MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Compassionate Garagiola an American original

Compassionate Garagiola an American original

To understand Joe Garagiola Sr.'s sweet, wonderful life and why so many people loved him so deeply and feel so empty at the news of his passing, let's begin with a story about St. Peter's Indian Mission in Phoenix. Better yet, let's have one of the world's great storytellers give it a go.

"I went to church over at St. Theresa's," Garagiola said during a 2014 interview. "I always get to know the ushers, and one day one of them said, 'Joe, you should have been here to hear that nun talk about that school she's running. They got nothing.'"

Nothing? Something stirred in him.

"I went down there, and it was terrible," Garagiola said. "They had a beautiful field, but it was all dirt, no grass."

Garagiola then did something he did hundreds of other times in his life. He decided he would make it better, and he poured himself into the project, calling in favors, knocking on doors, making speeches.

Garagiola was driven by the fact that these were poor kids, many of them with less than ideal family lives. If they had a baseball field, they might be drawn to it, might have a purpose in life other than hanging out on the streets.

"We could keep the kids here and they could play and not go home to a situation that needs help," he said.

Little by little, things happened. Garagiola cajoled and coaxed to have weeds cleared and grass planted. He convinced someone to build a barbecue grill, someone else to install lights.

"When it was all over with, we had a field with grass and lights, and it was beautiful," he said. "And the kids have a great time."

When people wanted to thank Garagiola for this act of kindness, he waved them away.

"Listen," he said. "People are wonderful in this world."

That one line probably sums up how Joseph Henry Garagiola, who died Wednesday, lived his 90 years. His was a life committed to doing the right thing. He loved baseball and he loved people. He loved to laugh. Oh did he love to laugh.

Garagiola was good at baseball even though he made a running joke of his nine-season career with four teams.

"I played for four teams when there was only eight in the entire National League," he said. "I just modeled uniforms."

Garagiola was hitting .318 in 1950 when a collision with Jackie Robinson on a bunt play resulted in a shoulder injury. He played four more seasons, but the shoulder was never right.

When Garagiola turned to broadcasting, Harry Caray was his first mentor. He approached it the same way he'd approached playing -- with enthusiasm and a glass-half-full worldview.

"To be a broadcaster and talk to players, how many people would love that job?" Garagiola said. "I was always kind of pop-off kind of guy anyway."

McLaughlin, Wilson on Garagiola

Indeed, once when a player, Gene Green, asked for hitting advice before a game, Garagiola had some.

"You should probably quit," he said.

Green was aghast.

"I come to you for help and that's what you give me?"

With that, both men doubled over in laughter. However, as Garagiola said later, "I actually wasn't kidding."

Garagiola reached the highest levels of broadcasting, doing NBC's Game of the Week and hosting both "The Today Show" and "The Tonight Show" at various times. He never took either gig too seriously, and maybe that's why he was so natural in front of the camera.

"How could you have a bad show with the Beatles?" he asked. "Paul McCartney was great."

Garagiola pauses for the punchline.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't know who the Beatles were," he whispered.

Garagiola's real joy, even late in life, was at the ballpark, down there with the players and managers and umpires.

"It wasn't as much fun as baseball," he said of his other television work. "Baseball will always be No. 1 to me."

Garagiola's greater legacy may that he used his prominence to make the world a better place, and isn't that the highest compliment anyone could get? He helped get the Baseball Assistance Team off the ground when he heard that the widow of a former player was about to lose her home. Through the years, B.A.T. has helped hundreds, doing things like paying off a mortgage or picking up a sick child's medical bills.

Garagiola resisted credit for this, too, saying, "Lots of people did more than I did. Don't give me the credit for that."

Once after leaving the home of a woman who needed help, former Dodgers pitcher Joe Black said, "Joe, you sounded like a preacher in there."

"The guys that belong to B.A.T., it came right from the heart," Garagiola said. "I'm very proud to be part of it."

Another passion was Garagiola's campaign to get smokeless tobacco out of the game after seeing the damage it did to bodies and families.

"I tell the players of today, 'Guys, you're not doing it for yourself. You're doing it for your family and your kids,'" Garagiola said.

Garagiola was a kid from St. Louis, best friends with Yogi Berra, two young guys who were going to conquer the world. And they pretty much did.

Now they're both gone, two baseball icons and American heroes. Garagiola took it hard when Berra died last summer, his relentless optimism tested as never before.

"I lived at 5446 Elizabeth, he lived at 5447," Garagiola said. "I wasn't even the best hitter on my block. Yogi could hit at age 14. We didn't have uniforms. Yogi's brother Mike would get some cracked bats. We'd put nails in 'em and played."

Still, Garagiola had found his calling, and he would want us to remember that he was a lucky man, that he lived a life he never could have imagined living.

The life of Joe Garagiola

Through the years, Garagiola met presidents and famous actors and rock stars and big-time authors and all the rest. Still, when someone would mention the thrill of sitting there beside Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show," Garagiola would interrupt.

"There's only one place to be," he would say. "That's the ballpark. The world is right with the ballpark."

Garagiola never lost that love, even in his later years when he was slower of step. He went to Chase Field to see the D-backs as often as possible.

"I wanted to go to the Hall of Fame," he said. "When I saw the way Yogi hit, I thought, 'Uh oh, the only way I'm getting to the Hall of Fame is to buy a ticket.'"

Not exactly. In 1991, Garagiola was honored by the Hall of Fame with the Ford C. Frick Award for major contributions to baseball through the broadcast booth.

Laughter remained Garagiola's signature. Not just that he made us laugh, although he did that. He laughed too. For instance he was on the 1953 Pirates team that lost 104 games.

Before a game against the Dodgers, Garagiola tells of this exchange with Don Newcombe.

Newcombe: "We had a big fight in our clubhouse."

Garagiola: "What are you talking about?"

Newcombe: "It's just the pitchers. Whoever wins the fight gets to pitch against you guys."

Years later, Garagiola would roar with laughter retelling the story.

"We had five or six guys who weren't even on bubblegum cards," he said. "That's how bad we were."

Still, Garagiola liked Pittsburgh and figured he'd performed well enough to squeeze a few more years out of his career.

"Mr. [Branch] Rickey told me I really figured into the plans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he said. "I did. He traded me two days later."

Garagiola finishes this story and begins to laugh and to smile. He never minded the joke being on himself.

Garagiola's life was an example of decency and charity and humor, and he will leave a legacy that will never be forgotten. He was an American original in so many ways, and we were so lucky to have him as long as we did.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.