Clarence Coleman was born August 25, 1937 in Orlando, Florida. As a kid he said he was fast & his friends started calling him Choo Choo. The five foot nine, left hand hitting Coleman started out playing in the Negro Leagues, playing with the legendary Indianapolis Clowns.
He was then signed by the Washington Senators in 1955, but was soon released. He then signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers but was taken away by the Philadelphia Phillies as a Rule V draft choice in the late fifties.
Choo Choo played in the minor leagues from 1955- 1961 before getting a big league call up. He would play 13 seasons total in the minors batting .251 with 67 HRs & 212 RBIs. At AAA Spokane in 1961 he was a team mate of former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher, Don Newcombe. Choo Choo hit his minor league best .288 with good power 13 HRs 10 doubles & 45 RBIs in 73 games.
It appeared he was ready for the majors, getting a call up to the dismal 1961 Phillies squad that lost 107 games. He only batted only .128 in 34 games that season with one double & four RBIs. He was chosen as an original New York Met in the 1961 Expansion draft, the 28th pick overall.
He was to serve as a backup catcher to main backstop Chris Cannizzaro. Cannizzaro would play 56 games as the teams catcher with Coleman catching in 44 games.
The '62 club also used three other catchers: Sammy Taylor (50 games) Joe Pignatano (32 games) & Hobie Landrith (21 games). According to 1962 Mets pitcher Roger Craig in a great story in Mets lore: when Choo Choo gave the sign behind the plate to the pitcher, he looked down to see what it was himself.
Famous Quotes: Coleman was known for calling everyone bub as he addressed them. Legend has it, it was because he couldn't remember his team mates names. According to former Met Charlie Neil when he asked Coleman if he knew his name, Coleman responded "your number 4".
He is probably most famous for one of his first Mets interviews more than for his playing. In a classic interview with legendary Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner, he was asked “Why do they call you Choo Choo?” Coleman replied “I don’t know bub”. Kiner then asked “What’s your wife’s name & what is she like?" Coleman responded “Her name is Mrs. Coleman & she likes me.” Although years later Coleman denied saying it.
Coleman once said his favorite sport was tennis, when asked in an interview how often he plays the game, he said “not since high school”.
Casey Stengel praised Coleman on his ability to stop slow pitches & said he never seen a catcher move so fast to retrieve passed balls. Coleman was charged with five passed balls in 44 games.
In August '62 he saw a lot of action, gathering twenty hits hitting five HRs & putting together a six game hit streak. He hit HRs in back to back games against the Cincinnati Reds early in the month, driving in two runs in each game.
On August 15th he came to bat as a pinch hitter in the 6th inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at the Polo Grounds. He hit a two run HR off Art Mahaffey, but the Mets lost the game anyway 8-7.
Choo Choo also homered off Don Drysdale & the Los Angeles Dodgers, in the Polo Grounds on August 24th. In his next at bat he hit between Marvelous Marv Throneberry & Hot Rod Kanehl who also both homered off Drysdale in those at bats. Surely Coleman saw a brush back pitch.
On August 25th, his actual 25th birthday, he was charged with his only error of the season. With big Frank Howard at first base Coleman signaled Marv Throneberry for a pick off at first. Coleman claims “Throneberry missed the signal, and the ball went right past his head,” The official scorer gave him an error, just for bad judgment.
On September 14th, he came to bat in the bottom of the 9th inning of a 9-9 tied game with the Cincinnati Reds. Coleman hit a game winning, walk off HR against Johnny Klippstein bringing the Polo Grounds fans some excitement. He had a good September Series, against the Houston Astros driving in three runs with three hits over a two game span.
Overall for the '62 season, he batted .250 with six HRs, seven doubles, two triples a .303 on base % & 17 RBIs, showing some promise for a good future.
In 1963 he was road roommate to Charlie Neal who wore uniform #4 until Duke Snider arrived on April 1st. There are two conflicting stories with the same ending in Cho Choo Coleman lore: One of the two players were ragging him saying "I bet you don't know what my names is" Coleman responded "You number four".
That season the Mets had five different catchers again competing to play behind the plate. Coleman saw the most playing time (91games) as the team’s main catcher, playing in 106 games overall.
Although he made 15 errors (.961 fielding %) he threw out 50% of runners attempting to steal & turned nine double plays.
On May 12th in an 11-11 tie at the Polo Grounds, his 8th inning base hit off Cincinnati’s Al Worthington, drove home Al Moran in what was the games winning run.
Coleman never got his bat to hit that year. He hit just two HRs, one at Wrigley Field in August & the other a two run shot at the Polo rounds against the Houston Colt 45's. For the season, Coleman only hit .178 with three extra base hits (all three were HRs).
He drove in nine runs, posted a .264 on base % & stole five bases. After spending the next two seasons in the minors he returned briefly in 1966 for six games, going 3-16 ( batting .188) striking out four times. After a three year absence from baseball, Coleman returned to play 94 games at AAA Tidewater for the 1969 Amazing Mets. In doing so he became part of that legendry's teams family as well.
Coleman will always be remembered as a nice guy. In 2016 when learning of his death, former Mets team mate Roger Craig said "He was just such a nice guy, I'm sorry to hear this. All his team mates loved him".
He will also be remembered for his classic quotes & having one of the best names in Mets history. Choo Choo is a life time .205 hitter, with 91 hits 9 HRs 7 doubles 7 stolen bases & 26 RBIs over four seasons in 201 games played.
He caught in 140 games behind the plate for the early Mets (19th most in Mets history) throwing out 40% of would be base stealers.
Retirement: After baseball Coleman retired to Orlando Florida. After his first wife died he remarried & his wife's daughter married into an Asian family.
Choo Choo Coleman then worked in their family business helping run a Chinese Restaurant, for twenty years in Newport News, Virginia.
In honor of the Mets 50th Anniversary, Coleman flew on a plane to New York (his first flight in 35 years) & appeared at his first memorabilia show.
He was greeted warmly by old team mates Frank Thomas, Tommie Davis, Craig Anderson & Bill Wakefield. After all thsese years he said he got the name Choo Choo because as a kid he was fast, Ralph Kiner joked 'he could have told me that then"!
Coleman was always loved by Mets fans & his casual slow demeanor certainly helps his legacy. "You play for a team, you always root for them" he said.
In August 2016, Coleman passed away after a battle with cancer, at age 78 in Orangeburg South Carolina.