By In Baseball, RIP

Jerry Coleman

Calvin Trillin has written on more than one occasion that the best hamburger in the entire world is broiled and served at Winstead’s in Kansas City, and he insisted that his evaluation had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he grew up in Kansas City.

I agree with him. Winstead’s (Steakburgers since 1940!) does make the best hamburger in the world. And this viewpoint has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I lived most of my adult like in Kansas City. Really.

Hamburgers are one of those things that bring out the citizen in a person. Pizza is like that too. Barbecue. People may not take great pride in the place where they live. They may gripe about the local government, the school board, the traffic or the general disposition of people. They may complain about road construction or the weather or the fact that nothing stays open late enough. But, dammit, they’ll tell you that any other town’s pizza is garbage, and that the place down the road makes a barbecue sandwich that would put the finest restaurant in Paris to shame.

So, hometown pride* comes out for food. Hamburgers. Barbecue. Chili. I will forever insist the best mustard on earth is made in Cleveland, Ohio. But that pride also comes out for other things.

People love their hometown baseball announcers.

*This hometown pride factor, incidentally, does not preclude Winstead’s from being the best hamburger in the world. As Trillin wrote when reminded that everyone believes their hometown burger is the best: “Yes, but don’t you see that one of those place actually IS the best hamburger place in the world? Somebody has to be telling the truth and it happens to be me.”

After years of telling my buddy Jim that Winstead’s did indeed make the world’s best hamburger, I took him there one afternoon. He spent much of the drive over scoffing. And then he ate his first Winstead’s burger and was remarkably silent. “Well?” I asked. He looked defeated. “That’s a good burger,” he admitted.

* * *

The first I ever heard of San Diego Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman, it was for the malapropisms. Sometimes people called them Colemanisms. He was famous for them. I remember years and years ago getting a book of baseball’s greatest quotations and half of them seemed to be from Jerry Coleman. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading and loving those Colemanisms. They are all over the Internet, if you feel like searching, but most I can recall from memory.

“McCovey swings and misses. And it’s fouled back.”

“They throw Winfield out at second. And he’s safe!”

“Grubb goes back. Back. He’s under the warning track.”

“Enos Cabell started here with the Astros. And before that he was with the Orioles.”

“Hi folks, I’m Jerry Gross. No I’m not, this is Jerry Coleman.”

“Larry Lintz steals second standing up. He slid, but he didn’t have to.”

“Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen.”

“On the mound is Randy Jones, the left-hander with the Karl Marx hairdo.”

“He slides into second with a standup double.”

And, of course, the all-time classic:

“Winfield goes back to the wall. He hits his head on the wall. And it rolls off! It’s rolling all the way to second base! This is a terrible thing for the Padres!”

I could read these all day. I keep a collection of them in my head. My second favorite is actually not a Colemanism but a different announcer who said, “That pitch is way outside for a ball, no, they say it hit him.” And my favorite come from my own hometown announcer, longtime Cleveland Indians play-by-play man Herb Score, who made a gaffe that I think of as a poem.

It’s a long fly ball
Is it fair?
Is it foul?
It is!

I love these calls, in part, because I am 100 percent sure that If I was a baseball broadcaster, I would make these kinds of mistakes all the time. But, more, I love them because they represent what a local announcer means to us. They are like family. We laugh with them.

See, national announcers have it tough. They have a wide, disparate audience of people — fans of the home team, fans of the visiting team, fans of neither team, people who know the game, people who sort of know the game, people who don’t know the game at all. Every time something dramatic happens in the game, a huge chunk of audience is ecstatic, a huge chunk of the audience is despondent, and a huge chunk of the audience is interested only in a detached way.

What can you say to reach all those people? Part of the magic of Al Michael’s incomparable, “Do you believe in miracles?” call was that, for a few moments (the Olympics can do this), he basically WAS a local announcer because almost everyone who was watching was rooting for the U.S. hockey team to beat the Soviets. The United States, for a moment, had become one small town. If Michaels had made the same call, say, when Eli Manning threw the touchdown pass to lead the Giants past the Patriots or when Auburn beat Alabama on the final play, the angry responses would have blown up Twitter, and, with that, the internet.

So national announcers have to be precise, they have to be even-handed, they have to be interesting without distracting, it’s a tough racket. Our expectations are all but impossible and so some people will never tire of ranting about Joe Buck or Jim Nantz or Bob Costas.

But the local baseball announcer — we don’t expect perfection. In fact, we’d be suspect of perfection. Instead, we want passion, we want consistency, we want a friend in the booth. In Cincinnati, people grew to love Joe Nuxhall not for what he said but for who he was … that daily presence on the radio who reminded you that, hey, if you swing the bat you’re dangerous.

In Seattle, people grew to love Dave Niehaus, again not so much for what he said but for who he was … that inexhaustible font of optimism and enthusiasm even through all the bad years.

Jerry Coleman died Sunday — he was 89 years old. He was perhaps the most beloved man in San Diego. It’s probably silly to quote Wikipedia here, but on there it says, “He was known as the ‘Master of the Malaprop’ for sometimes making embarrassing mistakes on the microphone but he is nonetheless popular.

The “but” is the wrong conjunction. People didn’t love him in spite of those times he jumbled up a few thoughts. They loved him BECAUSE of it. They loved him because he would laugh at himself and move on to the next pitch. They loved him because Jerry Coleman was a wonderful guy who lived an extraordinary life, a life that towered over a couple of verbal missteps.

Coleman was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines. He was the only ballplayer to serve in combat in both World War II and the Korean War.* He won two Distinguished Flying Cross medals. He was the starting second baseman for the Yankees from 1949-1951, three of the best teams in baseball history.

*Tracy Ringolsby brought this up first on Twitter and he was quickly besieged by people who brought up Ted Williams. Ringolsby pointed out, rightly, that while Williams was in combat in Korea, he was a flight instructor during World War II and was not in combat. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

He played ball with and aging DiMaggio and a young Mantle. One of Coleman’s most memorable quotes was not a malaprop at all but a story he would tell of seeing DiMaggio strike out then hurt himself kicking the ball bag. “It really hurt,” Coleman said. “He sat down and sweat popped out on his forehead and he clenched his fists without ever saying a word. Everybody wanted to howl, but he was a god. You don’t laugh at gods.”

There are 36 words, all of them perfect, a description of DiMaggio that say just about everything.

Coleman was a voracious reader, especially anything to do with history. He got into announcing through his friend Howard Cosell. He broadcast San Diego baseball every year from 1972 on, not counting 1980 when the Padres briefly made him their manager. His catch phrase “Oh Doctor!” is one of the most famous in sports. When a brilliant defensive play was made, he would shout “You can hang a star on that.” There’s a statue of him outside of Petco Park.

And he won the Ford Frick Award — the baseball Hall of Fame’s highest honor for broadcasters — in 2005. In his acceptance speech he told a story of the time for four innings he kept referring to Cleveland pitcher Jack Kralick as Sam McDowell.

“That put me in the Guinness book of records,” he said to raucous laughter. “‘Most innings, wrong pitcher: Jerry Coleman.’ Not many can make that statement.”

I have a friend who who will insist that while Vin Scully is great and while Harry Caray was fun, Jerry Coleman was the greatest baseball announcer who ever lived. And my friend will tell you: He’s not just saying that because he grew up in San Diego.

61 Responses to Jerry Coleman

  1. Craig says:

    Bob Uecker is the greatest baseball announcer ever. And I’m not just saying that because I grew up in Wisconsin.

    • BeninDSM says:

      Best announcer to ever be born for listening to your team lose by 8. I remember once listening to a blowout loss for an hour because he somehow got me engrossed in hearing about Willy Mo Pena of all people. I have no idea how he got the subject. Willy Mo certainly wasn’t on either team.

  2. Roughyed says:

    Perhaps it’s the name Coleman:

  3. Rod Nelson says:

    FWIW, those that served in WW2 & KOR: Cliff Aberson, Boyd Bartley, Bobby Brown, Jerry Coleman, Larry French, Harvey Haddix, Dave Madison, Lloyd Merriman, Ted Williams. Not sure about combat, nor can I say it’s the comprehensive list either, just some assembled notes from over the years..

    • robneyer says:

      Good list, Rod. While Coleman might well have been the only major leaguer who saw combat in both wars, it seems highly likely that other professional *ballplayers” did. There were a lot of ballplayers in the 1940s and early ’50s.

  4. PhilM says:

    I love these — my (unattainable) goal in life is to have Joe remember me on my death. Just a shame that we humans tend to wait until it’s too late to discover and celebrate some of the wonderful parts of what we assumed were ordinary lives. . . .

  5. Lance Richardson says:

    Having spent my youth listening to Coleman call ballgames every night for six months of each year (I’m forty-five now), I am comfortable confirming that Jerry Coleman was, indeed, the most beloved person in San Diego. On a day in which the Chargers notched a playoff victory on the road in Cincinnati and the Aztec basketball team beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, Coleman’s passing left an entire city brokenhearted.

  6. Phil Rizzuto is same for Yankees fans. He’d be telling a story about his wife Cora’s cooking, stop and say “Holy Cow!” about a play on field and then finish the story.

    • John Leavy says:

      My favorite Rizzuto moment ever: back around 1977 or 1978, an opposing player hit a hard foul shot that went straight into the Yankees’ dugout. Phil, the quintessential homer, said, “Boy, I sure hope it hit (Fred “the Chicken”) Stanley or somebody like that, and not someone important.”

      • worried secularist says:

        There’s a whole book of Rizzuto’s found poetry. I recall one interchange with the patient and sometimes flummoxed Bill White, his broadcast partner. The Yankees were playing the Blue Jays and Cecil Fielder was at bat for the Jays. Scooter’s comment went something like:
        “Hey White. How come it’s Cecil (sehsil) Fielder, but Cecil (seesil) Cooper. Is Cecil (sehsil) Canadian?”

    • David Hallerman says:

      And it’s very interesting, then, that two such idiosyncratic announcers as Coleman and Rizzuto played next to each other at 2nd and SS for several seasons on those championship Yankees.
      Did one rub off on the other? Or was that just karmic compatibility?

      • Cliff Blau says:

        They were also broadcast partners for seven years. Coleman’s last year calling Yankees games was my first year following the team. Bob Gamere was a big letdown the next year.

  7. rjkitch13 says:

    FYI, Coleman used “hang a star on that one” for great defensive plays, not home runs.

  8. Jud says:

    Denny Matthews, Kansas City! And I’m not just saying that….

  9. Shagster says:

    John. Thank you for the Rizzuto story. You also may possibly be on verge of upstanding our beloved columnist for a few moments on his ‘hometown’ blog. Simple question: were you on Jeopardy?

    • John Leavy says:

      Sigh… I have to change my profile picture. The answer is yes, I was on “Jeopardy!” last April. The good news is, I played very well and won $23,000. The bad news is, I finished last! The worse news is, only the winner keeps the money! I was very good, but unfortunately, the competition that day was ALSO very, very good.

  10. wordyduke says:

    “That ball is looooong gone!”

    “This is the old left-hander, rounding third and heading for home…”

    Joe, you have emphasized the importance in our lives of local history.

    The worst thing you can have for your home-town announcer is a kid who is smooth but white-bread generic.

  11. Jim Trageser says:

    Grew up listening to Nuxy with Marty Brenneman on Reds’ broadcasts, then Dad got a new job in San Diego when I was 17 and off we moved. Discovered Jerry Coleman, and happily spent the next 30+ years listening to him. Got to meet him a few times through my job as a reporter and via the Boy Scouts with my son, and he was the same friendly, modest man in person that he was on the radio. No pretense whatsoever with him. God speed, Jerry.

  12. Cathead says:

    Peter Angelos was despised more for firing Jon Miller than he was for firing Manager-of-the-Year Davey Johnson.

  13. MRCS says:

    Interesting. There was a sports commentator here in the UK also named Coleman (David in this case) who was infamous for verbal gaffes (although it turns out it wasn’t actually him that said all those attributed to him).. There is even a wikipedia entry on “colemanballs”, referring primarily to David but also mentioning Jerry. David Coleman died a few days before Christmas.

  14. buddaley says:

    In my head, I hear Red Barber exclaiming “Oh doctor”. Am I remembering wrong?

  15. Mark Daniel says:

    Michael Kay is the worst baseball announcer ever, and I’m not saying that just because I’m a Red Sox fan.

    • murr2825 says:

      Aw, really, Mark? Everybody else here is extolling the virtues of their favorite announcer and you gotta slip that in? I got news for you, just about any announcer is somebody’s “worst” one; but in the spirit of this piece, why talk about it here?

      John Sterling, the radio announcer of the Yankees, is the best announcer that ever was or could ever be. He is articulate, knowledgable, humorous, corny (his home run calls are so bad they’re good) and even has been known to belt out a show tune or two, but most of all, he has a ball doing the games, even after all these years.

      • You’ve got to be kidding. Sterling is horrible. I suppose next you’ll tell me how Susan Walden is beautiful.

        • murr2825 says:

          Ah, Bellweather’s back to hang crepe. And as usual, with a missspelling; it’s “Suzyn”.

          • murr2825 says:

            Oops. That’s “misspelling”.

          • Carl says:

            Suzyn Walden deserves a job for life + the HoF for announcers just for getting Yogi and George back together (and Yogi back to The Stadium) before it was too late.

          • Richard says:

            While I have no doubt that both Susan Walden and Suzyn Walden are beautiful, the sportscaster for the Yankees is Suzyn *Waldman* – who is also beautiful, in her own way.

  16. tombando says:

    Ned Martin and Jim Woods were a great pairing in the mid 70’s for Boston.

  17. This was a lovely piece, Joe. The one thing I have to add about the Colonel is that he was incredibly modest. If anybody ever tried to praise him, he’d change the subject as quickly as possible. If there is a heaven, you can be sure that Jerry’s looking down yelling at us all to move on with our lives.

  18. Chris H says:

    It must have been especially hard to be the voice of the Padres with a living legend 100 miles or so up the road – and knowing that many or most of your team’s fans had been fans of the Dodgers and listened to that living legend for many years. (And if they were Angels fans, they were listening to another fine announcer, Rory Marcus, who died a few years ago and never seemed to get the recognition he deserved.) Obviously, the only thing you can do in that situation is to be yourself and hope it works. And obviously, Jerry Coleman was up to the task.

    I was never a Padres fan, but I would catch their games occasionally on XM radio. At one point they cut away to highlights of a Dodger game, Vin Scully rather matter-of-factly calling a Dodger home run. When they came back to Coleman he said, in what I took to be total admiration, something to the effect of, “Front offices are always sending memos telling announcers to be more enthusiastic in their calls. You can bet nobody’s sending Vin Scully those memos.”

    A class act, and one of the many greatest announcers who ever lived.


  19. […] Coleman’s passing caused Joe Posnanski to write about the nature of local and national broadcasters. […]

  20. I would have sworn that I’ve seen all those malapropisms credited to Ralph Kiner.

    • Dave says:

      Kiner had a list all his own. “Happy birthday to all you fathers out there” (on father’s day), mixing up players names like Gary Cooper, Darryl Thornberry, Dwight Goodenberry… saying I’m here with Ralph Kiner, meaning McCarver.

      • worried secularist says:

        Another Kinerism, from memory. I think it was Bruce Suter, aging and inured, of whom Kiner said ” He’s out for the rest of his career.

  21. Ron Warnick says:

    Mr. Coleman sounds a lot like Mike Shannon, who just finished his 43rd season in the booth for the St. Louis Cardinals.

    This is a new website that’s collected “Shannonisms” over the years:

  22. Ted Fontenot says:

    This doesn’t have anything to do with Coleman, but I’m a Cajun from South Louisiana. That means I’ve eaten better than most kings,

  23. NormE says:

    My favorite memory of Jerry Coleman is a picture on the back page of the NY Daily News showing an acrobatic 2nd baseman suspended in air over a sliding runner and completing his throw to 1st base. Double play! Coleman didn’t need an airplane to fly through the air.

  24. Michael Green says:

    Jim Murray once said of San Diego that it’s bounded by desert to the east, Mexico to the south, the ocean to the west, and Vin Scully to the north. Vin made some lovely comments about The Colonel, who was a marvelous broadcaster, both because of and in spite of those malaprops. And having grown up with The Vin, who once called the top Dodger farm club the Albukookie Derks and referred to the city to the south as San Duegi, I know that I have listened to the greatest ever, wherever I might have lived!

    On Coleman, he said that “Oh, Doctor,” actually came from Stengel. Whether Stengel got it from Barber, I don’t know. But Coleman worked with Red. In fact, it’s a weird story. Ballantine tried to get Barber to take a pay cut so that they could add Coleman to the Yankees crew. Red wouldn’t go for it–understandably–and the next year they hired him anyway. Red wasn’t kind to the ex-players he worked with during his Yankee years, but he was kindest to Coleman, and said he also was the man you would expect him to be after his war experiences–which is a nice way of saying he was a good person.

    Ironically, when CBS Radio got the major league post-season in 1976, the assignment for the NLCS went to Coleman and Kiner. I listened. No malaprops. Just good, informative broadcasting. San Diego got that for 40 years. The other irony is that San Diego fans are now blessed to have among them Dick Enberg, who has been criticized because, unlike the stupendously overrated Matt Vasgersian, he isn’t a hometown fan who makes constant and inane pop culture references. Meanwhile, the “fans” say that after all those years of Coleman just being a solid citizen and doing his job.

    • Enberg and Don Drysdale did the Angels games in the early 70s. I’m almost sure Dave Niehaus followed them. Then you had Vin in LA…. We’ll ignore the Jerry Doggett and Ross Porter abominations working with Vin. So SoCal was really blessed with good announcing for a good while.

  25. Skip Carey and Don Sutton suck. Being a Braves fan has everything to do with my opinion.

  26. KHAZAD says:

    Joe, I just returned from Winsteads before opening this up on the computer. I am still drinking the chocolate malt I got for dessert.

  27. I have heard Don Sutton, I’m not a Braves fan, and I’m not calling bellweather22 a liar.

  28. Daryn says:

    Coleman was also a rookie of the year, and a World Series MVP.

  29. […] Speaking of which, Joe Posnanski wrote about loving our local broadcaster (and loving Jerry […]

  30. Breadbaker says:

    I can’t say Winstead’s was the greatest hamburger ever, but I did go there four times in a three-day weekend in Kansas City in 2012. And that only because there were banquets for some of our other meals.

    RIP Jerry Coleman. The world needs more of you and less of people who look and talk perfect without having any personality or charm.

  31. Josh says:

    Baseball has truly had some wonderful radio men over the years, and I agree wholeheartedly that every part of the country has their legend that they feels is the best. Minnesota (and much of the upper midwest, because of the monumental reach of WCCO over the years) will always hold up Herb Carneal with any of them. He’s our gold standard, and it’s great how San Diego clearly feels the same about Jerry Coleman.

    We’re losing these kinds of legends and you don’t see too many replacements. Guys don’t stay in one place long enough and the reach of radio has plummeted. It’s wonderful when one of them bonds with an audience and bittersweet when that voice finally goes silent.

  32. Randy says:

    WInstead’s is definitely not the best burger. Not even the best in the KC area. That award goes to Paul and Jacks in NKC. (I haven’t been there in about 12 years, so things may have changed)

    KC does have the best bbq though. When I moved back here (Boston area) it became obvious they have no idea how to bbq. One day I realized that “Boston’s Best BBQ” was a joint not far from work. I went there one day for lunch and spotted Kansas City Style Burnt Ends. Sounded like a winner to me. Then they brought me out a pile of mush on a plate and had to ask what the heck it was. Surely not KC burnt ends. The poor gal assured me it was. While it was edible it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.

    Ned Martin has my vote.

  33. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    San Diego was a pretty defensive town back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Los Angeles cast a long shadow, and we were the provincial little Navy town nestled against the Mexican border. How defensive was San Diego? Sometime in the (I think) early 70s, some of the city fathers decided that we would brand ourselves “America’s Finest City”. Yes, we were that defensive.

    Our sports seemed inferior, too. L.A. had the NFL; we had the AFL. And once they reached the NFL, the Chargers annually embarrassed themselves until Dan Fouts finally arrived (remember Johnny U in blue and gold?). We lost two NBA teams, the Rockets and Clippers, while the Lakers transitioned seamlessly from West and Wilt to Magic and Kareem.

    And the Padres…even for an expansion team, they were awful. And they had this guy at the mic who drew national attention mainly for his mistakes. The Great Satan to the north had Vinny and Chick and Enberg. We had Colemanisms.

    But there was something about Jerry Coleman that grew on you. His sincerity and his love for the game cam through in every broadcast. He wasn’t a homer exactly, but you never had to wonder which side he was on. But more than anything else, he was unapologetic. He loved the Padres, he loved the city, he loved the fans and he didn’t care who knew it. Never–not once–was he ever defensive about our town or our team.

    Was he as good as Scully? No. But he helped turn San Diego into a major league city. And he was ours.

    RIP, Jerry.

  34. mikeynyc says:

    Without a doubt one of the funniest books I have ever read

  35. mikeynyc says:

    Well, I royally screwed up that last comment. That was meant to refer to a post above on the book of found Rizzuto poetry.

    Oh well, hopefully a Jerry Coleman remembrance thread is an ok place to post something out of place.

    • David Hallerman says:

      mikeynyc wrote: “Without a doubt one of the funniest books I have ever read.”

      And then he wrote: “Well, I royally screwed up that last comment. That was meant to refer to a post above on the book of found Rizzuto poetry.”

      Well, Mike, in some ways you didn’t screw up that comment.
      Calvin Trillin’s book that looks a lot at KC food including WInstead’s burgers, “Alice, Let’s Eat,” is one of the funniest books around too.

      • murr2825 says:

        The book mikeynyc is referring to is “O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto,” by Hart Seely and Tom Peyer. The book is still out there and worth finding, especially if you lived through the Rizzuto broadcasting era.

        “Ice! I cannot stand it! I cannot stand anything cold on my body!”

      • Pefacommish says:

        While “Alice, Let’s Eat” is also a great book, the one about KC food is “American Fried.” I say this not to criticize but to let people know that if you like Joe Pos, you’ll love Calvin Trillin’s books – all of them, but particularly the food books. “Not all of the best restaurants in the world are in Kansas City, just the top 4 or 5.”

  36. Chris H says:

    Sorry, make that Rory Markas – and I didn’t realize he hadn’t been the Angels’ announcer for the long term. His tenure at the mic happened to coincide with the years I lived in Southern California. Nevertheless, he was terrific.

  37. Beautiful work by Joe on Jerry Coleman. Great that he became such a beloved figure in San Diego. Interesting that he left New York.

    I don’t want this to deteriorate to a debate about Denny Matthews, but allow me to respectfully register my dissent. He is well liked in Kansas City and he is a nice guy. But passion? Any catch phrases? Any exciting calls? Any funny lines?

    Back to subject, RIP Jerry Coleman.

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