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Ex-Yankee, WWII pilot, HOFer Coleman dies

AP

Hall of Fame broadcaster Jerry Coleman, a former second baseman for the New York Yankees who interrupted his pro career to fly as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and Korea, died Sunday after a brief illness, the San Diego Padres said. He was 89.

Coleman spent more than four decades with the Padres as a broadcaster, and managed them in 1980.

Padres president Mike Dee said Coleman died at a hospital Sunday afternoon. He said the team was notified by Coleman’s wife, Maggie.

“It’s a sad day,” Padres manager Bud Black said. “We’re losing a San Diego icon. He’s going to be missed.”

The Padres planned to keep Coleman’s statue at Petco Park open until 11:30 p.m. Sunday so fans could pay tribute. The team unveiled the statue in September 2012.

While recounting his military career in an interview days before the statue was unveiled, Coleman said: “Your country is bigger than baseball.”

Coleman spent more than 70 years in pro baseball, a career that included four World Series titles with the Yankees and was interrupted by World War II and the Korean War, when he served as a Marine Corps pilot.

He flew 120 missions combined in the two wars. Coleman was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.

Around Petco Park and on Padres radio broadcasts, Coleman was known as “The Colonel,” having retired from the Marines with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was the only major leaguer to see combat in two wars.

Coleman was known for calls of “Oh, Doctor!” and “You can hang a star on that!” after big plays. He received the Ford C. Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.

“If there was any place Jerry Coleman could be Jerry Coleman, it would be San Diego, with this being a military town and with his military background,” Dee said. “The symmetry between his life and this community transcended the Padres. San Diego was Jerry and Jerry was San Diego.”

After graduating from high school in 1942, Coleman traveled three days by train from San Francisco to Wellsville, New York, to report to the New York Yankees’ Class D affiliate.

Still 17, he was too young to enlist and fight in World War II, so he got to spend the summer playing ball. After he joined the military, he flew Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers in the Pacific during World War II. He played three more seasons of minor league ball before making his big league debut with the Yankees on April 20, 1949. He was The AP’s Rookie of the Year that season.

Coleman’s best season was 1950, when he was an All-Star and was named MVP of the Yankees’ four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. Among his teammates were Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Johnny Mize.

“We won the first game 1-0 and I drove in that run,” Coleman recalled in 2012. “We won the second game 2-1. I scored one of the two runs and DiMaggio hit a home run in the 10th to win it. In the third game I drove in the winning run in the last inning, and in the fourth game I rested.”

By “rested,” he means he went 0-for-3. “I was exhausted,” he said.

In October 1951, Coleman found out that Marine pilots from World War II were not discharged, but on inactive status and that he’d be going to Korea for 18 months. He missed the bulk of two seasons.

“Your country is bigger than baseball,” said Coleman, who added that he took his physical along with Ted Williams in Jacksonville in 1952. Williams, a San Diego native, was also a Marine pilot in World War II, but didn’t see combat duty. He did fly combat missions in Korea.

When Coleman returned to the Yankees, he hit only .217. He was sent to an eye doctor, who told him he’d lost his depth perception.

“If you’re trying to hit a baseball and you don’t have depth perception, you have a problem,” Coleman said.

He got that corrected but then broke his collarbone in April 1955.

The night he came back from that injury, he got beaned.

His last season was 1957, when he hit .364 in a seven-game World Series loss to the Milwaukee Braves.