Remembering Jerry Coleman -- Only MLB Player to Serve Active Duty in 2 Conflicts
On Memorial Day it seems appropriate to bring back an interview I did on the day Jerry Coleman died, and a story I wrote about the man who was a fighter pilot in both World War II and the Korean War.
By Tracy Ringolsby
Jerry Coleman was a senior in high school when World War II broke out. He had a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Southern California.
"I was going to be a hot shot jock," Coleman said with a smile, "but when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, the lemonade was gone. We couldn't wait to get into the service."
Coleman did have to wait, a bit. He wasn't old enough to enlist when the war broke out, but he did go to the recruiter's office and enlisted.
"In those days, flying was magical," Coleman said. "Not many people ever got in an airplane. That's what I wanted to do."
And Coleman did, not only serving three years active duty in World War II, but also two years in the Korean War, the only Major League Baseball player to see active duty in two armed conflicts. He flew 120 missions, earned two Distinguished Flyer Awards and three Navy citations.
It is why Veterans Day, celebrated on Monday, has a special significance for Coleman.
One can only wonder what losing five years in his prime cost Coleman in terms of his baseball career, but the man who was third in the AL Rookie of the Year Award voting in 1949, an All-Star and the World Series MVP in 1950 has no regrets.
"I wasn't the type of player who was going to set any records," said Coleman. "Winning was the only thing that was important. I was with the Yankees nine seasons. We won eight pennants and six World Series in those nine years. That's pretty good."
Coleman also spent some time in the Yankees' front office before moving to the broadcast booth, first for the Yanks and then for the San Diego Padres. He also handled some national chores for ESPN radio, and even managed the Padres in 1980.
Nothing Coleman did, however, had the impact of his military service.
Coleman enlisted in the Marines shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but he was only 17 at the time so he was not called to active duty until the following October. While Coleman awaited his call to duty, he signed a pro baseball contract with the New York Yankees and spent the summer of '42 playing for Class D Wellsville.
On Oct. 23, 1942, Coleman finally got the call to be a Marine. He went into training to become a pilot, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. In 1944, Coleman was sent to Guadalcanal, where he was a member of the Torrid Turtles, flying 57 missions.
Coleman resumed his baseball career in 1947, and he was in the big leagues in 1949, becoming a key part of that Yankees dynasty.
But then ...
"I got back from the 1951 World Series and got a call from a sergeant who says, 'What do you think about going back in the service?'" remembered Coleman. "I said, 'Frankly, I don't know much about it.' He said I should. I thought I had been discharged, but I had just been inactive, and he told me I was going to be returned to active duty for two more years.
"I was hoping we could start it right away. I was thinking if I was immediately activated, I'd only miss one season. They finally called me in April of 1952. I basically missed two seasons."
At the age of 27, in 1952, he played in only 11 games, and he returned so late in 1953 that he was able to play only eight games.
Not that Coleman ever complains. Losing a year or two of a playing career was insignificant from what he witnessed in Korea, where he flew alongside Ted Williams, who had been an instructor during World War II but saw active duty in Korea.
"I was with him on the mission when he got hit," said Coleman. "I got a mayday call. You think, 'Who the devil is it?' The next day, I find out he was Ted. He landed with no flaps, no brakes, nothing. Why that plane didn't blow up, I'll never know."
Coleman said there was a thrill of sort about World War II, but by Korea, he had become more aware of the circumstances.
"I was 18, 19 in World War II," he remembered. "I was a naval aviator and I thought I was the hottest shot that ever lived. When I was in Korea, I was 28, 29. I thought I'd be the first one to go. I realized it could happen very easily, and it did happen to some of my teammates."
One of those teammates was Max Harper, Coleman's roommate.
"He was 100 yards in front of me when he blew up," said Coleman. "They missed me and they got him. He had four kids. When we got home, I had to meet his wife. She wanted to know if he was really dead. You know, a lot of people in Korea just disappeared.
"I had to tell her that he was dead. It was the worst day of my life. I never saw the look on anyone's face like hers."
It gave Coleman a deeper appreciation for life.
First appearend Nov. 11, 2013 on mlb.com website