Oh doctor! Padres' Coleman lays out his life in the Marines, baseball in new book

By JIM TRAGESER - Staff Writer

It's a story that certainly has all the ingredients for a whopping good tale: a decorated combat pilot in two wars; American League rookie of the year; World Series most valuable player; teammate to Yankees greats such as Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle; induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And yet it's taken Jerry Coleman every one of his 83 years to finally tell his story in book form.

As fans of the San Diego Padres well know, the longtime radio voice of the team is as modest as his achievements are legend. To hear him tell it, his life has been nothing special: just a very lucky guy getting to do what he loves.

But his autobiography belies his modesty.

"An American Journey: My Life on the Field, In the Air and On the Air" (Triumph Books, $24.95) was published last week. The book's 224 pages trace Coleman's life from his youth in the Bay Area to his World War II service as a Marine Corps dive bomber pilot, to stardom with the New York Yankees ---- and then back to the Marines as a ground attack pilot in Korea. The book follows his post-military career through his return to the Yankees and subsequent Hall of Fame career as a broadcaster for the Yankees, CBS and finally (since 1972) the Padres.

Given the richness of his story, why did it take so long to write?

"I had other offers through the years, but I wasn't interested," Coleman said during an interview at a La Jolla diner on Friday. "Then my wife got involved ---- she said, 'You should write what you've done to give to your daughter.' "

At about the same time, Coleman said he was approached by co-author Richard Goldstein, who writes for The New York Times. What sold Coleman on working with Goldstein was that "he's a military and sports writer ---- he writes about both."

Coleman said he sat down and met with Goldstein in person for three sessions, putting his recollections down on tape for Goldstein to work from in writing the book in Coleman's voice. Follow-up sessions were done by phone.

The book lays out some discomfiting sides of his private life that not everyone would necessarily share. Coleman said his older sister was taken aback when he told her he was including the fact that his father had shot their mother when they were kids, leaving their mom a nine-month recuperation and a lifetime in a leg brace.

But he said there was no other way to tell his story.

"If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it," he said firmly. "I'm not going to avoid it. My mother was an angel in my life; what she went through is more than anything I went through. You can't hide from it."

The years he spent on active duty with the Marines remain another defining moment of his life.

"The biggest part of my life is the military, even though it was only five years," Coleman said of the lengthy portions of the book devoted to his wartime experiences.

He pointed out that his first stint in the Marines took him from 18 to 21 years of age.

"Those are your formative years; my time in the service at that time of my life made me who I am today."

New to the book-writing business, Coleman said he'd had his first book-signing event the night before at Warwick's in La Jolla. When asked how it went, he said, "It went OK."

When asked whether the turnout was good, he said, "Yes, there were some people there."

When pressed further (and he was visibly squirming by this point) as to whether any of his fans had bought books for him to sign, he finally admitted, "They sold every copy they had in stock."

But who's to say this will be the final word in Coleman's life story? Still very fit and youthful at 83, Coleman is back to working full time for the Padres after a 2006 season where he was platooned with former Padre Tim Flannery (who has since left the broadcast booth to coach for the San Francisco Giants). Coleman said he has another season left on his contract with the Padres, and "then who knows?"

He made clear, though, that he'd love to continue working.

"I can't stand to sit around doing nothing; I don't know how anyone does that."

As to what he hopes people take away from his book, he said the theme of his life is simple:

"Only two things are important in life: the people whom you love and who love you, and your country. Where else can you go from nothing to something, and everyone has the same chance?"

"An American Journey: My Life on the Field, In the Air and On the Air"

Authors: Jerry Coleman and Richard Goldstein

Publisher: Triumph Books

Pages: 224

Binding: Hardcover

Price: $24.95