Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman, catcher for the Mets in their first regular season, died this Monday, August 15. It was the same day, in 1962, that Coleman pinch hit a home run against the Phillies to make the extra innings game (which still ended in an 8-7 loss) just a little more interesting.
Coleman’s niece, who answered questions on behalf of the family, said Coleman had been battling cancer and was 80 years old, citing his birthday as August 18, 1935. Other sources list his birthdate as August 25, 1935 or 1937.
One of four African-Americans on the original Mets, Coleman had previously played for the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last of the Negro League to stay together. He was also signed by the Washington Senators, LA Dodgers, and Phillies, but played three of his four major league years in Queens.
In reading the array of obituaries for Coleman, the original Mets are consistently referred to as both terrible and beloved across the board. Their awfulness is supported by the numbers, their 40-120 record in 1962 still the worst in modern MLB history. Their belovedness is slightly harder to quantify, or even comprehend. As today’s Mets rack up a series of fantastic losses, most recently against the last place Diamondbacks, and fans take to Twitter for a giant whinge-fest, it’s hard to imagine that a Mets’ implosion on a grand scale was once considered universally charming.
Of course, there are many differences between then and now to account for the contrast in demeanor—the ’62 Mets were an expansion team; it was their first year playing together, and fans were just happy to have National League baseball back in New York, no matter how terrible. The current Mets have at least some money and a squad of star pitchers—they are all, by all accounts, supposed to be good, and are instead beleaguered by injury, mismanagement, and according to Collins, apathy. Add to that the Mets’ particular penchant for losing to teams even worse than them, and it’s understandable that fans’ patience has been tested. Then again, the Mets are not even bad, exactly—they’re holding steady at .500, 59-59 as of Tuesday morning.
Perhaps it’s this middling performance that so frustrates fans—it’s not charming unless you’re really trying and are still record-breakingly awful. To that end, it makes sense that players like Coleman could be considered fan favorites—his autograph was declared “the holy grail” by a fan at the Mets’ 50th anniversary celebration—despite a pretty unimpressive career by the numbers. Drafted by the Mets as their 28th pick after hitting .128/.180/.149 with the ’61 Phillies, Coleman played for New York from 1962-1963 and again in ’66 before hanging up his mask for good. He had a WARP of -0.5, and his only records of note were third place in errors and fourth in passed balls for the National League in 1963—15 and 11 in 66 games. Roger Angell of the New Yorker once wrote of Coleman, “he handles outside curve balls like a man fighting bees.”
It wasn’t all bad, of course—Coleman was fast. He received the nickname “Choo Choo” from childhood friends in Orlando, Florida because of his running speed, which was exhibited in his base running. He had that aforementioned home run, one of nine in his career. And his first year as a Met he hit .250/.303/.441 across 55 games.
But more than his stats, what made Coleman a favorite was undoubtedly his personality; he was beloved by his teammates, who remember him as quiet, earnest and likeable. Stories about his quirky humor abound, one of the most famous being that Coleman, who called all his teammates “Bub” because he couldn’t remember their names, was once challenged by his spring training roommate Charlie Neal to say his name, to which Coleman responded, “You’re number four.”
Coleman’s also said to have given an interview with Ralph Kiner who asked him, “What’s your wife’s name and what’s she like?” to which he answered, “Her name’s Mrs. Coleman and she likes me, Bub.” Coleman later denied the exchange, but Kiner insists on its truth, the timbre of which does seem to be in line with Coleman’s deadpan delivery.
After baseball, Coleman’s first wife, Odessa, died. His second wife (which some sources list as his third), Lucille, had a grown daughter who married into a Chinese family, with which Coleman would help run a Chinese restaurant in Newport News, Virginia for nearly 20 years. Coleman lived a life far below the radar, performing daily restaurant operations and later telling the Times he enjoyed cooking pepper steak and fried rice. He then retired to South Carolina, where he lived until his death.
Coleman returned to New York City just once for the Mets’ 50th anniversary, to the surprise and delight of fans, though he confirmed that he’d continued to root for the team over the years.
So what made Coleman and the ’62 Mets one of the best-loved teams in baseball history? Low expectations, certainly, being the guinea pigs. But also humility, hard work, patience, and a sense of humor about things. Coleman and the team’s enduring legacy have come to embody the axiom that if you try your best you can never truly fail, (even while failing quite spectacularly). Perhaps today’s fans and players could stand to take a page out of the original Mets’ playbook, after all.
Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports