Oh, Doctor! Coleman synonymous with Padres
In 40th year as radio voice of club, 'The Colonel' to be honored on Saturday
LA JOLLA, Calif. -- In the darkness of early morning and at least an hour before daybreak, Jerry Coleman gently pulls shut the door to the home he has lived in for the last 40 years, wary not to disturb those who actually desire sleeping past five in the morning.
"Please don't ring the door bell," Coleman warns a visitor. "Not at this hour."
Coleman is holding a leash that keeps his best friend, a 10-year-old German shepherd named Gus, from bolting into the shadows, free to scurry through the tony neighborhood of Muirlands, a long fly ball from downtown La Jolla.
Maybe it's the hour or the dense layer of fog that has settled in, but it's difficult to distinguish just who is walking whom. Is Gus pulling Coleman, who turns 88 on Friday? Or is it the other way around?
"There's usually a black cat up here," Coleman said, motioning to a bend in the road with his free hand. "If it's there today, then you're walking Gus and I'm going home."
These are the moments of the day the Padres' Hall of Fame broadcaster cherishes most. In the stillness of morning, he can reflect on a long and distinguished career as a broadcaster, 70 years in the game of baseball, the last 40 of which have been spent in San Diego.
Coleman can think back on those crazy days when he was a second baseman with the New York Yankees, the two years he spent as Mickey Mantle's roommate and those six World Series champion teams. Then there was his renowned military career -- harrowing bombing missions in World War II and later Korea, the only Major Leaguer to see combat in both wars.
Or, Coleman can simply ponder if he has turned on the coffee maker before leaving the house (he didn't on this day) for his daily hour-long trot with Gus, as they plod along, traversing hills and narrow streets alike.
"So what do you want to talk about?" Coleman asks. "You know, when you're 88 like me, you are over the hill. I'm pretty dull."
That couldn't be further from the truth.
Coleman is quick to downplay the details of his life, and it makes him a bit uncomfortable. But there's no denying there are fascinating layers to him, each rich and dripping with vivid detail, each an interesting tale begging to be told.
On Saturday, Coleman's longtime partner in the radio booth, Ted Leitner, will attempt to do just that, as he will emcee a ceremony before a 5:35 p.m. PT start against Colorado that will honor Coleman's time in baseball, with the unveiling of a statue of him that will rest forever at Petco Park.
Leitner, in his 33rd season as a broadcaster for the Padres, most of which have been spent sitting next to "The Colonel," as Coleman is affectionately known, might run out of time if he's not careful. What he won't run out of is material to cover.
"I have a theory about Jerry, that there is no one like him in American sports," Leitner said. "No one has left their career to fight in combat for their country twice and never once complained. Jerry will always say, 'Don't tell anyone I'm special, and don't tell anyone I'm a hero.'
"But I think that is my job. ... To tell everyone just how big he really is."
There will be several guests for the ceremony, including Charlie Silvera, a former Yankees teammate who has known Coleman longer than anyone.
"Jerry is an All-American, a bona fide hero," Silvera said. "He's my hero."
Like Coleman, Silvera grew up in San Francisco. The two first met in 1934, when they were 10 and playing baseball on dusty fields at Golden Gate Park.
Silvera and Coleman were later joined in baseball circles by Bobby Brown. The three would become stars on local diamonds and played together in the fall and winter on a team sponsored by the Yankees.
Coleman was such a good athlete that he was given a scholarship to play baseball and basketball at USC -- "I wasn't a good shot, but I could run like the devil," he said -- but those plans were interrupted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of his senior year of high school.
"That changed everything," Coleman said.
Coleman, still nearly a year from turning 18, signed with the Yankees, as did Silvera, and they headed off to a Class D team in Wellsville, N.Y. Coleman was an instant hit, batting .304 in 83 games, although he was merely biding his time until he was old enough to enlist in the Marines to become a fighter pilot.
Coleman returned from the war in 1946 and reported for Spring Training. Despite missing four seasons, Coleman played as though he hadn't missed any time at all. He spent three seasons in the Minor Leagues before arriving in New York for good in 1949.
A shortstop by trade, Coleman hit .275 for the Yankees as a second baseman, teaming with Phil Rizzuto for a potent double-play combination. He was named the Associated Press Rookie of the Year in 1949.
He played alongside Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio, a hero to Coleman, as DiMaggio -- 10 years Coleman's senior -- grew up playing on those same fields in San Francisco.
That 1949 Yankees team was the first of five consecutive World Series champion clubs Coleman was a part of, even though his second stint in the military -- this time during the Korean War -- would cost him Major League service time in 1952-53.
"I was never the same player after I came back a second time," said Coleman, who never once regretted his military service.
Coleman played his last game in 1957 before getting into broadcasting in 1960. But he scoffed when the opportunity first presented himself.
"The last thing I thought I would become was a broadcaster," Coleman said. "Howard Cosell, who was a good friend of mine, asked me if I would be interested in it. I told him he was nuts."
Coleman started out calling the national game of the week for CBS, but he began calling Yankees game in 1963. Working and living in New York, Coleman said, was intense. He lived in Ridgewood, N.J., which was "19.9 miles from Yankee Stadium, but a million miles from New York."
Craving a change of scenery, Coleman bolted for the West Coast -- without a job, no less -- before getting a job as part of the Angels' broadcast team. Not long thereafter, Buzzie Bavasi, the first general manager of the Padres, convinced him to come to San Diego, where he became the lead broadcaster in 1972.
"Here's an expansion franchise [in 1969] where a lot of people don't really know baseball, and here is Jerry ... teaching them baseball, because he knows so much," Leitner said. "I think people learned to trust him, learned a lot from him and just loved his personality. They grew with him."
And, of course, they laughed with him. In a word, these precious moments are called "Colmanisms," the funny comments and remarks made during games -- "Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen" -- and the one directed at 1976 National League Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones.
"I remember one day I was in the bullpen throwing in between starts," Jones said. "Jerry looked down there and said, 'There's Randy Jones on the mound with the Karl Marx hairdo.' I had the big curly hair back then. But he called me a Communist. Instead of calling me Harpo Marx, he called me Karl Marx. I loved that one."
Jones was still pitching for the Padres in 1980 when the organization convinced Coleman to come down from the broadcast booth to manage the team. Coleman wasn't a good fit for the veteran team, and he realized it pretty quickly.
"I was brilliant, the players were lousy," Coleman said, laughing. "Basically, I wasn't ready for that. It was a mistake."
Back to the booth, Coleman, who has two signature calls -- "Oh, Doctor" and "You can hang a star on that baby" -- quickly got back to his element.
Coleman, who before the 2011 season signed a five-year deal with the team, had his broadcast schedule cut back two years ago. He does about 40 games, including Spring Training, and doesn't travel. On days he works, he still tapes a daily segment with manager Bud Black.
"The moments that I spend with Jerry on a daily basis have been truly one of the highlights of my time here," Black said. "The moments before we do the radio piece and the moments after ... where we're just talking baseball or life, I've really enjoyed that."
Coleman still has a discerning eye, especially when it comes to middle-infield play. Sitting over coffee in his home this week, he talked about the footwork middle infielders need around the bag. He talked of the presence that Carlos Quentin has in the lineup and how it benefits hitters like Chase Headley.
"He's still very technique driven," Black said. "He evaluates hard."
But at the end of the day, Coleman is a fan of the game, a fan of the Padres. He cares about the team. He wants to see them do well, wants to see them win. That much is obvious when you catch Coleman calling a game. Broadcasters are a polarizing bunch, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't love "The Colonel."
"For me, it was Mel Allen calling Yankee games while I was sitting on the beach in New Jersey. As George Will said, baseball is the background music to our life," Leitner said. "And I still think that there is a radio connection between the fan and the radio broadcaster you can't get anywhere else.
"That's precious. It's something that can't be duplicated. You either have it or you don't. And Jerry has that."