Obituary: Jim Coates (1932-2019)

RIP to Jim Coates, a pitcher on several of the New York Yankees’ championship teams of the early 1960s. He died on November 14 at the age of 87. Coates played for the Yankees (1956, 1959-62), Washington Senators (1963), Cincinnati Reds (1963) and California Angels (1965-67).

Jim Coates was born in Famham, Va., on August 4, 1932. He was raised by his grandparents, as his parents separated when he was three years old. He later said that he had to quit high school after a year and played semipro ball in the Chesapeake League. Coates signed with the Yankees and started his road to the majors in Olean, N.Y., in 1952. He won 13 games for the Olean Yankees of the Pony League and, in his first pro season, set league record for strikeouts in a season (223) and in a single game (16). He progressed steadily through the levels of the Yankees organization and made it to the Richmond Virginians, their AAA team, in 1956.

Early in his career, Coates was known for his lack of control as much as his strikeout abilities. He is alleged to have walked 17 batters in one inning. Yes, one INNING. “They had to call the game after six innings because of the curfew, it took so long,” he told the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin in 1955. “Bunny [Mack, the manager] told me, ‘Keep throwin’ until you find the plate.’ I kept throwin’ but they went everywhere else but.”

Note: I can’t find a box score or game description to verify this story, and some of the details changed in later retellings. Even in the 1950s, it’s hard to imagine a manager would put a young pitcher through that kind of torture. The larger point is that Coates worked hard to get his control under control, and he eventually did.

Coates failed to make the Yankees team out of Spring Training in 1956 and spent most of the year with the Richmond Virginians. He was brought to the majors in September, and his wildness flared up. In his MLB debut against the Red Sox on September 21, he allowed 3 runs in an inning of work, with 1 hit, 2 walks and a hit batsman. He threw a scoreless inning against the Sox about a week later, though he did walk 2 more batters. He spent the next two seasons in the minors with Richmond, reappearing with the Yankees in 1959.

Coates spent most of 1958 out of the game with a fractured elbow. He fully recovered in 1959 and made the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. Now 26 years old, the rookie became one of the workhorses of the Yankees’ bullpen. He appeared in 37 games, 4 of which were starts, and threw 100-1/3 innings. Only Ryne Duren made more relief appearances, and nobody in the bullpen threw more innings. Coates was extremely effective in whatever role he was given. He had a 6-1 record with a 2.87 ERA. He completed 2 games and earned 3 saves. He struck out 64 batters and walked 36.

One of those starts came on September 16, where he tossed a 4-hit complete game against the eventual pennant-winning Chicago White Sox. He outdueled 25-game winner Early Wynn in a 3-1 win.

Coates won his first 9 decisions of 1960 and ended the season with an 11-3 record and MLB-leading .813 winning percentage. All of those 9 wins came as a starter. Six were complete games, and 2 were shutouts. Coates finished the season in the bullpen, as he struggled after his winning streak ended, but his heroics earned him a spot in both of the All-Star teams that year (baseball had two All-Star Games for a while). He tossed 2 scoreless innings in the game on July 11, allowing doubles to Willie Mays and Joe Adcock.

Source: Press and Sun-Bulletin, May 23, 1955.

Casey Stengel and pitching coach Eddie Lopat were credited with turning Coates around. Stengel had Coates eliminate all offspeed pitches when the pitcher started complaining about a chronic sore arm. Once the soreness vanished, Lopat refined his delivery and taught him a curveball.

“I always had an arm,” Coates said, “but nobody had ever showed me what to do with it.”

Coates continued to enjoy success in the swingman role in his time with the Yankees. From 1959 through 1962, he had a 37-15 record and 3.80 in 165 games, 39 of which were starts. He completed 12 games, tossed 3 shutouts and picked up 15 saves. He never reached the record-setting strikeout totals from the minor leagues, but he was a valuable arm. He also pitched in 3 World Series (1960-62), going 0-1 with a 4.15 ERA and 1 save in 6 relief appearances. He surrendered a 3-run homer to Pittsburgh’s Hal Smith in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, giving the Pirates a 9-7 lead. He would have taken the loss in that game, but the Yankees tied it in the 9th inning. New York still lost the game — and the Series — when Bill Mazeroski hit one of the most famed home runs in World Series history.

Coates won both ends of a doubleheader against the Tigers on May 14, 1961. He threw a scoreless 11th inning in the opener and got the win when Yogi Berra hit a pinch-hit single in the bottom of the inning. Coates then threw the last 5 innings of the second game, allowing 2 hits and 1 run in a winning effort.

On April 21, 1963, Coates was traded to the Senators for southpaw reliever Steve Hamilton. He wasn’t as effective in Washington, with a 5.28 ERA in 20 games and a 2-4 record. The Senators traded him to the Reds on July 1 for infielder Don Blasingame. He didn’t fare much better and was kept in the Reds minor leagues for most of his time there.

Coates reappeared in the major leagues in 1965 after being traded to the California Angels. For the next three seasons, he bounced back and forth between the majors and the Angels AAA affiliate in Seattle. In a total of 51 games, Coates had a 4-3 record, 4.02 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 112 innings pitched.

While pitching for Seattle in the PCL in 1966, Coates was part of a wild two-day brawl that started on the field and ended in a hotel lobby. While throwing a no-hitter against Vancouver, Coates hit outfielder Ricardo Joseph in the shoulder with a fastball. Joseph advanced toward the mound but was intercepted by Seattle catcher Matthew Ranew, who dropped the outfielder — using his fist or his catcher’s mask, depending on reports. As the fighting escalated, Vancouver’s Santiago Rosario hit Ranew with a bat, sending him to a hospital with a concussion. As if that all wasn’t wild enough, Coates (who finished the game with a 2-hitter) was punched in his hotel lobby the next day, allegedly by Joseph.

Jim Coates participated in many charity golf tournaments in his retirement. Source: Daily Press, June 22, 2000.

“He broke four of my teeth and loosened two others,” Coates said of the attack. “I didn’t want to hit [Joseph], and I have never thrown at anyone to hit them. But I’ve always pitched a man tight and I always will. Anytime a pitcher says he’s going to pitch everyone outside, that’s a pitcher who won’t last.”

Coates pitched in the minor leagues through 1970 before retiring. In his 9 years in the major leagues, he had a 43-22 record and 4.00 ERA. He pitched in 247 games, including 46 starts. He threw 13 complete games and 4 shutouts, had 17 saves and fanned 396 batters.

After his playing days, he was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and is a charter member of the Northern Neck Sports Wall of Fame. He also participated in celebrity golf tournaments for numerous charities.

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