COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | RON CARRICO

Hanging a star on the memory of Jerry Coleman

For Padres fans and anyone who knew him, the passing of Jerry Coleman is very sad. We offer condolences, but we also celebrate his life. As he liked to say, "Hang a star on that one!"

As most readers of The Daily Transcript know, Coleman was a San Diego Padres announcer since 1972. Fans heard his voice for years, but we did not hear much about his military career or his time as a fighter pilot and Marine Corps lieutenant colonel in World War II and the Korean War.

I was privileged to conduct a video interview with Coleman last year as part of the San Diego Air and Space Museum oral history project. The 90-minute video is available on YouTube under SDASMARCHIVES.

The goal of the San Diego Air and Space Museum is to record stories about aviation, especially military combat, from the people who lived them and then to make the interviews available through the Internet and YouTube. To interview a combat pilot of two wars and a professional baseball player was an honor.

Coleman was the only American professional athlete to be a combat military pilot in two wars. His good friend Ted Williams flew combat missions in the Korean conflict, but was a stateside instructor pilot during World War II.

Aviation stories are almost always interesting, but when told by people who flew in combat, the tales become extraordinary. The stories are so far from the realm of our normal life experiences that they are worth telling and keeping.

Frankly, I was a bit nervous about interviewing such a well-known person, especially because it was one of my first interviews. But I was told by several people not to worry because he was such a nice guy. He was accommodating when we set up the interview, and later, when I was having some camera trouble, he said if there is a problem we can just do it again.

From the interview with Jerry Coleman, a few things will always remain in my memory. First of all, he said many times that the proudest moment of his life was receiving his pilot wings April 1, 1943.

He had tried to join the military after graduating from high school in 1942, but he wasn't old enough, so he played minor league baseball for the New York Yankees. He had received baseball and basketball scholarships for USC, but instead joined the Marines at the end of the summer baseball season to become a pilot.

After graduation, he became a Marine dive bomber pilot flying the Douglas SBD Dauntless in the South Pacific. After his combat tour, he was training in a new airplane when the war ended. He was discharged and went back to baseball, becoming a rookie with the New York Yankees in 1949. He was named MVP of the 1950 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. His baseball career was interrupted when the Marine Corps recalled him to duty in the Korean War to fly one of the warbirds that many pilots dream about: the F4U Corsair.

At the air museum, we have an F4U Corsair painted in the colors of Coleman’s squadron, and with his name on the cockpit. Incidentally, he did not like the F4U very much; he said Corsairs tried to kill him twice.

After many combat missions, a very close call and one serious crash, he returned to the Yankees and played the last few games of the 1952 season and the World Series. He told me that for helping win the Series, his teammates thought so much of Coleman that they voted him a quarter-share: $8,000. That was big money in 1952.

Even though we mostly discussed aviation during our interview, Coleman also talked about his baseball and announcing career, and told some great stories about Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra and his roommate, Mickey Mantle. But when he was asked who got him into broadcasting, he said it was Howard Cosell. Then he switched to imitating Cosell’s voice and told a funny story about the two of them.

The United States trained about 200,000 pilots in World War II. As the years go by, we lose thousands of these veterans every month; the youngest of them are now in their late 80s.

With the advent of YouTube and inexpensive video equipment, the personal stories of remarkable veterans of that "greatest generation" should be recorded.

Coleman served America twice in time of war and he played the great American game on the most famous team with some of the greatest players. And he was the voice of our San Diego Padres for over 40 years. Even beyond that, he was a great guy. Oh Doctor!

Carrico is a San Diego attorney and can be emailed at roncarrico@hotmail.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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