Monday, August 15, 2016

Choo Choo Coleman: Farewell to a good 'bub'

Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman, one of the venerable members of the inaugural 1962 New York Mets team, passed away Monday August 15, 2016 at the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina due to complications from cancer. He was 80.

Of all of the members of the 1962 New York Mets team, the details about the life and career of catcher “Choo Choo” Coleman remained mysterious, as he disappeared from the public spotlight after leaving baseball.
Choo Choo Coleman in 2012 / N. Diunte

Coleman, then 76-years-old, returned to New York in 2012 for the first time in 46 years for a series of appearances at various memorabilia shows and to attend the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner at the Marriott Marquis.

The usually reserved former catcher invited me to meet with him the Friday evening he arrived in New York, giving his first interview ever since his playing days. Greeting me with a, 'Hey bub, nice to meet you,' Coleman broke the ice with a term I quickly discovered he used to refer to almost everyone. Sitting in his hotel room, he explained the origins of his nickname “Choo Choo.” It was something he had long before professional baseball.

“Growing up in Orlando, I was small and fast, like a choo-choo train, and so it went,” Coleman said.

He cut his teeth in professional baseball during the 1955 season, signing with the Washington Senators Class D affiliate in his hometown of Orlando, Florida.

“A friend of mine played for them and told me about it" he said. "I talked to the people, tried out and made the team."

Playing professional baseball in the segregated South, Coleman encountered his share of obstacles while traveling.

“At that time it was hard," he said. "People were different [then]. I don’t know about now, it’s a whole lot different. We lived in different places [from the team]. We lived in private homes; we couldn’t live in the hotels back then."

After two stints with the Orlando team, Coleman was picked up by Syd Pollock’s Indianapolis Clowns halfway through the 1956 season. By that time Coleman asserts, the Clowns had moved on from their Negro League affiliation to that of a traveling ball club. His escapades with the Clowns took him to far reaching parts of the country such as North Dakota.

“We weren’t in the Negro Leagues, we played all over,” he said. “I played two years. We played almost every day. We went everywhere; it was a lot of fun.”

He reveled in discussing some of the antics that made the Clowns popular at that time.

“We’d have the Clowns run down on to the field, hitting people in the crowd in the head, stuff like that,” he said.

By 1958, Coleman returned to Orlando and spent two more seasons there, waiting for an opportunity to climb baseball’s proverbial ladder. This chance came in 1960 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I went to Vero Beach and made the A ball club in Macon,” he recalled. “I played there a month or two and then I went to Montreal (AAA).”
Choo Choo Coleman with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Spring Training
The Phillies liked Coleman’s performance in Montreal enough to draft him from the Dodgers and place him on their opening day roster in 1961.

“I went to the Phillies first,” he said. “Then they sent me to Spokane, Washington. … I didn’t play too much.”

His hot bat in spring training was not enough to force manager Gene Mauch’s hand.

“I went to spring training and hit about .280, but they never played me,” he recalled. “They played Clay Dalrymple; he hit about .215 and played about every night. [Mauch] knew his baseball, but I don’t think he liked me.”

Coleman suspicions about Mauch were confirmed when he was put in to pinch-hit for Ruben Amaro with two strikes in what was only his second plate appearance in the majors.

“There was a man on first base,” Coleman recounted over 60 years later. “Ruben Amaro was supposed to lay the ball down, put him over. He never did. He did it two times and fouled the ball off. I’m on the bench all night and he called me to come take his place with two strikes. My first time in the major leagues [and I pinch-hit] with two strikes! I fouled four balls off and I hit in to the double play that night in Philly. I always remembered that. That’s tough man!” (Note - It was Coleman’s second career plate appearance and he grounded out to first to end the inning.)

The Phillies left Coleman unprotected in the expansion draft and he was signed by the New York Mets for the 1962 season.

“I never knew at that time that I’d be there on the first [team],” he said. “I made the team and I was happy to be there. I did my best. I hit over .250 my first year. I stayed hurt a lot. My shoulder was out of place, nose fractured, fractured my fingers (displaying multiple broken fingers on his right hand). It’s different now. They play now with one hand behind the back; I didn’t do that, I caught with two hands.”

Despite his small size, Coleman remained fearless behind the plate. He wasn’t going to let his stature be a factor in determining his playing time on the field.

“It didn’t make no difference,” he said. “I weighed 155; I was the smallest one. All of the fellas were over 200. I wasn’t afraid.”

When asked about the legendary Mets manager Casey Stengel, Coleman recalls very limited interactions between them.

“I didn’t talk to him too much,” he recalled. “Most of the time, he’d be on the bench asleep.”

Coleman played for the Mets their first two seasons and made a return appearance in 1966 for six games. Taking time to reflect on his stay in New York, Coleman enjoyed his time there and its demanding fan base.

“It was nice to play here,” he said. “In order to play here in New York, you had to be good. You can’t be bad or slow; you always had to do your best.”

He had one last hurrah with the Mets organization in 1969 after leaving baseball behind for two years; however, he could not make it back to the majors to be a part of the World Series championship team.

“I took off two years and I stayed home to go fishing at the time,” he said. “I came back two years later after I wrote them a letter and told them I wanted to start back. They sent me to Tidewater. I been out two years, but I still made the team!”

While he was in New York, he looked forward to being able to see teammates such as Al Jackson and Frank Thomas, as well as Willie Mays, whom he regards as the best player he’s ever seen. He also was excited to Citi Field for the first time, a sight he would rather have experienced as a player than a spectator.

“If I was playing, I’d be more excited to see it … it would be a lot different,” he said.

After baseball, he returned to Florida and later owned a Chinese restaurant for 18 years. In retirement, the humble Coleman enjoyed the ample opportunity to go fishing whenever he wanted.

“It’s a lot of fun just to go and relax,” he said.

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