On June 1, 1986, 31-year-old pitcher Chris Welsh made his debut for the Cincinnati Reds, the hometown team he grew up rooting for. “I had my family and my friends there,” Welsh said years later.1 But trouble started right away. He walked the leadoff man, and not just any leadoff man. He then proceeded to throw to first base. Seventeen times. The most in the history of major-league baseball.
What had Welsh so spooked? Baiting him off first base, a long lead, arms dangling, ready to bolt the moment Welsh blinked to home plate was … Vince Coleman. At that moment, Coleman was arguably the most exciting player in the game. After pickoff attempt 17, Welsh threw a pitch to batter Andy Van Slyke and Coleman rushed full throttle to second base. He was safe. Of course he was. It was his second steal of the game; his 27th of the season. Before the year was done, he would snag 80 more.
From the moment he made the majors, Coleman hit the ground running (quite literally). With a chip on his shoulder and blinding speed, nobody could stop him once he got on first. He could change the entire dynamic of an at-bat, if not a game, by scaring pitchers into focusing on his huge leads, grabbing an extra base off an errant throw and, naturally, stealing almost at will. But immaturity and recklessness off the field led to troubling allegations and derailed his career in the middle of his prime.
Vincent Maurice Coleman was born on September 22, 1961, in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was an only child raised by his single mother, Willie Pearl Coleman. As Vince put it, “Single woman, no money, I never owned a bicycle as a kid.” Willie Pearl was a dietician who made a point to attend nearly all of her son’s Little League games. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here. Your mother is the only one you know for sure who loves you,” Coleman said.2
Being an only child to a working mom, often nobody was home when Coleman came back from school. He made a habit of going to the park to play baseball, basketball, and football with local kids of all ages. He was mentored by his older cousin, Gregg Coleman. An elite athlete, Gregg became a punter for Florida A&M and later played 12 seasons in the NFL, primarily for the Minnesota Vikings.
Vince attended Raines High School in Jacksonville, where he starred on the football team as a punter and kicker. He broke all of his cousin’s football records, but was cut from the freshman baseball team. It was a theme that continued into college. He followed in his cousin’s footsteps and went to Florida A&M, about two hours west of home in Tallahassee, Florida. Coleman received a football scholarship and, once again, broke all of the older Coleman’s school records. In 1978, Vince helped the Rattlers to a Division I-AA National Championship. The next year he kicked the game-winning field goal to upset the Division I-A powerhouse Miami Hurricanes by a score of 16-13. He was named All-Conference in 1980 and 1981.
In his sophomore year, he walked on the baseball team, competing for a spot in an outfield that already had the sons of Bill Lucas, major-league baseball’s first Black general manager3, and Hank Aaron. He made the team, and just as his legs stood out on the football field, they made him a force on the baseball diamond. Over two years with Florida A&M, Coleman swiped 107 bases. In 1981, Coleman was drafted in the 20th round (513th overall) by the Philadelphia Phillies, but turned down their $10,000 signing bonus because his mother preferred he stay in school.
The following year he attended a tryout with the Washington Redskins. Excited by Vince’s speed, Washington had no interest in his kicking ability. They put him at wide receiver. “My mother didn’t want me to play wide receiver,” Coleman remembered. “If they won’t let you punt, play baseball,” Willie Pearl told her son.4 One weekend, St. Louis Cardinals scout Marty Maier was in town to watch Florida State. When they were rained out, Maier’s friend told him to check out Coleman. In front of Maier, Coleman stole seven bases against Alabama State.5 The scout saw a kid who played with a chip on his shoulder. Coleman recalls telling Maier, “Where I’m from, I kill a mosquito with an ax.”6 That June, Coleman was selected by the Cardinals in the 10th round (257th overall) of the 1982 draft. Maier signed him on June 9, 1982.
To start his pro career, Coleman was sent to the Rookie-level Johnson City (Tennessee) Cardinals of the Appalachian League. There he met longtime Cardinals minor-league instructor, George Kissell, who said if Coleman were to have any chance of playing in the major leagues he must become a switch hitter. “I thought if he could hit at all left-handed, the way he could run, it would be huge,” Maier said. “He had a nice little short stroke. I threw a pitch at him and he jumped out of the way. The next pitch I threw down the middle and he hit a line drive to left field. That’s when I was excited.”7 Coleman played 58 games and his game-altering speed immediately gave opposing teams fits. He posted a .348 OBP and tied future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett for the league lead with 43 stolen bases in only 46 attempts.
In 1983, Coleman moved up to the Macon Redbirds of the South Atlantic League. He swiped 145 bases, shattering the previous minor-league record by 23 steals. His record stood until 2013, when it was surpassed by Billy Hamilton. In 1984, Coleman was a member of the Louisville Redbirds where he stole 101 bases in 152 games.
Before the 1985 season, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog called Coleman the best prospect in baseball, but the prevailing sentiment was that he was still a year away from the majors. He began the season back with the Louisville Redbirds, but he lasted only five games before he was called up to fill in for an injured Willie McGee. Cardinals General Manager Dal Maxvill told Coleman, “You’re only gonna be here now four or five games, I don’t want you to be disappointed if we send you back down.”8
Coleman got his first hit in his second at-bat against the Expos’ Steve Rogers and promptly swiped second base. He added a second steal later in the game. As Maxvill recalled, Coleman told him, “I’m going to be here the whole year.” Maxvill wanted him to have a lot of confidence, but he reiterated that Coleman would only be in the majors for four or five days.9 In his second game, Coleman went 4-for-5 with a double, a triple, and two RBIs. He proved himself right; he never went back down.
As the Cardinals fended off the Mets to win the East Division, Coleman set the rookie record for steals with a league-leading 110, while batting .267 with 10 triples and one homer (inside-the-park, of course). In the NLCS, Coleman was injured in a freak accident before Game Five when the tarpaulin rolled over his left leg. He missed the rest of the postseason, including St. Louis’ loss to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.
After his injury, he commented, “I was a guest at the Playboy Mansion — I go over to Hugh Hefner’s house. He knew exactly who I was. And he said, ‘You’re the guy that the female tarp was looking for!’” — as if the tarp had been trying to get her hands on the cool man Coleman.”10 The balance between Coleman’s confidence and his questionable judgment was tested throughout his career.
Before Game Four of the World Series, Rachel Robinson threw out the first pitch. Coleman made headlines when he was asked about Jackie Robinson’s legacy and replied, “Why are you asking me about Jackie Robinson? … I don’t know nothin’ about him.”11 Robinson’s widow responded, “I hope somehow he’ll learn and be embarrassed by his own ignorance.”12 That offseason, Coleman was unanimously voted the National League Rookie of the Year. Two years later, the award was named after Jackie Robinson.
Coleman’s slow start to 1986 raised questions about the lingering effects of his leg injury. By May, Coleman put them to rest, stealing 16 bases in the month before swiping another 25 in June. At the All-Star break, he had already stolen 58 bases. Beyond steals, his productivity dipped across the board, as did his team’s success. All told, he took 107 bases (three shy of the year before) to lead major-league baseball.
In 1987, Coleman had arguably the best statistical season of his career. He led the league in stolen bases, with 109, for the third straight season. He remains the only player to ever steal 100 bases in three consecutive seasons. He also got on-base more than ever before, posting a .363 OBP to go with a career-high 180 hits and a .289 batting average. The Cardinals, led by Coleman and another youngster, Terry Pendleton, spent most of the season in a two-team race against the New York Mets. With diminished power, they leaned heavily on being scrappy, making Coleman’s speed pivotal. As late as September, the two teams were tied, but a critical late-season series finished the Mets off and paved the way for another playoff berth.
In a strong NLCS, Coleman added seven hits over 26 at-bats, but the San Francisco Giants neutralized him on the base paths. He stole just one base in three attempts. The Cardinals took the series in seven games, and the opposite proved true for Coleman in the World Series. Every time he got on base, he ran wild, stealing six times without being caught. The problem was, he rarely got on as the Cardinals once again lost a World Series in seven dramatic games, this time to the Minnesota Twins.
The following year, Coleman failed to reach the 100 stolen base mark for the first time in his career. He finished with 81 and was thrown out a whopping 27 times, the most in his major league career. His other offensive totals, including batting average and OBP also declined. Still, he was an electrifying player whose popularity got him selected to his first All-Star team. The Cardinals couldn’t get it together all year, finishing fifth in the National League East.
Coleman made the All-Star team again in 1989, even as his numbers remained as middling as they had the year prior. His stolen base total dipped to 65, but his efficiency increased, as he was caught just 10 times (the least to that point in his career). St. Louis finished 10 games over .500, but failed to keep pace with the Chicago Cubs and the Mets; they finished third in the division. Herzog pinned blame on Coleman’s persistent inability to produce. “In the history of baseball, you tell me a left fielder who batted 565 times and knocked in 28 runs,” Herzog said. “Tell me who it is. I’m interested in Vince hitting .290 and driving in 50 runs. If he can’t do that, I don’t think we can win.”13
Coleman’s next season was his last in a Cardinals uniform and he posted career highs (or near-highs) in nearly every category, including batting average, slugging percentage, home runs (6), and RBIs. His stolen base total bumped back up to 77, leading the National League for the sixth straight season. It was the last time he led the league in any major category. The pennant-winning nucleus of the team around Coleman slumped as the Cardinals finished dead-last in the East. In mid-August, the Cardinals shipped their former MVP and impending free agent Willie McGee to the San Francisco Giants. It was a sign of things to come.
Through his first six seasons, Coleman led the National League in steals each year, totaling 549, the most ever by any player to begin a career. Like McGee, Coleman, along with Ken Dayley and Pendleton, entered free agency. With the Cardinals looking to retool, they didn’t work hard to keep their former core. Looking for a leadoff hitter and an outfield replacement for Darryl Strawberry, who signed with the Dodgers as a free agent, the New York Mets inked Coleman to a four-year contract worth $11.95 million.
“The Cardinals… said they were not going to match [the Mets’ offer],” Coleman said. “Our whole team was dismantled. The whole nucleus of the team I had been accustomed to playing with and that had won the pennants wasn’t there.”14 Coleman was the Mets’ first free agent signing since 1980. Mets GM Frank Cashen said, “[Coleman] just brings fear into the hearts of the opposition each time he gets on-base.”
While McGee and Pendleton each had strong seasons with new clubs, Coleman’s time in New York started off on the wrong foot in spring training. Frustrated by reporters expecting him to be the one to make Mets fans forget their former star Strawberry, Coleman snapped, “It’s all I been doin’ since I signed is talking to the media.”15 Things went further south before the regular season began when Coleman’s troubles moved off the field. He and two teammates, Daryl Boston and Dwight Gooden, were accused of sexually assaulting a woman in South Florida on March 30, 1991. Charges were formally filed in early 1992, but criminal charges were dropped by the state prosecutor on April 9.
In his first season with the Mets, Coleman played just 72 games and his stolen base total plummeted. He swiped 37 bases, the first time in his career he had less than 65. He clashed with his manager, Bud Harrelson, and was considered a primary factor in Harrelson being relieved of his duties with seven games remaining in the season.
The next year didn’t go any better. Nursing a left hamstring injury that hampered him the prior year, Coleman got into 71 games and his numbers, outside of steals (he had only 24), did fare a tick better, if only marginally (.275/.355/.358). In late September, Coleman got into a physical altercation with the Mets’ new manager, Jeff Torborg. After being called out on a failed check swing, Coleman erupted at home-plate umpire Gary Darling and made physical contact. Torborg got between his player and the ump, only to be shoved aside twice. “His arguing at me doesn’t defend me,” said Coleman. He earned a two-game suspension from the club. “The player was clearly insubordinate,” said Mets general manager Al Harazin. “An organization can’t permit the manager to endure what he (Torborg) had to endure tonight.”16
Coleman believed he had benefited from the artificial turf in Busch Stadium. When his stolen base total plummeted to 24 in 1992, Coleman expressed his belief that Shea Stadium’s natural grass and dirt infield was preventing him from living up to his potential, “What this field is doing is keeping me out of the Hall of Fame.” The New York Times questioned whether the Mets would continue to put up with “[Coleman’s] fragile physical health, or his inflammatory disposition[.]”17 Rock bottom was still ahead.
After a July 24, 1993 game at Dodger Stadium, Coleman threw a lit M-100 firecracker from the passenger seat of a car into a crowd of fans leaving the ballpark. The firework injured several people, including a 1-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. Apologizing days later, Coleman said, “I’m a father first and an athlete second. Amanda [one of the injured children] stood out near a gate to catch a glimpse of a ballplayer. But today, I want her to catch a glimpse of a loving father and a helpful friend.”18 Coleman played three more games before being dismissed for the rest of the season. Coleman was sentenced to three years of probation, 200 hours of community service, and $2,500 in fines.
Over 92 games, Coleman, now 31 years old, was putting together a solid, if not great, season. He was batting .279 with 38 steals. The Mets finished with a league-worst 103 losses. That offseason they set out to remove most remnants of the woeful roster, including Coleman. On January 5, 1994, the Mets shipped Coleman to the Royals for Kevin McReynolds. Kansas City proved the only team interested in taking on the speedster without asking New York to cover his remaining salary. “We, as an organization, feel we need to put the Coleman situation behind us… because Vince was not going to play for the ballclub this year,” Mets’ general manager Joe McIlvaine commented.19
In 1994, the Royals were putting together their best season in six years before play was stopped due to that year’s player strike. Coleman struggled to get on base, posting a (to that point) career-worst, .285 OBP. However, he seemed to swiped a base every time he possibly could, stealing 50 bases over 104 games, his highest total since 1990.
Kansas City took a step back in 1995, but Coleman gave it a consistent presence at the top of the lineup. Over 75 games he bumped his average and OBP up to .287 and .348, respectively. He took an additional 26 bases in 27 attempts. By the trade deadline, the Royals were out of contention and Coleman was a chip for teams looking to add speed for a playoff push. On August 18, he was sent to the Seattle Mariners for Jim Converse.
Coleman was inserted as the Mariners’ leadoff hitter as the team attempted to make the playoffs for the first time in their history. They clung to a slight lead over the California Angels that nearly evaporated before a heroic pitching performance by Randy Johnson in a one-game playoff propelled them into the postseason. Coleman did about what the team expected, swiping an additional 16 bags and batting .290, numbers in line with what he did with the Royals.
Back to the postseason for the first time in 10 seasons, Coleman’s problems getting on base came back in the Mariners’ dramatic five-game ALDS defeat of the New York Yankees. He gathered five hits in 23 at-bats and stole just one base. He did smack his first and only postseason home run, a solo shot off Andy Pettitte in Game Two. In the ALCS, he stole four bases in as many attempts, but didn’t do much else, batting .100 with a .182 OBP as the Mariners lost to the Indians in six games.
In January of the following year, Coleman signed with the Cincinnati Reds. He managed just 33 games, pitching in 12 steals and .155 batting average before being released in mid-June. He was quickly signed by the California Angels but never played a game. The following year he hooked on with the Detroit Tigers for six ineffectual games before being released at the end of April.
A free agent with no teams interested in 1998, Coleman enlisted the help of his friend and former teammate, McGee, to gain an invite as a non-roster invite to Cardinals spring training. Competing for a spot in a crowded outfield, Coleman played well; batting .313 with four stolen bases. Ultimately, Brian Hunter was chosen over the veteran. “I just think the RBI potential and the extra pop we get from Hunter helps us more off the bench than the speed,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. Disappointed, but as confident as ever, Coleman felt La Russa made a bad decision. “I’m still the fastest man in baseball,” Coleman said. “I can definitely steal bases and help a team win a pennant.”20 Teams disagreed. His playing days were officially over.
Coleman’s 752 stolen bases were sixth all-time and his 80.9% success rate was 45th all-time as of 2021. He led his league in steals six consecutive seasons (tied for the most times leading a league). “You can’t steal first,” Coleman said early in his career, but he accumulated more than half as many steals as he had base hits (1,425), proving he was nearly as good at taking the next base as he was in taking the initial one.
Coleman married Lynette Cecilia Allen in 1987. The couple had two sons, Vince Jr. and Lance. Following their divorce, Vince married Denise Coleman in a Hawaii ceremony attended by professional athletes such as Barry Bonds, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley. Coleman was inducted into the Florida A&M Hall of Fame in 1993, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2016, and the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2018.
In 2013, Coleman was hired as an outfield and baserunning specialist for the Quad Cities River Bandits. In 2015, he moved to the Chicago White Sox as a baserunning instructor. In 2017, he became the San Francisco Giants minor-league baserunning and outfield coach. During his Cardinals Hall of Fame speech, he said, “I would love nothing more than to be able to share my craft, my knowledge, and my skill set, and be an inspiration to every kid that walk through [the Cardinals] locker room door.”21
The lesson Coleman has learned from his unprecedented, and at times tumultuous, career is that “the grass isn’t always greener.” “Happiness is everything,” Coleman said. “I wasn’t happy in New York. I wasn’t happy the rest of my career. What made me happy was being in St. Louis.”22
Coleman went from a baseball walk-on whose greatest talent was his ability to punt a football, to trying out as a wide receiver in the NFL, to becoming for a brief moment the most electrifying player in major-league baseball. His legacy is marred by poor decisions on and off the field, but he will forever have a place in the hearts of St. Louis Cardinals fans because he was a catalyst for a team that slashed and ran their way to two exciting World Series. Nobody captures the era of 1980s baseball quite like Vince Coleman.
Last revised: July 22, 2021
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and David Bilmes and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
1 Matt Monagan, “After 17 Pickoff Throws, he Still Stole Second,” MLB.com, https://www.mlb.com/news/vince-coleman-drew-most-pickoff-throws-ever, January 14, 2021.
2 Associated Press, “Cardinals edge Phillies, 3-2,” Millville Daily (Millville, New Jersey), August 5, 1986: 9.
3 Lucas’ official title with the Atlanta Braves was the Vice President of Player Personnel from 1976 until his death in 1979, during which time he took on the responsibilities of general manager.
4 Rick Hummel, “Coleman A Quick Study,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 19, 1985: 11.
5 Rick Hummel, “Emotional day for Cardinals’ Hall of Fame inductees,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 19, 2018: D August 19, 2018: D5.
7 Hummel, “Emotional day for Cardinals’ Hall of Fame inductees.”
9 “Heck of a Year – 1985 St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Movie.”
10 Benjamin Hochman, “The Day the Tarp Ate Vince Coleman,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 12, 2015: A1.
11 Juan Williams, “After the cheering stopped, Jackie Robinson played harder than ever. In 1947, he broke baseball’s color line. Then, unlike so many of today’s star athletes, he used fame as a way to help people,” Washington Post, April 13, 1987.
12 David Pincus, “Today in Sports History: July 24th,” SBNATION, https://www.sbnation.com/2010/7/24/1585940/today-in-sports-history-july-24th, July 24, 2012.
13 RetroSimba, “How Vince Coleman Landed in Whitey Herzog doghouse,” RetroSimba, https://retrosimba.com/2021/02/24/how-vince-coleman-landed-in-whitey-herzog-doghouse/, February 24, 2021.
14 Rob Rains, “Coleman ‘humbled, honored’ to be back with Cardinals after Hall of Fame election,” STLSportsPage.com, https://stlsportspage.com/2018/11/11/coleman-humbled-honored-to-be-back-with-cardinals-after-hall-of-fame-election/, November 11, 2018.
15 Bob Klapisch, “In New York, Coleman became just one big, rotten apple,” Baltimore Sun, August 5, 1993.
16 Joe Sexton, “Coleman Shoves Torborg and Mets Shove Back,” New York Times, September 2, 1992: 9.
18 “Today in Sports History: July 24th.”
19 New York Times News Service, “Mets Trade Coleman for McReynolds,” Baltimore Sun, January 6, 1994: 2D.
20 RetroSimba, “Vince Coleman and his comeback attempt with Cardinals, RetroSimba, https://retrosimba.com/2018/01/10/vince-coleman-and-his-comeback-attempt-with-cardinals/, January 10, 2018.
21 “Cardinals Vince Coleman Hall of Fame Induction Speech (2018).”
22 Rains, “Coleman ‘humbled, honored’ to be back with Cardinals after Hall of Fame election.”