Catcher called Cardinals, D-backs and national games, was popular TV host
By Marty Noble
A pleasant and caring man, one who reveled in his mostly modest playing career in the big leagues, his receded -- not receding -- hairline and, it seemed, all facets and phases of his decades on the planet, has left us behind, behind and smiling. Joe Garagiola, a most entertaining, engaging and convivial sort, has died, bringing to an end a full, rich life and leaving the game without one its most enduring personalities, an energetic crusader and folksy humorist.
The second-best catcher from Elizabeth Street in St. Louis, Garagiola played the game at its highest level, preached its gospel, gave it context, poked fun at it, took it seriously and assisted those who competed in it. "Most of all," he said once, "I've loved the game." And no one questioned that assertion. Garagiola's affection for baseball was as evident as his elongated forehead.
Joseph Henry Garagiola was 90 when his time came on Wednesday. His image, widely recognized when he made regular appearances on national baseball telecasts and hosted a morning show, had faded in recent years. But his influence and fingerprints on the game remain. He helped found the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), an organization that assists former players who have met misfortune, and he campaigned passionately, forcefully and for the most part effectively against the use of smokeless tobacco, a practice so prevalent before, during and after his years in the big leagues, 1946-54.
Moreover, a more apparent lasting influence is his son, Joe Garagiola Jr., who is the senior vice president of standards and on-field operations for Major League Baseball and was general manager of the Diamondbacks from 1997-2005. Garagiola Sr. is also survived by his wife Audrie, eight grandchildren and children Steve and Gina.
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of this amazing man who was not just beloved by those of us in his family, but to generations of baseball fans who he impacted during his eight decades in the game," Garagiola's family said in a statement. "Joe loved the game and passed that love onto family, his friends, his teammates, his listeners and everyone he came across as a player and broadcaster. His impact on the game, both on and off the field, will forever be felt."
"All of us at Major League Baseball are deeply saddened by the loss of Joe Garagiola," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
"With all of Joe's professional successes, it was behind the scenes where Joe has had an equally impressive impact. For his work with kids, Joe was named the 1998 recipient of the Children's MVP Award presented by the Jim Eisenreich Foundation. He served baseball as a leader in the fight against smokeless tobacco, working with NSTEP -- the National Spit Tobacco Education Program -- and traveling to each Major League camp during Spring Training to educate players about the dangers of tobacco and oral cancer. He was also a tireless supporter and longtime champion for the Baseball Assistance Team, which helps members of the baseball family who are in need.
"Joe's love of the game was always on display, and his knowledge and insight is something that I truly admired."
A man who always had an anecdote on deck, Garagiola recognized that baseball is a funny game. Indeed, he used that phrase as the title of the first of three books he authored. A good portion of his humor was self-deprecating. Speaking in Washington, D.C., in 1970, he noted, "It's not a record, but being traded four times when there are only eight teams in the league tells you something. I thought I was modeling uniforms for the National League."
Garagiola's humor was well-sourced if for no other reason than his nearly lifelong association with the best catcher Elizabeth Street ever produced, one Lawrence Peter Berra. One of Yogi's books was entitled "I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said." No, he probably didn't, but some folks suspect Garagiola was responsible for some of what Yogi didn't say.
Chances are "It's déjà vu all over again" didn't originate with the Yankees' Hall of Fame catcher. "Navy blue, navy green and navy brown" did, though.
"Joe was one-of-a-kind and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to get to know him and his family," D-backs managing general partner Ken Kendrick said. "His sense of humor certainly stood out to all of us, but perhaps more importantly, the mark he left in the community around him will carry on his legacy for generations to come."
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Garagiola began his broadcasting career shortly after his retirement as a player, calling games for KMOX, the Cardinals' flagship radio station, for decades. He had spent his first 5 1/2 seasons in the big leagues with the club, starting about 50 games per season.
He began working national radio broadcasts in 1961 while still working Cardinals games, and eventually handled World Series broadcasts, too. A three-year gig doing play-by-play on Yankees telecasts began in 1965, Berra's first year not with the club. Garagiola was proud to point out that he called the 500th career home run of Mickey Mantle. "Ya know, Mickey and I combined for almost 600 home runs," he later said.
His radio and Yankees experience prompted NBC to rehire him, but for television. He did pregame shows for the "Game of the Week" telecasts and eventually moved into the booth and back to play-by-play responsibilities.
Garagiola worked three World Series, three National League Championship Series and three All-Star Games, and at various times shared the booth with the likes of Vin Scully, Tony Kubek, Harry Caray, Dick Enberg and Curt Gowdy. "They always put you with guys with lots of hair," Berra said to him in 1984, "so it evens up."
Garagiola roared. "We should have brought Oscar Gamble in," he said.
He also worked Angels and D-backs games after his association with NBC ended.
Garagiola's celebrity, little of it forged by his playing days, increased dramatically as his television career developed. It led to work outside the game that included co-hosting the "Today" show, serving as a guest host on the "Tonight" show and emceeing various game shows, including "To Tell The Truth."
Garagiola served as Johnny Carson's understudy in 1968, hosting the show that featured the only live appearance by any two Beatles -- Paul McCartney and John Lennon, in this case -- while the group existed. Years later, Garagiola noted, "I might have made them feel uncomfortable when they saw how much hair I had."
It was nothing less than celebrity for the other catcher from Elizabeth Street. Born on Lincoln's birthday in 1926, Garagiola met three sitting presidents and a Pope and, of course, he knew Yogi.
Secure in his own skin, Garagiola always could laugh at himself. "Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn't even the best catcher on my street," he said more than once. "My friend Yogi saw to that."
Much of what Garagiola added to broadcasts and telecasts was delivered in a folksy, unaffected way. He made stories the stars of what he shared. His commentary rarely was judgmental; neither he nor his contemporaries questioned execution of a play or managers' decisions. Instead, his audiences were regaled with tales of Weaver's antics, Veeck's wooden-leg ashtray, Lasorda's waistline, Casey's lingo, Gamble's afro, clubhouse shenanigans and, of course, anything involving his childhood chum. Garagiola was drawn to the game's characters and sought out their stories.
"I couldn't share my own experiences," he said. "I didn't have that many. They don't want to hear what it's like to warm up a guy in the bullpen. ... I had a career that I'm proud of. But I didn't do much."
Not necessarily so. Garagiola was a competent big leaguer who had his moments, most notably in the Cardinals' seven-game World Series against the Red Sox in 1946. A 20-year-old rookie, he started five games, including the Cardinals' 4-3 victory in Game 7, and batted .316 with four RBIs in 19 at-bats.
After his tour with the Cardinals, Garagiola was moved to the Pirates in a seven-player trade on the June 15 Trade Deadline in 1951. Almost two years later, he, Ralph Kiner, Howie Pollet and George Metkovich were traded to the Cubs for six players and $150,000. Garagiola was claimed off waivers by the Giants in early September 1954, appeared in five games and retired at season's end at age 28.
Garagiola had played in 676 games, all as a left-handed-hitting catcher or pinch-hitter, batting .257 with 255 RBIs, 42 home runs, 82 doubles, 16 triples and a .354 on-base percentage in 2,170 plate appearances. His most productive seasons were 1951 and '52, during which he played 217 games for the Pirates and Cardinals. Garagiola totaled 19 home runs and 98 RBIs and produced a .355 on-base average and a .416 slugging percentage.
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Clearly, Garagiola's numbers were not Cooperstownesque, but Garagiola twice was recognized by the Hall of Fame, once for his work in the media and again for his contributions to the game he embraced. He received the 1991 Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting. Twenty-three years later, he was made the third recipient of the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. He was unable to attend the 2014 ceremony; he was living in Arizona and his doctors had recommended he not travel long distances.
"You get a call from the Hall of Fame, especially the way I played, and you wonder what they want," Garagiola said after being notified of the honor that so delighted him. "You know they don't want my bat, they don't want my glove. But this is a tremendous, tremendous thrill. To have me and the Hall of Fame mentioned in the same sentence, it's unbelievable."
Garagiola likened some of what O'Neil had said late in life to thoughts expressed by the late Nelson Mandela.
Then, after saying, "I don't have the words at this time to express how I feel," Garagiola went on: "Buck was a friend of mine, so to receive an award named after him is just an extra thrill. When you talked to Buck, I don't care what you were talking about, he always looked at you like you were saying the most interesting thing he's ever heard. And he always had something to say to keep it going.
"He was a warm man who liked people."
Those last words fit Garagiola as well.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.