Born in San Jose, California, Coleman spent his entire playing career with the New York Yankees, wearing uniform number 42. He played 6 years in their minor league system before reaching the big club in 1949. Coleman hit .275 in his first year and led all second basemen in fielding percentage en route to finishing 3rd in rookie of the year balloting.
Coleman avoided a sophomore jinx by earning a selection to the All-Star team in 1950. He then shined in the World Series with brilliant defense, earning him the BBWAA's Babe Ruth Award as the series' most valuable player.
"The Colonel", as he was nicknamed, was also a Marine aviator and left baseball briefly to serve in the Korean War, and before getting into the sport, served during World War II. He was involved in many flying missions, and received numerous honors and medals during his time in the military, and has been honored in recent years for his call to duty—even more so following the events of September 11, 2001.
Coleman's career declined after injuring himself the following season, relegating him to a bench role. He was forced to retire after the 1957 season, but he left on a good note; hitting .364 in a World Series loss against the Milwaukee Braves.
In 1960, Coleman became a broadcaster for the CBS Radio Network and in 1963 began a seven-year run calling New York Yankees' games on WCBS Radio and WPIX-TV. Coleman's WPIX call of ex-teammate Mickey Mantle's 500th career home run in 1967 was brief and from the heart:
- Here's the payoff pitch... This is IT! There it goes! It's out of here!
In 1972 Coleman became lead radio announcer for the San Diego Padres, a position he has held every year since but 1980, when the Padres hired him to manage (predating a trend of broadcasters-turned-managers that started in the late 1990s). He also called national regular-season and postseason broadcasts for the CBS Radio Network from the mid-1970s to the 1990s.
Coleman is also famous for his pet phrases "Oh Doctor!", "You can hang a star on that baby!", "And the beat goes on", and "The natives are getting restless".
During an interview in the height of the steroids scandal in 2005, Coleman stated "if I'm emperor, the first time 50 games, the second time 100 games and the third strike you're out", referring to how baseball should suspend players for being caught taking steroids. After the 2005 World Series, Major League Baseball put a similar policy in effect.
He is known as the "Master of the Malaprop" for making sometimes embarrassing mistakes on the microphone , but he is nonetheless popular. In 2005, he was given the Ford C. Frick Award of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for broadcasting excellence.
Among his malaprops:
- "On the mound for the Padres is Randy Jones, the lefthander with the Karl Marx hairdo." (With his curly blond hair, Jones resembled the comedian Harpo Marx).
- "There's a fly ball, deep to right field! Winfield is going back, back, back, he hits his head against the wall! It's rolling away!" (The ball rolled away, but Coleman made it sound like what was rolling away was Dave Winfield's head.)
- "Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen."
- "I've made a couple of mistakes I'd like to do over."
- "Gaylord Perry and Willie McCovey should know each other like a book. They've been ex-teammates for years now."
- "McCovey swings and misses, and it's fouled back."
- "Hi folks, I'm Gerry Gross!" (Coleman is not the only broadcaster to mistakenly introduce himself with his partner's name.)
- "If Pete Rose brings the Reds in first, they ought to bronze him and put him in cement."
- "It's off the leg and into the left field of Doug Rader."
- "It's a base hit on the error by Roberts."
- "Right now Andy Larkin is pitching just like young Andy Larkin."
- "Bob Davis has his hair differently this year, short with curls like Randy Jones wears. I think you call it a Frisbee."
- At Royals Stadium, later renamed Kauffman Stadium, in Kansas City, Missouri: "The sky is so clear today you can see all the way to Missouri." (Broadcast partner John Rooney later told Coleman that he was in Missouri.)
- "They throw Winfield out at second, but he's safe."
- "They've taken the foot off Johnny Grubb. Uh, they've taken the shoe off Johnny Grubb."
- "Grubb goes back, back... He's under the warning track and makes the play."
- "Johnny Grubb slides into second with a standup double." (Several broadcasters have done this one.)
- "Jesus Alou is in the on-deck circus." (He meant "on-deck circle.")
- "Kent Abbott is in the on-deck circuit."
- "There is someone warming up in the Giants' bullpen, but he's obscured by his number."
- "All the Padres need is a fly ball in the air."
- "Davis fouls out to third in fair territory."
- "There's a shot up the alley. Oh, it's just foul." (He meant "a shot down the line.")
- Upon hearing of Glenn Beckert's planned retirement: "Well, I hope before Glenn goes, he'll come up here so we can give him a big hug and a kiss, because that's the kind of guy he is."
- "And it's a long drive down the line to centerfield."
- "That's the fourth extra base hit for the Padres -- two doubles and a triple."
- "Houston has its largest crowd of the night here this evening."
- "Montreal leads Atlanta by three, 5-1."
- "The first pitch to Tucker Ashford is grounded into left field. No, wait a minute. It's ball one. Low and outside."
- On George Hendrick: "That's Hendrick's 19th home run. One more and he reaches double figures."
- "Well, it looks like the All-Star balloting is about over, especially in the National and American Leagues."
- "The Padres, after winning the first game of the doubleheader, are ahead here in the top of the fifth and hoping for a split."
- "Eric Show will be 0 for 10 if that pop fly ever comes down."
- "At the end of six innings of play, it's Montreal 5, Expos 3."
- "Tony Taylor was one of the first acquisitions that the Phillies made when they reconstructed their team. They got him from Philadelphia." (Well, Taylor did return to the Phillies a few years after being traded away.)
- "Mike Caldwell, the Padres' right-handed southpaw, will pitch tonight." ("Southpaw" is a term for lefthanders.)
- "Those amateur umpires are certainly flexing their fangs tonight."
- "The ex-left-hander Dave Roberts will be going for Houston."
- "Hector Torrez, how can you communicate with Enzo Hernandez when he speaks Spanish and you speak Mexican?"
- "I sure hope you're staying alive for the upcoming Dodgers series."
- "National League umpires wear inside chest protesters." (He meant they wear their chest protectors inside their uniforms, as opposed to outside them like American League umpires did at the time."
- "The Phillies beat the Cubs today in a doubleheader. That puts another keg in the Cubs' coffin." (He meant "another nail.")
- "Reggie Smith of the Dodgers and Gary Matthews of the homers hit Braves in that game."
- "And Kansas City is at Chicago tonight, or is it Chicago at Kansas City? Well, no matter as Kansas City leads in the eighth 4 to 4."
- "Ron Guidry is not very big, maybe 140 pounds, but he has an arm like a lion." (He meant "a heart like a lion," though Guidry was an excellent pitcher.)
- "The way he's swinging the bat, he won't get a hit until the 20th century." (He meant the 21st.)
- "Pete Rose has three-thousand hits and 3,014 overall."
- "If Rose's streak was still intact, with that single to left, the fans would be throwing babies out of the upper deck." (He meant "throwing stars.")
- "There's two heads to every coin." (He meant "two sides.")
- "Billy Almon has all of his in-laws and outlaws here this afternoon."
- "Over the course of a season, a miscue will cost you more than a good play."
- "He can be lethal death."
- "Sometimes, big trees grow out of acorns. I think I heard that from a squirrel."
- "Whenever you get an inflamed tendon, you've got a problem. OK, here's the next pitch to Gene Tendon." (He meant Gene Tenace.)
- On a home run by Willie Stargell: "Last night's homer was Stargell's 399th career home run, leaving him one shy of 500."
- "You didn't have to say it was gone. It was gone before it got outta here. It was going that fast."
- "He may not be hurt as much as he really is."
- "At the end, excitement maintained its hysteria."
- "Tony Gwynn, the fat batter behind Finley, is waiting." (He meant "the next batter behind Steve Finley. Then again, Gwynn did put on a lot of weight during his playing career.)
- "Larry Lintz steals second standing up. He slid, but he didn't have to."
- "The Cards lead the Dodgers 4-2 after one inning and that one hasn't even started."
- "The last time Pena faced the Padres, the Dodgers scratched for a run to tie the game and then went on to win 4-0."
- "That home run ties it up, 1-0."
- "Larry Moffett is 6' 3". Last year he was 6' 6"." (Coleman probably meant to refer to his record, six wins and three losses, rather than to his height.)
- "I challenge anyone, even with a radar machine, to hit that slider."
- "What a great hitch to pit!"
- "Trailing 5-1, the Padres added an insurance run in the eighth inning."
- "The Padres are really swinging some hot hats tonight!"
- "Gene Richards swings, the ball bounces foul and hits him in the head. No harm done."
- "When you lose your hands, you can't play baseball."
- "Ozzie Smith just made another play that I've never seen anyone else make before, and I've seen him make it more often than anyone else ever has."
- "Sunday is Senior Citizens' Day. And if you want to become a senior citizen, just call the Padre ticket office."
- "Rick Miller hit only one home run last year, and that's like hitting none."
- "I've never seen a game like this. Every game this year has been like this."
- On a home run by Dave Parker: "Parker's grand slam is the same as going 4 for 4, even though he went 1 for 4."
- On coach Steve Boros: "Boros is not with the team today because he's attending his daughter's funeral. Oh, wait, it's her wedding."
- "I like to use big words so people will think I know what I'm talking about."
- Referring to a Cleveland Indians fan banging a loud drum during the game: "Well, he ought to go home and find somebody else to bang."
- Signed as an amateur free agent by New York Yankees (1942).
- Released by New York Yankees (December 9, 1957).