Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman, the darling of manager Casey Stengel, who came to symbolize the lovably inept Mets during their earliest years, passed away Monday, August 15 from cancer at Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina, according to the Associated Press.
Official baseball records list his age at 78, meaning he died just 10 days before his 79th birthday August 25. However, Coleman’s niece, Linda Hibbler, told the AP that her uncle was born on August 18, 1935, which means he would have been 80.
This seems appropriate for a man who was nothing if not mysterious, both during his playing days and in the years that followed.
And after resurfacing in 2012 for a slate of alumni events in New York heralding a half-century of Mets baseball, the man known as “Choo-Choo” turned up in the Mets landscape yet again, as he’d done in 1966 and, to some degree, in 1969—though many fans may not know it.
Signed to his first professional contract by the Washington Senators before the 1955 season after playing in the Negro American League, Coleman appeared in 17 games that year for his hometown Orlando Flyers in the Class D Florida State League, batting .150 with one home run.
He played in only two games for Orlando the following year, was released by the Senators, and appeared nowhere as pro in 1957 before resurfacing with the Flyers, by then an unaffiliated club, in 1958. He hit .234 in 129 games that year, which caught the attention of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who signed him as a free agent for the 1959 season.
By that time affiliated with the Dodgers, Orlando welcomed Coleman yet again and he responded, batting .259 with eight home runs and 80 RBIs. He also stole 15 bases for good measure for the second straight year.
Coleman advanced to Triple-A Montreal in 1960 and hit .258 in 98 games, after which he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he hit .128 in 47 at-bats after making his major league debut on April 16, 1961.
His true moment in the spotlight came in 1962, however, after being plucked in the expansion draft by the New York Mets. There, he hit .205 in 167 games, mostly in 1962 and 1963 before a brief cameo in April 1966 that would prove to be his last appearance in the big leagues.
Grasping for anything hopeful during a season that saw his club go 40-120 in 1962, Stengel steadfastly talked up the diminutive receiver, listed at 5’9” and 165 pounds, both to the press and anyone else who would listen. Choo-Choo, he would say, was the fastest catcher he’d ever seen chase after passed balls. And he had lots of opportunities to show off that skill, registering five in 44 games behind the plate in 1962 and a whopping 11 in 91 games the next year. Somehow Coleman was charged with only one error in 1962 but found his mojo the next year, registering 15.
According to an article written by George Vecsey published in New York Newsday on March 24, 1964, Stengel was quoted as saying that Coleman, who’d hit .178 with three home runs and nine RBIs in 106 games the previous year, was capable of delivering the long ball.
“He hit 15 home runs for me last year, but all of them went foul,” he reportedly said.
Coleman, who was nursing an injured thumb at the time that spring, didn’t make the club and was farmed out to Buffalo, where he hit .285 in the first of two straight seasons in which he toiled for the Bisons without a call-up. He made the club out of spring training in 1966, but not for long. After only 16 at-bats spread over six games, he returned to the minors, this time for good.
But Choo-Choo, remembered for flummoxing Ralph Kiner on-air during a pre-game interview (when asked how he got his nickname Coleman replied “I dunno”, and then when asked by Kiner later in the interview what his wife’s name was and what she was like replied “Her name’s Mrs. Coleman and she likes me, bub”), just couldn’t get the game, or the Mets, out of his system.
In an article written by Joe Donnelly published in Newsday on March 18, 1969—seven months before the Mets shocked everyone on Earth by becoming World Champions—readers were presented an incredible, astonishing piece of news: Choo-Choo, who’d bolted on the club following the 1966 season and seemingly had disappeared into oblivion, was alive and well and back in a Mets uniform, albeit on the minor league side of camp in St. Petersburg.
Coleman, it turned out, wanted to give the game one last shot, and had written Mets minor league director Joe McDonald and asked for a second chance.
As published in the article by Newsday, the letter read:
I know that I didn’t do right by not telling you all. I am very sorry that I did not tell you all. That will not happen any more (sic). I don’t know why I did it my own self. I would like to start all over again because I like to play baseball. I will be bringing my family with me so I will drive down. So send me a contract. I will sign it. And I will see you all in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Choo Choo Coleman
The Mets decided to take him back and assigned him to Triple-A Tidewater, where he hit .256 in 94 games, with five home runs and 32 RBIs. And that opens up a fascinating line of discussion from the school of “what ifs.”
What if, say, an injury had befallen Jerry Grote, the Mets’ number one catcher during that miracle championship season, or either J.C. Martin or Duffy Dyer, his understudies. Would the lovable, iconic Choo-Choo have been summoned back to Flushing? In some crazy, insane parallel universe, could Choo-Choo Coleman, one of the symbols of Stengel’s Amazing Mets, have been part of the 1969 World Champions?
We will, of course, never know.
Options at Tidewater that year, other than Dyer, were Lloyd Flodin, then 29, who batted .242 and committed four errors and six passed balls in 41 games that year with the Tides, and Orlando McFarlane, a 30-year-old journeyman who’d registered one error and six passed balls in 24 games while hitting .321. Coleman, it should be noted, committed six errors with three passed balls that year.
With no internet at the time with which to follow the comings and goings of minor league ballplayers, most Mets fans in New York probably weren’t even aware that Stengel’s favorite catcher was just a phone call away on the farm.
Larry Bearnarth, Coleman’s teammate with the Mets in 1963 and later with Buffalo, was quoted as saying that it was “kind of sad” when he first saw his old battery-mate that spring.
“He said he’d been in Philadelphia two years and was starving,” Bearnarth, then a player-coach with the Tides, was quoted as having said in the Newsday article. “I also think he loves baseball more than anything in the world.”
After leaving the Mets organization at the end of the season for the last time, Coleman drifted to the Mexican League and put up his best year with the bat as a professional in 1970, hitting .294 with 14 home runs and 75 RBIs for the Mexico City Reds, according to statistics published in the Minor League Digest on file at the Baseball Hall of Fame archive museum in Cooperstown, New York.
He didn’t play professionally in 1971, but Coleman returned to the diamond for one last time in 1972, batting .244 in 21 games for Mexico City before hanging it up for good.
Coleman, who reappeared in grand fashion in 2012 during a series of events honoring the 50th anniversary of the Mets, remembered his comeback attempt of 1969, and voiced disappointment that he wasn’t part of the 100-win club that toppled the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
“I should have been there,” he said in an article in the May 2012 issue of Inside Pitch magazine/Scout Publishing.
He also answered a question that had baffled fans for the many years since he’d once again disappeared from the public eye: how’d you get your nickname?
“When I was 8 or 9 I ran around a lot,” he told Vecsey in an article in the New York Times published January 23, 2012. “My friends called me Choo Choo because I was fast.”
He got involved in the restaurant business in Newport News, Virginia, after his playing days, before retiring to Bamberg.
Survivors include his third wife, Lucille; a son, Clarence Coleman Jr.; and a daughter, Elnora Vanessa Swint, according to Hibbler as reported by the AP.
Funeral services will be held August 20 at Greater Sidney Park Baptist Church, Bamberg, Virginia.