MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Coleman proved to be a humble American hero

After serving his country, the legendary broadcaster brought kindness, insight to booth

Coleman proved to be a humble American hero

Jerry Coleman flew bomber missions in planes that were falling apart, with controls almost gone and oil leaking and visibility down to nothing as enemy gunfire took his aircraft apart piece by piece. He saw men die, including some close friends. He did all this before his 20th birthday.

There are parts of his story we'll never know because Jerry was reluctant to talk about some of it. It's not what The Greatest Generation did. His country needed him, and so when he turned 18 years old, he walked away from baseball and joined the Marines to serve in World War II.

He quit baseball again in 1952 to serve in the Korean War, flying 117 missions in all. Again, he saw incomprehensible pain and suffering. We know this because every so often he would wonder why he'd been allowed to live.

Coleman, who died Sunday at 89, meant so many things to so many people that the lines occasionally became blurred. His was a wonderful life filled with friendships and laughter and a game he loved dearly.

He was an American treasure on so many levels, but in the end, he was a Marine. That's how he always saw himself. Always and forever. We saw it in how tears welled in his eyes during Memorial Day celebrations.

Here's hoping he understood that's how we felt about him in his final years as he was honored with statues and ceremonies and all the rest. He never seemed completely comfortable with that stuff, but how else do you thank someone for risking his life for our country?

He was a baseball guy, too, one of the best. He loved the ballpark and the games and the players. He loved talking baseball on the radio, and in the long and distinguished history of our sport, few men have done it better than Jerry Coleman.

Men like him, men of integrity and dignity, men who believe the essence of a good life is doing for others, never wanted it to be about them. They were less impressed with themselves than almost anyone.

When he spoke of those terrifying missions, he made them sound like standup comedy routines. Once there was an oil leak smearing the plane's windshield.

"So I did what an idiot would do," he told broadcaster Dave Raymond a couple of years ago. He stuck his head out the window. And then his goggles were covered in oil.

He ripped 'em off and used his peripheral vision to make an emergency landing. He recounted these stories through the years with the perfect comedic touch as if it were no big deal. Nor would he mention two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.

Years later, before a Padres-Reds game in Cincinnati, he met with the widow and daughter of a Marine with whom he'd served. That Marine had died in combat, and Coleman wept as he told the women stories about their husband and father, according to Bill Center of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

One of Coleman's friends has heard the story, too, but never been able to repeat it without completely breaking down. For Coleman, the lingering question was why he'd lived when so many equally brave men hadn't.

Now about baseball. Coleman was a baseball lifer. Even late in his life, when he could have been doing a hundred other things, he was happiest at the park, hanging with the players and managers, chatting up the scouts and writers.

He played nine seasons for the Yankees. He was a member of the AL All-Star team in 1950. He was the World Series MVP that year, too.

He played in the World Series six times in all, winning it four times. Those were iconic teams, with Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, with Allie Reynolds and Phil Rizzuto. Surrounded by all that star power, Coleman was reliable and smart, a contributor in ways that were hard to quantify. To Yankee fans of that generation, he was special.

During those years, he returned to his native San Francisco to work in a men's department store.

"I used to think that being able to say I played for the Yankees would help me sell shirts," he told Center."Customers would look at me and say, 'right.' I was a terrible salesman. Thank God someone thought I knew enough about baseball to talk about it."

Indeed.

For 42 years he was the voice of the San Diego Padres, a civic treasure. He was the soundtrack of summer with a conversational style and sly, self-effacing sense of humor. When someone would tell him to have "a good broadcast," he'd answer, "Why break my record?"

Baseball fans have a unique relationship with their team's broadcasters, and that's especially true of men like Jerry Coleman, who established a credibility over the years. His style, without ego, driven by the game itself, made him seem like a member of the family.

His death leaves a void that won't be filled. Those who knew him will be forever comforted by the memories of his decency and wit. To everyone else, his core values of service and sacrifice reflect the values of our country at its very best.

"He's one of those special people you thank God you got to meet," former Padres broadcaster Mel Proctor told the Union-Tribune.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.