By Glen Sparks
Global events kept getting in the way of Jerry Coleman’s baseball career. First, World War II broke out, Dec. 7, 1941. Coleman left the Yankee farm system to fly 57 combat missions as a Marine Corps aviator in the South Pacific.
The infielder piloted a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. A dive bomber pilot swoops down over the target at a sharp angle before unloading the plane’s ordinance. The Dauntless could dive at 80 degrees, almost vertically, and may have sunk more Japanese ships than any other aircraft, according to the National World War II museum web site. Coleman flew in the Solomon Islands campaign and, later, in the Philippines.
Following the war, Coleman played another three seasons of minor league ball. The Yankees finally called him up to the big club in 1949. The 24-year-old second baseman finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting and made the All-Star team in 1950. Coleman set career highs in games (153), at-bats (602), hits (150), triples (6) home runs (6), RBI (67) and batting average (.287). He also was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1950 World Series as the Yankees beat the Phillies.
In late 1951, Coleman went off to war again. He flew 63 missions in Korea, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Coleman piloted a Chance Vaught F4U Corsair, the plane that Japanese soldiers in World War II called “Whistling Death.” Supposedly, the plane made some spooky noises when wind rushed through the engine vents.
A New York Times article recalled some of Coleman’s close calls while in Korea. Once, a Sabre jet nearly knocked into him just before landing. Another time, he came close to flipping over when his engine conked out on take-off.
Coleman missed almost all of the 1952 and ’53 seasons while on that second combat tour. Besides flying 120 missions in two wars, Coleman also earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.
He retired following the 1957 season and after batting .364 in a losing cause against the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series. Add it up, and Coleman hit .263 in parts of nine big league seasons. He played on six World Series teams and four champions. In 69 Series at-bats, Coleman hit .275.
The Colonel, as many people called him, left baseball for a career in broadcasting. He called Yankee games for seven years and then went west to his native California. Coleman broadcast Angels action for a couple of seasons before settling in with the Padres.
Coleman died Jan. 5, 2014. He belongs to both the broadcasting wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame. A statue of Coleman, depicting him in his combat flight suit, stands inside Petco Park in San Diego.
When asked once about the time he missed as a ballplayer while serving in the Marines, Coleman dismissed any talk of regret. “Country is more important than baseball,” he said.
On this Veterans Day, thank you to all the vets of yesterday and today.