This edition of the monthly SanDiegoRadio Spotlight is very special to me. I remember as a kid listening to Jerry Coleman late into the night calling the Padres games on my little radio. I owe a big thank you to my friend, Petco Park PA Announcer Frank Anthony for helping me get this interview.
Jerry invited me into his home, made me coffee and we sat in his living room which overlooks the Pacific Ocean and we chatted for almost an hour and a half. We covered a little radio, but as you know, his life is so full of events, it was hard to stay on one topic.
Joe: Jerry, how are you these days?
Jerry: Well, I'm 88 now. This eye went on me (points to his eye), and I'm in my second operation and it's coming along fine. When you are my age, and I am the oldest broadcaster in baseball, sorry to say, the eyes can give you trouble.
JN: How did you come to work in San Diego?
JC: I tried to get the job with the Padres when they came into the league in 1969, but no luck there. But then I had a meeting with Buzzie Bavasi in 1971 and became the Padres play-by-play announcer in 1972, and been there ever since.... except one year when I managed the club in 1980. Worst mistake I ever made. Terrible mistake. But I have been here ever since, very lucky. The people here like me, and if I finish my contract I will be 91.
JN: When will you get back into managing?
JC: Never, ever. (Jerry answered that very quickly!) Well see, when I joined they didn't know who I was. 'where did this dumb broadcaster come managing this club?' And I had a lot of people working against me on the club. I look back now, I should never have taken the job. I only did it because my best friend, Bob Fontaine (first scouting director of the Padres and their third general manager), I grew up with him in the Bay Area, he says "Why don't you manage the club?" I said 'OK, if you are my pitching coach, I'll do it' I thought he was kidding me, this was like July, but we talked about baseball all the time.So September came around and I asked Bob if he was serious about it and he said yes he was. We were rotten... maybe a change of pace couldn't hurt. I shouldn't have taken it because the players have a feeling about their manager that I couldn't give them and I didn't know what the hell I was doing anyway. We didn't have a good ballclub, a lot of things went against it. It was a great experience because it taught me a lot about players. My deal was, that when I was done, I'd come back to the broadcasting booth, and I've been here ever since.
JN: As far as broadcasting, what are you most proud of?
JC: Tony Gwynn's 3,000th base hit, that was a great experience. not many people can do that. Nate Colbert's 5 home runs in a double header in Atlanta. Things that really impacted the game itself.
JN: Do you still talk to your Marine buddies?
JC: Oh would I see them all the time, but they are all dead. This is World War II. We would play Bridge every day. I was not a card player. Bud, Bob, Art, and myself. They taught me how to play. We were all in the same tent for a year. And Art has passed, Bud has passed, Bob has passed. Those were my best friends, and really the only ones I saw after WW2. And in Korea, in my latest one, Curly died several months ago. In fact, I talked to his wife the other day. Curly and I roomed together. In Korea, I had a friend, Max Harper, and he blew up right in front of me. That was probably the worst day of my life. When I came home, they had a day for me at Yankee Staduim. About 7:00 that morning, my hotel phone rang, 'Hello, I am Max Harper's brother in law, his wife is here and would like to talk to you." Well, in Korea a lot of people disappeared and were found months later. We met up with them. His wife wanted to authenticate his death. She asked me 'Is he dead?' I never saw the look in someones face like I saw on this tragic woman's face when I said yes he is gone, I was there, and I saw it. I had to sign some papers to authenticate his death for his family. But that really was the worst thing to happen to me, both seeing him die and having to tell the family.
JN: As a pilot, during the wars, did you have any interesting moments while in the planes?
JC: Yes, I was taking off in Korea with a full load, 3,000 lbs of bombs on a single-engine airplane, an F4U Corsair. When you get off the ground, your plane is staggering (shakes his hands) and the flaps are at 90 degrees, so I am at K6 (a runway distance marker, I think they lift at K9) and there was a bump in the runway. It popped me up, I came down and I noticed the short runway and knew I wasn't going to make it. I braked, and screeched. I let my bombs go, the bombs have little propellers on the front and back, and a wire that goes through the propellers. If the wire comes out and the propellers revolve so many times, the bomb will arm themselves. And I just let mine go, if I burn, I will blow up the base and myself too. So I went down the runway and next thing I know, I am upside-down, and buried in the dirt. I will say one thing about the crash team, they were right after me. Dodging the bombs that were rolling down the runway. They pulled me out, I was knocked out. I was covered in mud and dirt. They took me to the hospital and next morning at 5AM, I was up again.
JN: Who were you closest to on the Yankees?
JC: Vic Raschi. A right handed pitcher, he and I started together. he won 20 games 3 or 4 years. A great guy. Our wives were very close to each other as well. He ended up getting traded to St. Louis eventually. Then of course Mickey Mantle. I roomed with him for two years.
JN: Tell me about rooming with Mickey Mantle.
JC: When Mantle came up, he started with the Yankees at 19. They sent him down, he came back up and he got his foothold. He was very close to Billy Martin. Martin liked to have fun on the town, so when Martin was traded the Yankees wanted me to room with him because I was older and more mature. I found him to be a delightful person. People don't know, but when we'd get into a hotel, our luggage would be down in the lobby. Next thing I knew, he was bringing it up to my/our room. Always asking if there was anything he could do. What a delightful man.
JN: How has being a Hall of Famer changed your life?
JC: I don't even think about it. I wonder how it happened. I've got High School Hall of Fame, Bay Area Hall of Fame, MLB Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, the National Radio Hall of Fame, and honor I really do accept. I don't think about it really. I wonder why. I am in the Marine Corp Hall of Fame, which I recognize as having a nice thing to happen to you. When I went into the National Radio Hall of Fame, I went in with Franklin D. Roosevelt. I remember, you are putting me in with the president? Not too bad.
JN: We just had Jackie Robinson's Day, tell me what it was like playing against #42
JC: He was the guy, when I played against him in '49, 55, 56 (he missed time with Korea when they called him back) He was the guy, when we had meetings, Casey Stengel told us there were two guys to focus on were Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. We really concentrated on Jackie. He was a difference maker. I was looking at Robinson's numbers, I outhit him in the World Series. I hit .275, he only hit .230. But we really concentrated on him, when he got on base, he drove the pitchers crazy.
JN: Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?
JC: All of them! Don Newcombe. Brooklyn Dodgers. At Yankee Stadium, they had a tarp, when the stadium would get full they would lower that tarp. They would put 70,000 people in there. They don't even have stadiums like that anymore. I remember Newcombe, we beat him this day 1-0, we really wiped him out that day. Well, all the white shirts in the crowd made for a tough backdrop. Hitting against him was not a pleasant experience. But I think the toughest guy of all of them was Bob Lemon. He had this slider that was a new pitch after WW2. Man, he won 20 games 7 or 8 years in a row. For a right-handed batter, he was not a happy time.
JN: What is your favorite 'Colemanism'?
JC: Well, I'd have to say "Oh Doctor" and "You can hang a star on that baby". Casey Stengel would always say 'you got me, doctor?' 'can you hear me doctor?' And I didn't think of it when I used it, the phrase just came up. And in the 5th or 6th grade, we would have a spelling test, and if you got all 20 questions right, you got a star. Man, I never got a star. Sometimes I would get 18, or 19 correct. But I never got one. So that's where 'you can hang a star on that baby' came from.
JN: If you had not pursued being a broadcaster, what else might you have done?
JC: Well, I really wanted to be a general manager, when I was personnel director for the Yankees, I had 8 or 9 minor league teams. I thought that might work up to something.
JN: One last question, how do you view radio through the years?
JC: I think radio is a much more descriptive forum. Television is more visual. But with radio, the announcer has to paint the picture for the listener. Radio, you have to describe every 10 feet of the ball traveling. Radio is three times more descriptive than television. On radio, the guy has to make you see the action with his words.
Jerry, thank you for giving me your time, inviting me to your house and for the coffee. You are a treasure in San Diego and there will NEVER be another like you!
The following are photos of the very few memorabilia he has in his office. Enjoy.