Sunday, October 11, 2015

Remembering Gordy Coleman

Gordy Coleman was a streak-hitting, sometime-sweet-swinging first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds in the early 1960s and a vital part of the 1961 pennant-winning team. He was also one of the nicest, most agreeable, easy-to-get-along-with guys in team history this side of Sean Casey. Always smiling, with a great sense of humor, Coleman was popular with fans and teammates. In fact, it could be said that Gordy never met anyone he couldn't get along with, unless that someone happened to be a ground ball or a pop fly near the stands.

You see, Gordy had his troubles in the field. Not that he didn't try, but despite hours of work under the exasperated eyes of manager Fred Hutchinson, he was still a butcher in the field. For several years he roomed with third baseman Gene Freese, a hard-hitting man also known to blow a play or two in the field. It was a running team joke that there was no use in ever calling their room because neither would be able to successfully pick up the phone.

Coleman came to the Reds with little expectations, a throw-in in a December, 1959 deal with Cleveland in which the Reds got pitcher Cal McLish, second baseman Billy Martin and Coleman in exchange for popular second baseman Johnny Temple. At the time Coleman was 25 years old and had 15 major league at bats worth of experience.

Manager Hutchinson saw something, however. Impressed with Coleman's desire and determination, he put him in the lineup. After playing part time in 1960, Coleman broke out in 1961 with 26 home runs, 87 RBIs and a .287 batting average as the Ragamuffin Reds stormed to a surprise pennant. In the World Series against the Yankees, Coleman hit a two-run homer in Game 2 to help the Reds to a 6-2 win in their only victory of the Series.

In 1962 Coleman came through with another solid year with 28 home runs, 86 RBIs and a .277 average. Coleman had an unorthodox, bucket-footed swing that a reporter said looked like he was falling out of bed. But he was a devastating curve ball hitter. Tim McCarver, catcher for the Cardinals said there were two guys he never called for a curve when they were up: Willie Mays and Gordy Coleman. And for reasons no one could ever figure out, the left-handed Coleman wore out Hall of Fame lefty Warren Spahn, one of the few left-handed hitters who could handle Spahn.

Although Coleman's hard work eventually improved his fielding, injuries and the arrival of sluggers Deron Johnson and Tony Perez cut into his playing time and he never regained the form of those two years. However, he compiled enough numbers and good memories before retiring in 1967 that he was later elected to the Reds Hall of Fame.  

Coleman was also one of baseball's all-time great worriers. In a 1962 preseason interview in Sports Illustrated he said, "I'm a worry wart. When I hit, I worry I'll stop. When I don't, I worry I won't start." He also worried constantly about his fielding and whether or not he would keep his job. When the reporter mentioned that he was the only first basemen on the Reds' roster that spring, Coleman smiled and replied, "I guess if I'm the only first baseman on the roster, he [Hutchinson] thinks I can do the job."

When told that Hutchinson had said that there were two or three other guys who could play first if needed, Coleman began worrying again, "That's why you have to worry. There are always guys looking over your shoulder who aren't even there."

Reds infielder Eddie Kasko remembered a tight extra-inning game in 1961 in L.A. against the second-place Dodgers as the Reds were fighting for the pennant. With two outs and Dodgers all over the bases, the Reds managed to get the final out. As they were leaving the field Kasko said to Coleman, "I was praying we'd get that last out."

Coleman replied, "I was just praying they didn't hit it to me."

But it was Coleman's personality that inspired the most lasting memories. "Everybody liked Gordy Coleman," said Mike Holzinger, who was a teenaged batboy for the Reds in the mid-60s. "He was just a great guy. Always happy, always seemed to go out of his way to be nice to everybody. He was a gentleman's gentleman. I remember when I went on a road trip with the team to New York, he looked at me and said, 'I don't want you going anywhere without my permission. This is a big city.' He was just like that; always wanting to help."

The gregarious Coleman naturally went into public relations work for the Reds after retiring, working in ticket sales, as part of the team's speakers bureau and serving as color commentator for Reds televised games from 1990 to 1994. A popular speaker, he made as many as 200 speeches a year throughout Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia for the Reds. Thousands of fans in the area still have warm memories of being entertained by Coleman.

He died of a heart attack in 1994.

Gone but not forgotten; one of the good guys.

Gordy Coleman 1934-1994.

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