Still 17, he was too young to enlist and fight in World War II, so he got to spend the summer playing ball.
It was the start of his 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.
The San Diego Padres will honor his long career in baseball by unveiling a statue of Coleman today at Petco Park.
“I hope it’s not in a bathing suit. It would scare people,” cracked Coleman, who turned 88 on Friday.
Coleman began calling Padres games on radio in 1972. He had a forgettable stint as the club’s manager in 1980 before returning to the booth.
The Padres aren’t saying whether Coleman will be depicted as the slick-fielding Yankees’ second baseman, the pilot who flew 120 missions combined in two wars or as a Hall of Fame broadcaster.
Regardless, “It’s the greatest honor I’ve ever had,” said Coleman, the only major leaguer to see combat in two wars. “I’m totally stunned and appreciative, I must tell you.”
Padres President and CEO Tom Garfinkel said the team wants to honor Coleman for his “extraordinary service” to the Padres, San Diego and his country.
“He is the kind of man the rest of us hope to be,” Garfinkel said. “He exemplifies humility, courage, honor, passion and a kind heart. Saturday is a celebration of a truly great man.”
Around Petco Park and on Padres radio broadcasts, Coleman is known as “The Colonel,” having retired from the Marines with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Padres manager Bud Black loves doing interviews with Coleman.
“We talk baseball,” Black said. “We talk about our club and we talk about our players. … He watches our players and it’s great.”
He was a pretty good ballplayer, too.
After flying Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers in the Pacific in World War II, Coleman played three more seasons of minor league ball before making his big league debut with the Yankees on April 20, 1949. He was The Associated Press’ 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. “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 had been put on inactive status and was told he’d be going to Korea for 18 months. He wanted to go right away so he’d only miss one season, but didn’t go until March of 1952, so he missed 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, also was 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.
Coleman worked in the Yankees’ front office before beginning a broadcasting career that eventually brought him to San Diego.
He managed the Padres in 1980, when they went 73-89 and finished last in the NL West. Coleman was fired and returned to the booth.
“I should never have taken it,” he said. “I look at it now and see the mistakes I made. If I wanted to be a manager, I should have gone to the minor leagues and developed there.”
Black also knows how proud Coleman is of his military service.
“He doesn’t talk about it much. I know that those years meant a lot to him and the men he served with,” Black said. “He’ll get letters from family members of guys he was in the service with. He gets a little emotional talking about them.”
Coleman said the closest he came to being killed was in Korea when the engine in his Corsair quit during takeoff and his plane flipped.
Otherwise, he talks more about his comrades.
In describing the two-seat Dauntless he flew in the Solomon Islands and the Phillipines, Coleman said the gunner “was the bravest man I knew. If I did something wrong, he died, too.”
Coleman remembers a mission over Korea when a plane piloted by his buddy, Max Harper, blew up and flew straight into the ground.
“I knew there was no need for help. It was an unpleasant thing,” Coleman said.
“The worst part of it was, when I came back from Korea, they had a day for me at Yankee Stadium. At 7 a.m., the phone rang and it was Max Harper’s brother-in-law, who said his wife’s here and she wants to talk to you. In Korea, a lot of people disappeared. She didn’t know whether he was still alive or not. I said he was dead, but there was no body to prove it. I went to talk her and her four kids. I had to sign a piece of paper saying he was dead.
“That was a bad day, to see that woman’s face and those four kids.”
Coleman was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.
Coleman is only in the radio booth now for home day games. For all home games, he does the manager’s report.
He’s known for calls of “Oh, Doctor!” and “You can hang a star on that!” after big plays.
He’s also had his share of malaprops, like the time he was describing Dave Winfield going back for a long fly ball.
“I said, ‘Winfield hit his head against the wall and it’s rolling toward the infield.’ I meant the ball, of course,” Coleman said.