Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman was a quiet player during his time with the original Mets. He even denied that he actually said the most famous quotation attributed to him. Still, he was and is one of the most beloved figures on a cherished team.
The catcher who helped symbolize the earnest but fruitless efforts of the 1962 Mets died early Monday in Bamberg, South Carolina, after a long illness, the team said. He was 80, three days short of his next birthday.
A lifetime .197 batter, Coleman — who laconically called most people “Bub” — became endearing largely because of his memorable nickname. He was among the marginal ballplayers acquired in the talent-thin expansion draft before the club’s inaugural season.
Coleman made his Mets debut on July 16 and probably is best remembered for his big game Aug. 4 and what occurred afterward.
He went 3-for-4 with a double and home run in a rare 9-1 victory over the Reds and was asked to appear on “Kiner’s Korner,” the postgame show.
According to legend, Mets announcer and Hall of Fame player Ralph Kiner asked Coleman how he acquired his nickname and the 5-9 lefthanded hitter said, “I don’t know, Bub.” Then Kiner reportedly asked, “What’s your wife’s name and what’s she like?” Coleman’s reply is said to have been, “Mrs. Coleman, and she likes me, Bub.”
Coleman denied that exchange ever happened. When he was interviewed for the 2016 book, “Down on the Korner,” by Howie Karpin and Mark Rosenman, he said: “No, it never did. You know I left New York a long time ago and it’s been over 50 years.”
Kiner, though, in a 2012 column by George Vecsey in The New York Times, insisted that Coleman did say it (there is no tape of the interview).
In any event, Coleman was part of the fabric of a team that many New Yorkers took to heart although it lost 120 of its 160 games.
“He was a quiet guy. We all had a lot of fun with him,” former pitcher Roger Craig said on the phone from his home in California. “Any time you’d throw something in the dirt, he would catch it or block it. But if you threw it chest high, once in a while, he couldn’t reach it.”
Craig added that the ’62 Mets always have felt like a fraternity. “He was a very nice guy. I’m very sorry to hear this,” he said.
As for why a backup catcher was so popular, Craig said: “He was just a likable guy. All his teammates loved him.”
Coleman was born in Orlando, Florida, and signed as a free agent with the Washington Senators in 1955. He was released two years later and signed by the Dodgers, who lost him to the Phillies in the 1960 Rule V draft. He made his major-league debut with the Phillies on April 16, 1961, and was hit by a pitch from the Giants’ Sam Jones.
He played parts of three seasons with the Mets, finishing with six games in April 1966. In what might be seen as historical symmetry or a just reward, after two years off, he rejoined the organization and appeared in 94 games for the Tidewater affiliate in 1969 — meaning he was part of the Mets’ family when they completed their amazing rise from laughingstock to world champions.
Coleman played in the Mexican League, then returned to Orlando and later moved to Newport News, Virginia, before spending his final years in Bamberg. He returned, with much fanfare, to New York in 2012 for a 50th anniversary card show and other appearances. While he was there, he finally acknowledged how he got the nickname that made him famous.
He told Vecsey: “When I was 8 or 9, I ran around a lot. My friends called me Choo Choo because I was fast.”
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