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WWII, Korean War combat veteran Jerry Coleman to join San Diego's Breitbard Hall of Fame

The statue of Jerry Coleman at Petco Park is flanked by photos that trace an amazing life, from Marine pilot who fought in two wars and Yankees second baseman to Padres broadcaster (and manager in 1980) and enshrinement at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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By KIRK KENNEY | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: February 12, 2020

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — When he managed the New York Yankees in the 1950s, Casey Stengel could do without those five-hour bus rides between cities during spring training.

So Stengel would hop a plane to the next stop. And he would take Yankees second baseman Jerry Coleman with him.

Bob Chandler, Coleman's longtime broadcast partner with the Padres, explains: "Stengel wanted Coleman to fly with him in case something happened to the pilot, so Jerry could step in and fly the plane. ... He was in the bullpen, just in case."

Obviously, "The Old Perfesser" knew something about his personnel beyond what position they should play or where they should hit in the batting order.

In Coleman, Stengel had something — someone — special. So did San Diego, which came to love Coleman like virtually no one else over more than four decades as a Padres broadcaster.

Coleman is being inducted on Wednesday night in the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the 74th Salute to Champions dinner. He will be honored along with former Helix High and NFL running back Reggie Bush and local surfing legend Rob Machado.

Their plaques will join those of 153 others, located adjacent to the Western Metal Supply Co. Building on the main concourse at Petco Park.

Coleman's plaque reads:

"The voice of the San Diego Padres for 42 years, Jerry Coleman made listening or watching games informative and entertaining. An All-Star baseball player with the New York Yankees from 1949-1957, Coleman appeared in six World Series and earned victories in four of them. He learned his trade on the field and his patriotism as a U.S. Marine fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, earning his nickname, 'The Colonel,' in reference to his rank as a Lieutenant Colonel. Colemanisms like 'You can hang a star on that one' and 'Oh, doctor' for outstanding plays endeared him to listeners his entire career."

Maggie Coleman is to speak on behalf of her husband, who died in 2014.

One of the most beloved figures in Padres history spent only one season in the dugout — managing the 1980 team to a 73-89 record — and never played an inning for the team.

Yet Jerry Coleman easily is the most heroic figure the franchise has ever known.

Coleman became the lead announcer for the Padres in 1972, serving behind the microphone for all but one of the next 42 years.

He endeared himself to Padres fans with his "Colemanisms" as well as his signature phrases. While he has been gone now for six years, Coleman's voice continues to echo in fans' ears through memories and highlights.

Like on the play that sent the Padres to the 1984 World Series: "Here's the Goose (Gossage) ... the 1-1 pitch. A one-hopper to (Graig) Nettles to (Alan) Wiggins ... and the Padres have the National League pennant! Oh, doctor! You can hang a star on that, baby!"

Or when Tony Gwynn collected his 3,000th hit in 1999 in Montreal: "(Dan) Smith is ready. Gwynn waiting. The pitch. There's a drive, right-center field and there it is. Oh, doctor! You can hang a star on that, baby. A star for the ages for Tony Gwynn. No. 3,000."

But what set him apart was service to his country, not the ballclub. And that endeared Coleman even more to this military town.

"The country needs more heroes, and Jerry definitely was that," Padres broadcaster Ted Leitner said. "He was definitely a war hero, but he hated to be called that. To him the real heroes were the ones who didn't come back from the war."

Coleman would fly 120 combat missions over two wars. Among the honors he received the Distinguished Flying Cross twice.

There are more than 100 statues outside of major league ballparks across the country. The large percentage, of course, depict great players from the various franchises, a few represent notable owners or broadcasters and a couple acknowledge the fans.

Only one depicts a man wearing a Marine flight suit.

Jerry Coleman.

Coleman spent 70 years in baseball, but it still finished second to service for his country.

"The most important thing in my life was not what I did in baseball, but what I did in the service of the Marines during two wars," Coleman said in his autobiography, "An American Journey: My Life on the Field, In the Air, and On the Air."

Coleman often made those around him laugh. Not always intentionally. It was another quality that made him beloved by fans.

Leitner got such a kick out of hearing Coleman tell stories about everyday occurrences in his life that he often made it a part of the broadcast.

"So what did you do today, Jerry?"

There was one occasion on a road trip to Denver where they had to change hotels from the Hyatt to the Embassy Suites.

Coleman was on his regular morning walk and couldn't remember how to get back to the new hotel.

"He got lost," Leitner said. "He asked a cop and says, 'We're staying at the NBC Suites.' "

"I don't know of that," the cop says.

"They're standing there asking people walking by," Leitner said, "and finally somebody says, 'Embassy Suites?' 'Oh, yeah,' Jerry says. 'That's the one.' And they give him directions to get back."

Leitner keeps a picture of Coleman in the radio broadcast booth at Petco Park.

"Always looking over my shoulder; That's why I put it up," said Leitner, who was hired in 1980 when Coleman went down to the field and was with him each year thereafter when Coleman returned to the booth.

During the season, Leitner said, "Every game, I'll go to commercial and lean my chair back to the right and look at him and kind of smile."

Sometimes Leitner will think, "Boy, Jerry, you're not missing anything this game."

Other times, Leitner imagines everything coming together for another championship season and thinks: "Oh, Jer, I wish you were here to watch this with me because I know they're on the precipice of being very, very good."

Like Leitner, Chandler thought very highly of Coleman. And he offered the highest compliment.

"In my opinion, Jerry was the most iconic sports figure in the history of San Diego," said Chandler, who shared a microphone with Coleman for 30 years. "Tony Gwynn was awesome, but Jerry was there for so many years. Every year, no matter what happened you had Jerry Coleman broadcasting the games.

"I'm not going to say he was the greatest play-by-play guy ever, but he was our guy. He was San Diego's guy. You heard him, you felt good."

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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Frankfurt, Germany, February 4, 1951: Four of the baseball notables taking part in the week-long EUCOM Baseball and Softball Coaches and Officials clinic relax at Rhein-Main airport after a 27-hour flight from the States. From left to right are players Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals and Jerry Coleman of the New York Yankees; and former Giants and Cardinals great Frankie Frisch.
RED GRANDY / S&S FILE PHOTO

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