Most every organization has their own Ralph Kiner, a legendary figure who didn’t carve out his career with the New York Mets, but became to define the franchise in the broadcast booth.
The San Diego Padres’ Kiner was Jerry Coleman, who played second base for the Yankees, spanning the end of the Joe DiMaggio and beginning of the Mickey Mantle eras. He was so much more than a guy who showed up at Yankees’ Old Timers Game and prompted kids to ask their fathers, “who is that?”
COLEMAN: Good player; great person.
I never saw him play, but heard him on the radio numerous times and learned of his malapropos. Ralph isn’t the only one to make you scratch your heads and wonder, “what did he just say?’’
One of the perks in covering the Yankees and Mets was getting to meet and talk to the players I grew up watching and only heard about. Coleman was one of those men.
I’m a World War II history buff and was fascinated to learn of his record as a pilot in both World War II and Korea. He flew well over 100 combined missions in those wars.
I forget the year, but was with the Mets in San Diego and wanted to meet him. I was told he would be at the park early, so I showed up well before game time, knocked on the door to the Padres’ broadcast booth, introduced my myself and asked if I could get ten minutes with him sometime during the series.
Almost an hour-and-a-half later I left the Padres’ booth with a full notebook and my head swimming.
We talked about his career and military service. We talked about playing baseball in 1940s and 1950s New York. We talked about the evolution of baseball radio play-by-play. We talked for over an hour before I got around to asking him about DiMaggio and the guy I really wanted to ask him about, which was Mantle. I was always a Mantle guy.
What I remember most was his sense of humor and his warmth. His humility and passion for the sport was evident. I was there to ask about him, but he asked about me. I got the feeling he was genuinely interested and it made me feel good. Those I later spoke with said “that’s typical of Jerry.”
Later, I talked to several Padres’ writers who weren’t short on stories. Regretfully, I didn’t do my story justice in relation to the time he so generously gave me.
Like I said, meeting Jerry Coleman and others like him is one the best perks of the job. Baseball is loaded with personalities and characters like Jerry Coleman. I’ve met many, and would like to talk to many others. Regretfully, there are many more I will never get the chance.
The Hall of Fame announcements will be Wednesday, and I am proud I have a vote. Coleman was not a Hall of Fame player, but he was a Hall of Fame person and I am so fortunate to have met him.
I was saddened to learn of his passing over the weekend. Others who knew him well will have words that would do him greater justice. I simply want to say I was glad to meet him and express my sympathies to his friends and family.
You were lucky to have such a treasure in your lives.
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