SABR

Frank Colman

This article was written by Tom Hawthorn.

In the opening game of the 1947 season, Frank Colman stepped to the plate at Yankee Stadium as a pinch hitter in the home half of the ninth inning. On the mound stood Phil Marchildon, a fellow Canadian also from the province of Ontario, who was attempting to close out an afternoon’s stellar performance. The Philadelphia Athletics had a 6-1 lead over the Yankees, thus far spoiling the debut of Bucky Harris as Yankees manager and disappointing most of the 39,344 fans in attendance, among them the members of the United Nations Security Council, as well as former President Herbert Hoover.

On the mound stood a man who had endured more than nine months in German prisoner-of-war camps. At the plate stood a man who passed part of the war patrolling the outfield at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field but had spent most of the previous season with the Newark Bears, where he made a solid contribution at the plate. He was eager to stick with the parent Yankees.

In this Opening Day showdown, the military veteran prevailed. Colman struck out. It was a suitable harbinger for a season of frustration for the twenty-nine-year-old batter.

Frank Lloyd Colman was born on March 2, 1918, in London, Ontario, to Frederick and Harriet Ann (Bartlett) Colman, both natives of England. He was the fifth of eight children in a farm family, though Frederick later owned a shoe-repair business. An older brother, Harold, pushed Frank onto the baseball diamond. Frank preferred hockey and won a scoring championship while skating for the London Technical and Commercial High School (renamed H.B. Beal High, after its founding principal, while Frank attended).

By the time he was eighteen, Frank was wearing the uniform of the hometown London Majors of the Intercounty League, an amateur circuit based in Ontario. The left-handed Colman starred on the mound and at the plate, winning the batting crown and earning Most Valuable Player honors while leading his squad to the league championship in 1936.

After a couple more seasons on local sandlots, the five-foot-eleven, 186-pound hurler made his professional debut with the Batavia (New York) Clippers in 1939, the inaugural season of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. He went 8-7 in the Class D circuit and 0-1 in a two-game call-up to the Cornwall (Ontario) Maple Leafs of the Class C Canadian-American League.

In April 1940 the Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Rocks, a Philadelphia Athletics affiliate in the Class B Interstate League, had such a terrible exhibition season, manager Chief Bender released eleven players. Among those he acquired in restocking the team was Colman, who went 10-4 as a starter while also playing forty-one games in the outfield. His .361 average was second best on the team.

The solid numbers earned Colman a promotion to Philadelphia’s top farm team, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, the following year. The Leafs converted him into a full-time right fielder and he responded with a steady performance, hitting .294 and .300 in his first two seasons with the club. In September 1942 the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were then Toronto’s big league affiliate, called him up, but his introduction to Major League pitching was a harsh one. He managed just five hits in thirty-seven at-bats in ten games. Colman stuck with the Pirates for the first half of 1943, before being sent back to Toronto.

Meanwhile, Colman had married Anne Puchniak, whom he had met one off-season while working at General Steel Wares, a steel plant in London that produced housewares and appliances. She had asked a colleague for the time and Frank, eager to make her acquaintance, butted in with a quick reply. They eventually married and had two sons: Frank, born in 1943, and Jerry, born in 1947.

Colman also had to deal with military obligations. Canada had declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, twenty-seven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he was originally rejected for service because of an old leg injury. During spring training in 1944, Colman stayed home after announcing he had been called for a draft re-examination. Rejected a second time, he then reported to the Pirates spring-training camp in Muncie, Indiana.

After spending three months with the Pirates in 1943, Colman gained a regular spot in the lineup in 1944. He hit .270 in 252 at bats against war-depleted pitching rosters, knocking in fifty-three runs (including at least one RBI in eight consecutive games in August). In 1945, though, Colman played in only seventy-seven games and his average plunged to an anemic .209.

A quiet man with a broad forehead and a lopsided smile, Colman rarely spoke about his playing days. “My dad wasn’t a talker,” said his son, also named Frank Colman. “It was like digging for gold to get him to talk about his baseball career.” One story that gained currency while he was still playing involved a long-running dispute with Pirates manager Frankie Frisch. The Portland Oregonian published a story, reprinted by Baseball Digest magazine, about Colman demanding to be traded. In response, an angry Frisch sent the left-handed batter to the plate as a pinch hitter to face Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, one of the league’s top left-handers. Colman rapped out a double, called time and retreated to the dugout, where he told the manager: “Get a substitute — I’ve had enough of this club. And trade me quick, for I’ll never play for you again.” “Nor did he,” the story reported. Alas, whatever the tension between manager and platooned outfielder, the anecdote is apocryphal, as box scores do not show Colman getting a pinch-hit double off Brecheen in a regular-season game.

On June 17, 1946, the Pirates sold Colman to the Yankees. He spent the summer with the International League Newark Bears before making his Yankees debut as the right fielder in the second game of a doubleheader against Philadelphia on September 22. In his first at bat for his new team, Colman faced Marchildon, his compatriot from Ontario. The batter did better than the pitcher on this day. “Anyway, Frank enjoyed a perfect afternoon in the nightcap,” wrote Louis Effrat the next day in the New York Times. “He slammed a two-run homer in the second, singled and scored in the fourth, and walked and scored in the fifth.” The game was called because of darkness after 5 1/2 innings, the Yankees prevailing 7–4 to complete a sweep.

Colman was penciled into the lineup for five games through the end of the 1946 season, then saw spot duty in left field in the early part of the 1947 season. Manager Bucky Harris opted for Colman to stay with the club over the promising Allie Clark. For part of the season, Colman wore uniform number 3, Babe Ruth’s number, later retired, and a number also worn by George Selkirk, the Yankees’ all-star outfielder during the 1930s who also hailed from Ontario. A back injury limited Colman’s playing time and then he found himself on the bench as Johnny Lindell, the subject of trade rumors during spring training, thrived at the plate.

On July 20 the Yankees arrived in Detroit for a doubleheader against the second-place Tigers, over whom they held a daunting 11 1/2 game lead. A record crowd of 58,369 jammed every nook of Briggs Stadium. Between games about 120 fans from London made a presentation to their hometown hero. As it turned out, Colman did not play in either game, both of which the Yankees lost.

Two weeks later, the Yankees shipped Colman back to Newark and brought up Clark. Colman had been unable to crack an outfield featuring Tommy Henrich in right and Joe DiMaggio in center. With Lindell hitting and catcher Yogi Berra available for outfield duty as well, Colman became expendable.

The transfer did not go smoothly. With Newark in Toronto for a series, Colman refused to sign a contract, instead retreating to his home in London, declaring that he was prepared “to sit tight and see what happens.”1 The outfielder said he had no beef with the Yankees calling up Clark, as they needed a right-handed pinch hitter, but said he did not deserve a cut in pay. “Some of the boys told me I should get more than I was asking for,” he said. “In eight years in the big circuit this is the first time I’ve been what you might call a bad boy.”2

Newark said Colman was “liable to suspension.”3 Colman demanded a guarantee of a full share of World Series proceeds due the Yankees players should they win the championship. An eleven-day holdout ended with Newark’s management announcing it had refused the outfielder’s salary demands.

In the end, after the Yankees won the World Series, the players voted Colman a three-quarters share, worth $4,372.52, a tidy sum for hitting .107 in twenty-two games. (He had smacked only three hits for the Yankees, but two of them were pinch-hit home runs.)

Colman played thirty-one games for Newark in ’47 and twenty-nine in 1948, but he never again played in the Major Leagues. He batted .320 for Seattle of the Pacific Coast League in 1949 and enjoyed the finest season of his career in 1950, at the age of thirty-two, when he had eighteen home runs, ninety-seven runs-batted in, and a batting average of .319.

Toronto signed Colman for 1951, along with first baseman Les Fleming, from San Francisco of the PCL. “Fleming and Colman give us the best one-two left-handed punch we’ve had in years in a league where a premium is placed on southpaw sluggers,” said Toronto business manager Gord Walker. Colman, who also saw spot duty at first base, had three solid campaigns with the Leafs.

When Toronto traded the thirty-five-year-old veteran to the Charleston (West Virginia) Senators after the 1953 season, he instead placed himself on the voluntary retired list. He returned home to Ontario, where he became player-manager of his old Intercounty League team for 1954. By Dominion Day (July 1) he was hitting a paltry .250. A late-season surge by Colman left him in third place in the batting race at .360.

Before the start of the 1955 season, Colman and his brother Jack bought the London franchise. Frank was a player-manager, on occasion even pitching in relief. London won the league title in 1956. The Colman brothers sold the team in 1959.

Frank worked in a sporting-goods store for many years until it went out of business. He then joined the maintenance department at the University of Western Ontario. After hours, he played cards, especially hearts, and was known to haunt the horse-racing tracks at Woodbine in Toronto and Fort Erie, Ontario. He died of cancer on February 19, 1983, aged sixty-four. He was buried at Woodland Cemetery in London. His wife Anne died in 1990 and is buried next to him.

In 1999 Colman was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys, about twenty-five miles north of his hometown. Yogi Berra sent a congratulatory letter for a late friend with whom he had roomed on the road.

“I made a lot of friends in baseball through the years,” he wrote, “but I’ll also remember Frank as one of the most decent and genuine people that I ever met.”

When he took over the amateur men’s club, Colman also helped co-found a youth league with local sportsman Gordon Berryhill and longtime Pittsburgh Pirates catcher George (Moon) Gibson. The Eager Beaver Baseball Association has thrived ever since. After his death the association’s annual all-star game was renamed Frank Colman Day. The budding stars play at Labatt Park, the same field on which a teenage Colman launched his own career in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

 

This biography is included in the book "Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.

 

Sources

Baseball Digest, September 1948, p. 54.

“Baseball Leafs Buy First-Sacker Fleming,” Toronto Globe and Mail, Ocober. 17, 1950.

“Colman is Daddy,” Toronto Globe and Mail, August 3, 1943. “Colman Signs With Bears; No Series Share Promised,” Sporting News, August 20, 1947.

Drebinger, John. “Marchildon Wins From Bomber, 6–1.” New York Times, April 16, 1947.

Effrat, Louis, “Yanks Defeat Athletics, 4–3, 7–4, Chandler Gaining 19th of Season.” New York Times, September 23, 1946.

Effrat, Louis, “Tigers Halt Bombers, 4–1, 12–11, Before 58,369, a Detroit Record,” New York Times, July 21, 1947.

“Reject Frank Colman,” Toronto Globe and Mail, March 20, 1944.

“Wilmington Drops 11 Players, and Acquires Five in Shakeup,” Sporting News, April 18, 1940.

“Yank Castoff Refuses to Join Bears,” St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, August 10, 1947.

Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame: baseballhalloffame.ca

Eager Beaver Baseball Association: www.ebba.ca

Intercounty League material in the 1950s: www.attheplate.com

Interview by author with Frank D. Colman, (Frank Colman’s son).

Two telephone conversations by Thomas Bourke with Mrs. Joan Fraser Frank Colman’s sister) on November 15, 2011.

  • 1. “Yank Castoff Refuses to Join Bears,” St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, August 10, 1947.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Ibid.
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