Sunday, Jerry Coleman died. He turned 89 a few months ago. It's easy to think it was simply his time. Which it was, if you believe that anyone who sees so many years and leads such a rich, interesting life came out ahead in the big standings in the sky.
I don't know. Maybe that's right. Ask me in a few months.
Both of my girlfriend's grandfathers were U.S. Marines during World War II, like Jerry Coleman. Both are still alive. So right now, Coleman's passing still seems terribly premature. Just last season, he was still occasionally working as a broadcaster on Padres games, which he'd been doing since 1972 (not counting that forgettable and perhaps regrettable year he spent managing the club). Jerry Coleman was one of those guys, like Yogi Berra and Stan Musial, you figured would just live forever.
I'm not going to write a biography of Coleman this morning; I would need at least a few days for that. But last night I was leafing through Coleman's memoir, looking for information about his time in the Marines. Or rather, his times. Coleman was by all accounts the only major-league baseball player who saw combat in both World War II and the Korean War. In the former conflict, he piloted dive-bombers in the South Pacific against Japanese positions; in the latter, he flew ground-attack missions in North Korea. These were dangerous duties, and he lost friends in both wars.
In World War II, Coleman flew 57 missions. He flew 63 in Korea, and it might have been more. From Coleman's memoir:
My last mission came in May '53. Then they grounded me, with all that tension mounting -- particularly the hyperventilation -- and I was put in a forward air control unit, living in tents at the front in the DMZ.
"It was my decision," General Vern Megee, the commander of the First Marine Air Wing, told Jim Lucas, a war correspondent, who wrote about my experiences in Korea for the New York World Telegram and Sun. "Jerry's got the heart of a lion," Megee said, "and he's done a bang-up job for us. But he's flown his share. And he's had three shattering experiences since he came to us. I decided I owed it to him to keep him on the ground for a while. He'd never have asked for it. He's not that kind."
But the fact that I wasn't able to continue flying until my time in Korea had ended bothered me for a long time. It wasn't until later that I realized the toll it had taken -- most visibly the hyperventilation but also a flareup of long-standing stomach problems and a stress-induced loss of depth perception.
Coleman returned to the Yankees late in the '53 season, but was never really the hitter he'd been before the Korean War (he'd not reached the majors until after World War II). He doesn't complain about his service, and in fact he often writes about the Marines with great fondness. But he was asked to do things that no other baseball player was asked to do, and that took its toll on his career.
His playing career, at least. After a short stint in the Yankees' front office, he turned to broadcasting and eventually became one of only five ex-players (so far) to win the Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting. That's how I met Jerry Coleman. At the tail end of the 2010 season, I was in San Francisco for a big series between the Giants and the Padres. The press box was overstuffed for every game. But for the first game, thanks to the kindness of a stranger I found a chair. In one of those incredibly lucky happenstances that come along every so often if you spend enough time in ballparks, at one point Jerry Coleman slid into the seat next to mine. It was a work day, so I didn't want to pepper Coleman with too many questions. But he did tell me some good stories about Casey Stengel, along with a few personal things that I'm not ready to talk about yet. I wish I'd been taking notes, but I'll be forever grateful for those few innings we spent together.
Coleman's book really is pretty good (thanks in part to co-author Richard Goldstein). Until you've got time to read that, though, here are a few links to get you started ...
* MLB.com's Corey Brock on the occasion of the unveiling of Coleman's statue outside Petco Park in 2012;
* Also via MLB.com, a collection of tweets in the wake of Coleman's passing;
* Ken Levine, who partnered with Coleman on Padres games for three seasons, loved the guy;
* In the 1970s and '80s, Coleman was largely famous around the country for his verbal miscues; here's a representative collection;
* Speaking of which, Joe Posnanski wrote about loving our local broadcaster (and loving Jerry Coleman);
* San Diego writer Bill Center, who knew Coleman for decades, penned this loving tribute;
* and finally, if you'd like to hear the man himself, here's Marty Lurie's interview of Jerry Coleman just last summer, with Coleman explaining how he got No. 42 with the Yankees.