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Wednesday, May 11, 2005 | (May 12, 2005. Clarification: When this story ran on May 11, it incorrectly identified Jerry Coleman as the 1949 American League Rookie of the Year. That title actually belongs to Roy Sievers of the St. Louis Browns. Coleman finished third in voting for the award that year. Voice regrets the error.)
Duke Snider, the Hall-of-Famer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, told stories about breaking into big leagues the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball.
And Jerry Coleman added insight, saying he believed Robinson’s courage in the face of racism in 1947 helped pave the way for Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights work in the coming decades.
Buzzie Bavasi, the expansion Padres’ first general manager in 1969 after his renowned days running the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles, recalled the 1950s in New York when the center fielders were Snider with the Dodgers, Mickey Mantle with the Yankees and Willie Mays with the Giants.
And Jerry Coleman, the old Yankees second baseman, added stories about playing against Snider and Mays and rooming with Mantle.
Dave Garcia, a coach with the Padres in their early days and later a manager with the Cleveland Indians and California Angels, was introduced by Coleman with a dash of his patented self-deprecating humor that we’ve heard for so many years on Padres broadcasts.
“Don’t forget, Dave, I was a manager, too,” Coleman said of the 1980 season he left the broadcaster’s booth for the Padres’ dugout. “We were steady, starting out in last place and finishing in last.”
On and on the fascinating baseball stories went, with Coleman acting as a moderator Tuesday afternoon at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum’s gathering for Sports at Lunch. The four legends of the game that have each long made San Diego their adopted hometown talked baseball before 300 adoring fans.
The stories were old but never stale. That’s how Jerry Coleman became an institution in San Diego. You can turn on the radio any night on the way home in the car and he’ll be spinning tales, telling you something you didn’t know.
Coleman, the 1949 American League Rookie of the Year and 1950 World Series MVP who played in six World Series, seems to be six degrees removed from everything that has happened in baseball in the last 60 years. He either saw it or played it, from Ted Williams to Tony Gwynn to Trevor Hoffman.
This summer, Coleman will be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame’s broadcaster’s wing in Cooperstown when he receives the Ford C. Frick Award. It was long overdue.
Don’t listen to the people who complain that Coleman doesn’t describe action vividly or he’s prone to a malapropism. They’re not listening to his insight into the game and the anecdotes he offers. Those skills make Coleman a Hall-of-Famer. His voice connects us with baseball in San Diego, even now with a reduced schedule in his 33rd season calling Padres games.
Tony Gwynn listened to Coleman, if not on the radio in the dugout before games or on plane trips crisscrossing the National League. Coleman long ago explained to the Padres’ future Hall-of-Famer that shortstops are your best baseball players, and Gwynn has used that insight now that he’s the head coach at San Diego State. His infield and outfield are dotted with high school shortstops he’s recruited.
Coleman is 80 years old now, and all these years later the former lieutenant colonel and pilot in the Marines is the leader. Snider, Bavasi and Garcia took their cue from the old second baseman as he directed the story telling.
Judging Coleman by his malapropisms on the radio is a misleading characterization of the man. He is the only Major League player to fly combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. Ted Williams flew with Coleman in Korea, but Williams was stateside in World War II.
Coleman flew more than 120 missions, he earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 air medals and three Navy citations. He has just about seen it all.
Other baseball towns might have announcers with silver tongues immune to the malapropisms. But they don’t have a Jerry Coleman – an institution. He’s six degrees removed from everything on and off the baseball field.
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the Media Coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (