From Canby to the Big Leagues: Coleman Brothers Make their Mark on Baseball History

Canby Then is brought to you by Retro Revival. They are not your average antique shop. Open daily. Find them on the corner of NW Third and Grant in downtown Canby.

New Orleans has Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning. Charlotte has Dell, Seth and some guy named Stephen Curry. Palm Beach has Venus and Serena Williams. Bel-Air has … Will Smith and Carlton.

Every town has their family sports dynasties and in Canby, their name is Coleman.

It all started with the family patriarch, P.L. Coleman, who along with H.H. Eccles was one of the premier educators in its early years. In addition to Canby schools, Coleman taught at one-room schoolhouses in Macksburg and Marks Prairie as far back as the 1890s.

Both Eccles and Coleman had a heart for molding more than just young minds: In 1911, they opened a night school teaching businesses to Caby adults.

But, also like Eccles, P.L. was not just a teacher. He was also a coach, and in 1912, earned the distinction of coaching the first high school baseball team ever fielded by the city of Canby.

P.L. eventually moved to Newport, where he served as principal of the public schools for several years before dying in 1926, at the relatively young age of 57.

P.L. had a daughter, Emma, and three sons, Ralph, Glen and Ed. But it was only his sons Ralph and Ed who would make their mark on history (…sorry, Glen). Both would both forge their careers in baseball, though they would choose different paths to get there: one as a player, the other as a coach.

Ralph Orval ‘Coley’ Coleman

Born in 1895, Ralph “Coley” Coleman was born and grew up in Canby. When he graduated Canby High in 1914, he was part of the first graduating class to have attended all four years of study in the nascent school district.

Another member of his class (which consisted of only seven pupils, total) was Wayne Gurley, future Canby math teacher and longtime coach of the baseball, football and boys’ and girls’ basketball teams.

Ralph played basketball at Canby, but it was as a track star at Oregon Agricultural College (later renamed Oregon State University) that he would first begin to make a name for himself on a larger stage. This was despite being, in the words of The Oregonian, a “little chap with a stride which would not attract attention in ordinary circles.”

Of course, that same newspaper would call him “the fiend of the season” when he clocked a 2:10 half-mile and became a crucial member of the team as a freshman. As a sophomore, he was named team captain and, for two more years, he thrilled O.A.C. fans with his exploits on the blacktop.

Longtime OSU sports fans still talk of his legend. He once ran the 440, the 880, the mile and the two-mile all in the same meet against the University of Oregon. He also set a new school record in the mile with his personal best of 4 minutes, 20 seconds, a mark that would stand for years to come.

Then, something strange happened. His senior year, he decided to try his hand at baseball. Now, this sort of thing is not completely unheard of. Throughout history, a number of teams have, even at the major league level, tested the hypothesis of signing track stars with little to no baseball experience to serve primarily as pinch runners and base stealers.

But Coley had something else in mind: He wanted to be a pitcher. He quickly established himself as one of the best hurlers in the Aggies’ rotation, but his season was cut short when he was commissioned to serve as a first lieutenant for the Army during World War I.

After his military service, he returned to Corvallis, where he completed his education in 1919 and accepted his first coaching job at Corvallis High. He also returned to baseball, pitching for the Portland Beavers on summer breaks from college.

He fared well enough to be offered a tryout with the Detroit Tigers, but turned it down to become a physical education teacher and head baseball coach at Oregon State. It was a decision that would define his career, as he spent 47 years working for the college, 36 of them as head coach of the Beavers baseball team.

Nicknamed “the Silver Fox” for his wiles on the baseball diamond and his rugged good looks, Coach Coleman led the Beavers to Northern Division titles in 1940, ’51, ’52, ’58, ’62 and ’63, and shared titles in 1938 and ’42. His 1952 team won the NCAA Western Regional and advanced to the College World Series, where they lost to Duke and Texas.

It would be over 50 years before an OSU team would return to the College World Series, finally breaking the drought in 2005.

Coleman posted a record of 560 wins and 317 losses, and retired as the winningest and longest-serving head coach in the school’s history. Oregon State’s Coleman Field, where the Beavers play their home games to this day, was dedicated in his honor.

Parke Edward ‘Ed’ Coleman

He even coached his little brother. Ed Coleman was a star pitcher at Canby High before following in his brother’s footsteps at OSU, though he would make his reputation on the baseball diamond, not the track.

Considerably bigger than his older brother, standing 6’1” and weighing 185 pounds, he quickly became a standout for the Aggies’ nine, and was feared by pitchers near and far as a “smashing slugger.”

His blossoming baseball career was endangered in 1926, when he developed arm problems that inhibited his ability to throw. Just to keep him in the lineup, his manager moved him to right field.

“That was where he began to hit like a demon,” a sportswriter for The Oregonian chronicled in 1928. “Then, his arm came back, … so he plays right field one day and pitches another.”

That year, Ed signed with the San Francisco Seals to form what some remember as the greatest outfield in minor league history, boasting future major leaguers Smead Jolley and Roy Johnson, along with future Hall of Famer Earl Averill.

Ed was not the consummate athlete his brother was, and it had a definite impact on his ability to play the field. As one unnamed scout would later admit privately, “Ed was no gazelle with a glove.”

But his bat was as explosive as ever, and it would eventually propel him into the big leagues. He made his debut with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1932 at the age of 30, though he, ahem, fudged the numbers just a bit and told the A’s he was five years younger. (Can’t say I blame the guy.)

He was quickly tabbed as one of the league’s rising stars. No less a judge than future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby offered that “when it comes to long-distance hitting … [Coleman] compare[s] with the best in this league — fellows like [Lou] Gehrig, [Al] Simmons, [Babe] Ruth [and Jimmie] Foxx.” That’s particularly high praise coming from one of the best hitters of all time.

“[He] is regarded as a sure-shot to bat far over the .300 mark,” The Sporting News wrote of Coleman. And, indeed, he hit over .340 in 26 games his rookie year.

But it wouldn’t last. Injuries and a falling out with A’s owner/manager Connie Mack led Coleman to be traded to the St. Louis Browns in 1935. Hornsby, the Rajah himself, was the manager of the squad, but relegated the offensive dynamo to pinch hitter after Coleman reported to spring training camp 19 pounds overweight.

He hit .292 and had a decent overall year, but was cut at the end of the season. He spent the next five years bouncing around the minor leagues before retiring from organized baseball.

In a time when big leaguers were known for their colorful remarks to beat writers, Ed Coleman was rarely quoted. His reputation as a private, soft-spoken man was believed to be the result of a slight speech impediment.

Ed contracted a severe illness in 1964, and succumbed on Aug. 5, four months shy of his 63rd birthday. He was buried at Zion Memorial Cemetery in Canby.

His brother, Ralph, died in July of 1990 at a nursing home in Corvallis. He was 94.

Up next, we’ll bring you the story of Larry Owings, the CHS grad who was the only man to ever beat the greatest wrestler in the history of the sport. But, it will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.

Want to support free, useful, locally produced journalism like this? Then consider joining our monthly membership program, Canby Now Plus, for as little as $1 a month! You’ll help us sustain and expand our work, plus you can get access to exclusive content, cool merchandise and other goodies. Thanks!