.
Coleman said he took his physical along with Ted Williams in Jacksonville in 1952. Williams, a San Diego native, also was a Marine pilot in World War II, but didn’t see combat duty. He did fly combat missions in Korea.
Coleman worked in the Yankees’ front office before beginning a broadcasting career that eventually brought him to San Diego.