This annotated week in baseball history: Aug. 24- Aug. 30, 1937by Richard Barbieri
August 29, 2008
On Aug. 25, 1937 Clarence Coleman was born. Like George Ruth and Denton Young, his place in the game’s history would come with a nickname. Unfortunately for "Choo Choo" Coleman, it would not come with the greatness Babe and Cy enjoyed.
To what may be his infinite regret, the player most inexorably linked to the hopelessly inept is “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry. At least half of the stories of Throneberry’s ineptitude with the Mets must be at least exaggerated and some simply apocryphal.
But stories like missing both first and second base on a triple or not being given a slice of his own birthday cake because his teammates were afraid he’d drop it just seem to represent the ’62 Mets so well that Throneberry made a post-playing career out of being a punch line.
The thing about all that is that Throneberry isn’t really a great representation of that team. It is true that he was not much of a player, but terrible players were not hard to come by on the ’62 Mets; shoppers in New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2005 found better selections than general managers for the Mets and Astros did at the 1962 draft.
But while the 1962 Mets were a team with no past and essentially no future and while Throneberry didn’t have much of a future, he did have a past. Throneberry was part of the victorious side in a World Series (the 1958 Yankees) and was part of the trade that brought Roger Maris to New York. Moreover, Throneberry was bad, but he wasn’t that bad; he was an above replacement-level talent, which most of the Mets couldn’t claim to be.
A more accurate representation of the 1962 Mets would be Choo Choo Coleman. Coleman did have a past, but it was not one he’d brag about. In 1961 he saw action in 34 games for a Phillies team that lost 107 games, including the modern record of 23 in a row. (One can imagine Choo Choo packing his locker at the end of that season thinking “Well, that was a tough year, but at least things can only get better.” How little he knew.)
Coleman’s line that season was an ugly .128/.180/.149. He had just one extra base hit (a double), and more strikeouts than hits. This goes a long way to explaining why he was available for the Mets in the expansion draft.
Of course, the Mets didn’t really have many illusions about what kind of player they were getting. When Coleman debuted Casey Stengel gave a ringing endorsement by telling the media that Mets had “to have a catcher or (they’d) have all passed balls.”
As it turned out, no catcher would have been worse, but only just. Coleman allowed five passed balls in just over 320 innings behind the plate. In 2006 Joe Mauer also allowed five passed balls, but needed more than 1,000 innings to do it.
Opinion varies on the source of Coleman’s catching woes. Some versions of the story claim that Coleman was merely a hapless defensive catcher. Others suggest that Coleman was excellent at catching low balls, but was responsible for a Met staff that featured almost no low ball pitchers. This view seems to be supported by Stengel’s later statement that he “had 15 pitchers who said they couldn't pitch to (Coleman)—and it turned out they couldn't pitch to nobody.”
On the other hand, at least one source reports that so hapless at calling pitches was Coleman that the Mets considered painting his nails different colors, with each to correspond to a different pitch. Roger Craig, ace of the Mets staff—he went 10-24—was alleged to have said that Choo Choo “(gave) the sign and then (looked) down to see what it was.”
In fairness to Coleman, of the Mets’ collections of backstops—which included such bright lights as Hobie Landrith and Harry Chiti—he was the best hitter to see regular time. Coleman’s .250/.303/.441 line that season made him nearly a league average hitter. (It was also wildly out of line with the rest of his career; he never hit higher than .188 after that.)
Coleman also benefits from comparison to the Mets’ regular catcher, Chris Cannizzaro. Cannizzaro hit just .241 in 1962. This prompted Stengel to tell reporters that “(Cannizzaro’s) a great hitter, except when I play him.” Casey was no more complimentary of Cannizzaro’s defense, noting that he was “the only defensive catcher in baseball who can't catch."
More than anything except his name, Coleman’s legacy was sealed by his interviews. While I have no doubt that Coleman was a reasonably intelligent man, he seemed to give interviews with the sole purpose of proving otherwise.
When Coleman appeared with Ralph Kiner and his eponymous Korner, Kiner asked Coleman what his wife’s name was and what she was like. Coleman apparently misinterpreting the ex-outfielder’s intentions, replied that her name was Mrs. Coleman that “she likes (him), Bub.”
You have perhaps been wondering why people called him “Choo Choo.” Well, as it turned out, so was Coleman. Kiner asked the catcher and after a deliberate pause, and then a bit more time, Coleman replied that he didn’t know.
(The only even vaguely plausible story I have found for the nickname is that as a catcher in the minor leagues Coleman would go into his crouch and step on the home plate umpire’s shoes, thus “chewing’ them up as the game went on. I’m not sure I buy that, but it beats the absurd train-related explanations some offer.)
And while we’re on the subject of not knowing, Coleman demonstrated he could be equally slow-seeming with teammates. At the end of the 1962 season, Charley Neal is said to have claimed to Coleman that he didn’t know who he was. Coleman replied that Neal was number four. Which he was.
It’s probably too late to change the standard bearer of the 1962 Mets from Throneberry to Coleman. And it is definitely unfair to burden Coleman, now 71, with such a legacy. This is a man, after all, who played on teams that went 138-338 in three years and endured losing streaks of 15, 17 and 23 games in those years.
But if Marvelous Marv is the player who comes to mind for such a hapless squad, it is only reasonable to remember Choo Choo Coleman as well, a man who represented much of what little that team had to offer.
Questions, comments and thinly veiled threats can be mailed to Richard on the back of a twenty dollar bill or e-mailed to him at RichardBarbieri@yahoo.com