“The Yankees were not our team, they were our religion.”
My connection to Jerry Coleman goes all the way back to 1975 when I was researching and interviewing for my first book – – A Baseball Century: the First Hundred Years of the National League.
I met him in San Diego where he was a broadcaster and did a very in depth interview with the charming baseball lifer. I sat in the stands with him after the gamer was over and he talked and talked. He suggested that someone should do a book on baseball in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s, a time he played there, a time he called “the last golden age.”
My New York City Baseball: 1947-1957 was published and has gone through several reprints and is still around and I have Jerry Coleman to thank for the idea.
Gerald Francis Coleman was born on September 14, 1924 in San Jose, California. He was hooked on baseball, he told me, from the time he could walk. In 1942, Coleman was signed off the California sandlots by the Yankees and sent to Class D Pony League, the Wellsville Yankees.
World War II interrupted his baseball career. He became a 19-year-old fighter pilot who over three years flew 57 bombing missions in campaigns over the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, the Philippines. Coleman was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and seven Air Medals. War ended, in 1946, Colemanbegan to climb his way up through the Yankee farm system.
Spring training of 1948 I was trying to make the Yankees. I was the last man cut. I played for the Newark Bears in the International League and came up to the Yankees at the end of the season.
On April 20, 1949, Coleman made his rookie debut as the regular Yankee second baseman He led all who played his position in fielding that season through 1951. He was selected third as the Sporting News and Associated Press American League Rookie of the Year in 1949.
“The best second baseman I ever saw on the double play,” according to his manager Casey Stengel, Coleman played nine seasons for the Yankees and with Phil Rizzuto formed a celebrated double-play combination.
It wasn’t money then, it was winning or losing. If you came in second place, you lost. It was the glory of winning and the ring. People watched the Yankees and admired the pride of the Yankees. But unfortunately the Yankees became so successful, people hated them for their success.
Going north from spring training, we’d pass through small towns and people would be out there early in the morning as the train went by, waving to us. I don’t know how they got the word – but we’d be having our breakfast in the diner and they’d be there. Arguably Coleman's top season was 1950 when he batted a career best .287, and set a team record for double plays by a second baseman. An All Star that 1950 season, the adroit infielder was the World Series Most Valuable Player.
In May 1952, Coleman was called back to active duty and transferred to Korea to the 323 Marine Attack Squadron. Flying 120 missions, earning six more Air Medals, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
The Yankees staged a day for him September 13, 1953 when he returned from active duty. Nearly 50,000 showed at the Stadium. Back as a Yankee, the time in Korea had taken something out of him as he admitted.
Coleman was never the same ball player. Playing career ended, the “Colonel” joined the Yankees front office after the 1957 season and then moved into the Yankees broadcast booth from 1963-1969.
A member of six Yankee pennant winning teams, the man who also graced baseball broadcast booths for decades, Jerry Coleman is the only Major League Baseball player who was in combat duty in two wars.
He truly was an officer, a gentleman and a splendid baseball player despite losing so many seasons out of his nine year Yankee career to military service for his country.
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