Coleman, Kenneth Robert (“Ken”)
Coleman, Kenneth Robert (“Ken”)
(b. 22 April 1925 in Hartford, Connecticut; d. 21 August 2003 in Plymouth, Massachusetts), sports broadcaster best known as the radio and television play-by-play announcer for the Boston Red Sox in baseball and the Cleveland Browns in football.
Coleman was the youngest of three children. His father, William J. Coleman, was a tire salesman, and his mother, Frances H. (Grady) Coleman, was a homemaker. When Coleman was five, the family moved to an Irish neighborhood in Quincy, Massachusetts, a working-class city south of Boston. In this setting he spent much of his youth playing sports and following the fortunes of Boston’s professional teams. Especially fond of baseball, he starred as a pitcher and batter for his parish Catholic Youth Organization team and accompanied his father to Sunday doubleheaders of the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Braves. Any dreams Coleman had of following his boyhood hero Jimmie Foxx into the major leagues were dashed by a BB gun accident that left him blind in his left eye at age fourteen. While recuperating from his injury, he announced imaginary ball games aloud to himself and adopted Fred Hoey, the radio voice of the Braves and the Red Sox, as his new idol.
Although classified 4-F (deemed unfit for military service) after his graduation from North Quincy High School in 1943, Coleman entered the army and served with a quartermaster truck regiment in the China-Burma-India theater. While overseas he spurned an opportunity to work as a broadcaster for Armed Services Radio after becoming frozen with fear at the thought of speaking to a listening audience of 12,000 GIs. Determined to overcome his shyness after his discharge, Coleman enrolled in courses in oratory at Curry College in Boston in 1946 (the school moved to Milton, Massachusetts, in 1952). During his single year at Curry, Coleman was chosen to announce job opportunities on a radio program for veterans on WEEI in Boston. This first broadcasting experience led to his being hired in 1947 by WSYB in Rutland, Vermont, where he worked as a disc jockey, newscaster, and play-by-play baseball announcer for the Rutland Royals of the semiprofessional Northern League.
Coleman returned home in 1948 and was the program director and sports announcer for WJDA in Quincy for three years. His broadcast of a high school football game on Thanksgiving Day in 1950 greatly impressed the Boston Herald sportswriter Bill Cunningham, who had watched the contest from the radio booth. In his widely read column, Cunningham described the announcer as a “young man who not only knows the game but does a brilliant job reporting it.” The newspaperman’s kind words helped win Coleman the play-by-play job for Boston University football in 1951. Coleman married Ellen Theresa Veader of Boston on 2 September 1950. The couple had five children and divorced in 1997.
With strong endorsements from the Boston University football coach Aldo (“Buff”) Donelli and other prominent Boston sports figures, Coleman in 1952 applied for the plum position of radio announcer for the 125-station network of the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League (NFL). After an interview he was chosen by the Cleveland coach Paul Brown and the advertising agency representing Carling Beer, the commercial sponsor, who were seeking a voice from somewhere other than Ohio. Lindsey Nelson, a Tennessean who went on to a highly successful sports broadcasting career, was the runner-up.
From his first day on the job Coleman received a thorough education in professional football from Brown, an innovative coach who was considered an architect of the modern game. Brown had the announcer live with the players at training camp and sit in on lectures by the coaches. In his fourteen years with the Browns, Coleman broadcast three championship seasons (1954, 1955, 1964). He described the exploits of a number of great players, including two professional football immortals: the quarterback Otto Graham, who led his team to NFL championships in 1954 and 1955, and the fullback Jim Brown, who was the league’s leading rusher for eight of the nine years he played (1957 to 1965).
Coleman’s pleasant baritone and understated, no-nonsense style caught on in Cleveland. In 1954 he was hired by the city’s other professional team, the Indians, to broadcast baseball on television (he began telecasting Browns games in the same year). In his first season as the Indians announcer the team won 111 of 154 games and won the American League pennant. Coleman announced for both the Browns and the Indians until 1963, when the Indians general manager Gabe Paul forced him to choose between baseball and football. He opted for the Browns. During his years in Cleveland, Coleman broadcast seven NFL championship games on network television. He also hosted a weekly program featuring taped highlights of the Browns games, announced Ohio State University football games and the Ohio high school basketball championships, and contributed sports reports to evening newscasts on all three Cleveland television stations at various times.
In 1966 Coleman returned to Boston to take over as the principal announcer for the Red Sox on WHDH radio and television when Curt Gowdy resigned to join the National Broadcasting Company. In his first season, Coleman was often compared unfavorably to the legendary Gowdy. In addition, Coleman’s new ball club won only seventy-two games and lost ninety to finish in ninth place in the American League. One year later, however, the long-shot Red Sox captured their first pennant since 1946. A talented nucleus of young players matured as a team under the leadership of the new manager, Dick Williams, and the star outfielder Carl Yastrzemski had what Coleman called “the greatest season I’ve ever seen a professional athlete have.” At the same time, Coleman’s descriptions of the heroics of Yastrzemski and the rest of the “cardiac kids” won over the skeptics and firmly established him as the voice of the “impossible dream” season of 1967. The image was reinforced by his narration of a best-selling The Impossible Dream record album later that year. Twenty years later the book The Impossible Dream Remembered: The 1967 Red Sox (1987), a day-by-day account of the improbable season written by Coleman and the sportswriter Dan Valenti, sold more than 100,000 copies.
Coleman continued to broadcast games on radio and television until 1972, when WHDH lost its television license. He handled Red Sox television broadcasts on WBZ from 1972 to 1975. Coleman also called Harvard University football games on radio during the off-season.
After another change in Red Sox television outlets led to his being replaced by the younger Dick Stockton in 1975, Coleman returned to Ohio as the television voice of the Cincinnati Reds of the National League. From this vantage point, he saw the star-studded “big red machine” capture World Series championships over the Red Sox in 1975 and the New York Yankees in 1976.
After four years in Cincinnati, Coleman was back in the radio booth for the Red Sox in 1979. Over the next ten years he witnessed Yastrzemski’s three-thousandth hit in 1979; a record-setting, twenty-strikeout performance by the star pitcher Roger Clemens in 1986; and another Red Sox pennant, also in 1986. The sixty-four-year-old Coleman, who had suffered a mild heart attack early in 1989, retired at the end of the 1989 season after being told he did not fit into the future plans of WRKO, the new Red Sox flagship station.
Coleman continued to broadcast through the 1990s, announcing Harvard and Boston University football games on radio. He also worked tirelessly for the Red Sox–sponsored Jimmy Fund, raising money for pediatric cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Coleman, who served as the director of the Jimmy Fund from 1978 to 1984, continued to participate in the charity’s golf tournaments and other fundraising events throughout New England until the end of his life. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2000. Coleman died of complications of bacterial meningitis on 21 August 2003 in Plymouth and is buried in Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, Massachusetts.
In his memoir, Talking on Air: A Broadcaster’s Life in Sports (written with Dan Valenti; 2000), Coleman explained his approach to announcing: “I envisioned myself in my role as a broadcaster as a guest being invited into the homes of friends.” Coleman further noted, “I wanted people to feel comfortable with me and trust me enough to keep asking me back.”
Coleman’s autobiography is Ken Coleman and Dan Valenti, Talking on Air: A Broadcaster’s Life in Sports (2000). Ken Coleman, So You Want to Be a Sportscaster (1973), a primer for aspiring announcers, also contains biographical information. For information provided by a sports-broadcasting historian, see Curt Smith, Voices of the Game: The First Full-Scale Overview of Baseball Broadcasting—From 1921 to the Present (1987), The Storytellers: From Mel Allen to Bob Costas—Sixty Years of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth (1995), Of Mikes and Men: From Ray Scott to Curt Gowdy—Broadcast Tales from the Pro Football Booth (1998), and Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s 101 All-Time Best Announcers (2005). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Patriot Ledger, and Providence Journal-Bulletin (all 22 Aug. 2003).
Richard H. Gentile