For many years the New York Yankees, a baseball team that has won more World Series than any other, have been known as the Bronx Bombers. The name derives from the location of Yankee Stadium and the team’s thunderous power-hitting over the years. Although he was a relatively light hitter in baseball uniforms, infielder Jerry Coleman truly was a bomber in what he considered the most important facet of his life.
The only major leaguer who was in combat service in both World War II and the Korean War, Coleman, who died on 5 January at the age of 89, has drawn much more attention through his passing than have many of his baseball contemporaries. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 he was 17 years old and in high school. Although he had intended to go to college on an athletic scholarship, as he explained in a December 2009 Proceedings article, naval aviators got to him first. Their visit to his school persuaded him to join their ranks, but he was too young. In the meantime, he played baseball in the Yankees’ minor league system. On his 18th birthday, in September 1942, he enlisted in the Navy’s V-5 training program.
Coleman started off with preflight training. Among those who visited was Captain Joe Foss, who had earned the Medal of Honor for his exploits as a fighter pilot in the Guadalcanal campaign. Like the pilots who visited Coleman’s high school, Foss did another successful recruiting job, this time on behalf of the Marine Corps. Coleman was commissioned as a second lieutenant in April 1944 and spent 12 months flying the sturdy SBD Dauntless dive bomber in the Solomons and the Philippines as a member of the Torrid Turtles, Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 341. During his training, he qualified to operate from aircraft carriers.
All told, he flew 57 missions, including both dive bombing and close-air support of soldiers and Marines on the ground. He was 19, and his rear-seat gunner-radioman was 18. When he came home at the end of the war, Coleman was too young to get a drink in a bar. In an interview he joked that the government trusted him with his own airplane at a time when he had trouble getting to use the family car.
In 1949 he joined the major league Yankees and played well as part of a team that won the first of five consecutive World Series. In 1950 he made the American League all-star team and was the most valuable player in that year’s World Series. In 1951 he was part of yet another World Series winner. The following year, the Marine Corps recalled reservist Coleman to active duty. The service needed experienced pilots because it had not trained a sufficient number of aviators in the years between World War II and the Korean War. This time Coleman flew the bent-wing F4U Corsair—63 missions in all as a member of Marine Fighter Squadron 323, the Death Rattlers. He relished the camaraderie of the squadron ready room because service together in wartime is indeed a bonding experience.
As in World War II, he flew both bombing and close-air support missions. On one mission with his tent-mate and wingman, Major Max Harper, Coleman saw Harper’s plane blow up in front of him and crash. He kept on with the attack, leading to praise from Ted Williams, both a fellow Marine pilot and baseball player. Speaking of Coleman’s dedication to duty after seeing his best friend blown up, Williams said, with an uncharacteristic touch of modesty: “If it had happened to me, I would have been useless out there. That was enough to take the starch out of anyone.”
After his return to civilian life and the Yankees, the team honored the second baseman with Jerry Coleman Day at the ballpark in the Bronx. That day Mrs. Harper showed up at the hotel where he was staying. He recognized her right away, for he had seen pictures of her many times in the tent in Korea when Major Harper was still alive. She said she would believe her husband was gone only if Coleman would confirm it, which he did.
When he resumed his baseball career, he was no longer the player he had been. As he wrote in Proceedings, “I’d lost my depth perception, and I couldn’t hit anything.” But he had no regrets, for to him service to his country was far more important than baseball.
Jerry Coleman remained in the Marine Corps Reserve long enough to retire as a lieutenant colonel. After hanging up his uniform, he became a broadcaster for the Yankees and later, for many years, for the San Diego Padres. The National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him into the broadcasters’ wing in 2005. Over the years, he became a beloved presence as his voice came into people’s homes night after night.
Following his death, more than 5,000 fans showed up in San Diego’s Petco Park to honor him in a mid-January memorial tribute. Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter-bombers flew over to salute him in a missing-man formation. As part of the service, his daughter Chelsea delivered a eulogy that ended, “Semper Fi and beat L.A.!”