RETIRING, GARAGIOLA NO ORDINARY JOE
“Kennedy was, whether for good or bad, an enormously large figure,” Theodore H. White wrote of America’s first Catholic president. “Historically, he was a gate-keeper. He unlatched the gate and through the door marched Catholics, blacks, and Jews, and ethnics, women, youth, academics, newspersons, and an entirely new breed of politician.”
Joe Garagiola, 87, an exceedingly large baseball figure, recently retired after 58 years behind the mike, including the last 18 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He unlatched a 1950s and ‘60s gate for urban, ethnic, and, with Dizzy Dean, an entirely new breed of announcer – the ex-jock-turned funnyman. It is a gate that will never close.
Humor obscured how Joe G. asked for little, worked like a dog, and helped found the Baseball Assistance Team. “I went though life as a [1946-54] player to be named later,” Garagiola said in a typical witticism. Ordinary on the field, he has been extraordinary off.
Yet to many Joe will always be boyhood pal Yogi Berra’s ambassador without portfolio. “I’ll ask him, ‘What time is it? Yogi’ll say, ‘Now?’”
“I get lost going to Yogi’s home, and call. ‘Where are you?’ he says. I tell him. He says, ‘You’re not far away. You come this way. Don’t go that way.’”
A woman mused, “Yogi, you look cool in that outfit.” Berra smiled. “Thanks,” he said. “You don’t look so hot yourself.”
What a card – or was Yogi Charlie McCarthy, mouthing a baseball Bergen’s lines? “It’s his humor,” said Garagiola, growing wintry. “He thinks funny, and speaks what he thinks.”
Joe’s mother — “a dear, loving simple woman” – could not speak English. Dad worked in a brickyard. Born on Lincoln’s birthday 1926, their son learned a salute-to-the-flag, catch-in-the-throat, tear-in-the-eye Americanism.
Growing up, he and Berra shared a glove, played in a World Progress Administration league, and worked in a Cardinals training camp. In 1942, Joe graduated from South Side Catholic High School, signed for $500 with St. Louis, and bounced to Class-A Springfield, Triple-A Columbus, and the Army in Manila.
One day he heard the wireless etch a young, fast, and strong Cardinals catcher. “I turned to my closest Army buddy and said, ‘If that guy’s that good, I ‘m in trouble.’” The radio predicted Garagiola would fill Walker Cooper’s shoes. As Joe said, it didn’t say with what.
Meet Me in St. Louis
In 1946, joining his home team, Garagiola was assigned washing sanitary hose. “We used to always put on Stan Musial’s socks ‘TGIF’ – Toes Go In First. Anything to help The Man.” The Man helped by leading the league in seven categories.
Enos Slaughter had an N.L-high 130 runs. Howie Pollett, Harry Brecheen, and Murry Dickson went 51-31. St. Louis was still made a 7-to-20 World Series underdog v. Boston. Games One-Two split. The Red Sox then won Fenway Park’s first Series match in 28 years. To New England, Game Four seemed as long: Redbirds, 12-3. Joe, Slaughter, and Whitey Kurowski each had four of a record-tying 20 hits.
“Here I am,” he said, “living a kid’s ream, and [Ted] Williams picks that day to beat the shift [three infielders right of second base].” Papers blared: “Williams Bunts!” Cards, in seven. Garagiola gloried in his .316 average. The hereafter was stickier: 1947, .247; ’48, minors; ’50, shoulder separation. Hurt, Joe began listening to Harry Caray, “how he called the game, and I got thinking about radio.”
Dealt to Pittsburgh, he rubbernecked the 42-112 ‘52ers. “It was the most courageous team in baseball,” said Garagiola. “We had 154 games scheduled, and showed up for every one. We lost eight of our first nine games and then we had a slump.”
Next year marked the ninth season of Branch Rickey’s five-year plan. One day the Pirates’ G.M. summoned Joe. “He looks at me with his big, bushy eyebrows. ‘By Judas Priest,’ he says, ‘we’re turning the corner. And you, my boy, figure in my plans.’” That week Garagiola was traded to the Cubs.
In 1954, the Giants claimed him off waivers. “I’d bit in the bullpen and say, ‘Why the hell doesn’t he throw the curveball?” Joe said, retiring. “All I had to do to become an announcer was to take out the hell.”
Hired by KMOX Radio St. Louis, the Funny Man began making a virtue of necessity. “You can’t imagine the thrill,” Joe said of his .257 career average, “to walk into a clubhouse and wonder if your uniform is still there.” Their block became terra firma. “A door to door peddler told my mom I was the first boy from the neighborhood with a name ending in a, e, i, o, or u that gets his name in the papers and he no kill anybody.”
Baseball wasn’t “like going to church.” Dead air: “I’m Italian. I like to talk.” Strategy: “An idiot could pick up” the signs. St. Louis forgave his sharp voice. Caray taught using the diaphragm. “I had a lot of help, and needed it. Off my first play-by-play, I wouldn’t have hired myself.”
For Anheuser-Busch, Joe emceed, spoke to B’nai B’rith, the Holy Name, and Masonic Lodge, and bloomed as a ribster. He and Stan Musial became godfather for the other’s child. In 1959, he broadcast with the Cardinals. Back home, Yogi’s pal taped, reviewed, and learned, becoming a Bob Hope of the resin bag. His gate, unlatched, would soon open wide.
In 1960, Herbert Hoover and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were introduced at the World Series. “You amaze me, Yog. You’ve become such a world figure that you draw more applause than either a prime minister or former president,” Garagiola laughed. “You can you explain it?” Berra said: “Certainly. I’m a better hitter.”
That season, Joe released the runaway bestseller Baseball Is a Funny Game. “One day I’m a dumb jock and suddenly I can write.” NBC made him 1961 Saturday and Sunday Major League Baseball color man. Next year Bob Wolff began play-by-play. “You work your side of the street [interviewing players],” said Garagiola, “and I’ll work mine.” On CBS, Dean, incinerating the language, competed each weekend with Wolff and Joe G.
Wolff liked Joe’s pizzazz. “He’d say, ‘The guy stapled him to the bag.’” A runner’s “smilin’ like he swallowed a banana peel.” The game preceded due diligence. “Afterward, we’d replay each pitch. ‘I said this, you said that, and I should have said this.’” Soon Garagiola played The Jack Paar Show with Kaye Ballard and June Valli. Even better is that today every baseball network and big-league team has at least one, some many, ex-athletes-turned-analysts: “Joe’s ultimate gift,” says Wolff.
In 1962, Garagiola left the Cardinals full-time for NBC. Radio bound the 1963 World Series, Monitor, and Joe Garagiola Sports Show. TV blared The Tonight Show, Match Game, What’s My Line?, and I’ve Got A Secret. A writer said, “His words hit home runs.” Leisure, on the other hand, fanned.
The Peacock Spreads
Small world. The 1964 World Series matched the Redbirds and the Yankees, Berra managing. Garagiola called it with, among others, Caray. The Cards cut their seventh world title. The Yankees’ loss cost Yogi his job. As jaw-dropping was the firing of broadcaster Mel Allen, replaced by Joe, auguring “a more human Yankees image,” wrote the Daily News’s Kay Gardella. Sadly, the Bombers chose this time by fall apart, finishing last by 1966.
Understandably, Garagiola avoided whenever possible anything germane to score.
“Once in a while you’d get lucky: the Yankees like they were,” he said. An example was May 14, 1967. “Stu Miller ready,” said Garagiola at Yankee Stadium. “Here’s the payoff pitch by Miller to Mantle. Swung on! There she goes! There she goes! …. Mickey Mantle has hit the [career] five hundred home run!”
In 1968, Joe joined NBC The Today Show regulars Barbara Walters, Hugh Downs, and Frank McGee. Some foresaw a flop. Instead, he “indulged in diamond talk with Frank Robinson,” Ben Gross wrote, “boxing with Muhammad Ali, poetry with Marianne Moore, and politics with Hubert H. Humphrey.” President Johnson introduced him to a diplomat. “Turn on your TV set tomorrow morning and you’ll see this fellow. I watch him every day.”
Define New York: “The only four-letter word they object to is ROTC.” Was Joe sentimental? “Give me the Queen of Spades and I’ll bawl.” A slider was “a curveball after taxes.” A plane trip spawned “rope burns from my Rosary.” Garagiola rose at 4:30 A.M., caught the 5:26 commuter train, and knew his niche. “I’m not Joe Show Six, just a sweatshirt guy running stop speed to stay even. Those guys on the bubble gum cards, they’re mine.”
By 1973, Joe’s card listed Joe Garagiola’s Memory Game, Sale of the Century, and Monday’s pre-game Baseball World of Joe Garagiola. Wife Audrie asked: “How many cards or suite do you need?” Leaving Today, he called, with Gowdy, the 1974 All-Star Game. Next day Joe grabbed NBC executive Carl Lindemann. “I can’t work with him,” he said. “Curt kept cutting me off. I couldn’t say a word.”
In 1975, he hosted NBC’s Next Year Is Here and First World Series of Bubble Gum Blowing. A new gate soon opened. “Mr. Garagiola,” read an NBC press release, “will do our [entire 1976] play-by-play [Tony Kubek, keeping color].” Political animals aren’t limited to politics.
“Often Even Great”
NBC hoped that Joe’s charm and unorthodox dwelling on the personal would halt Game’s decade-long hemorrhage. Instead, ratings bobbed from 6.7 (1977) via 7.5 (1978) to 6.3 (1981-82). “Saturday had a constituency,” said executive producer Scotty Connal, “but it didn’t swell.” Opposing Game, local-team TV split the audience. By contrast, regulars awaited Joe’s bits like a Star Trek groupie.
The 1952 Bucs meant a belly laugh: “Once we had a rainout and we staged a victory party.” Diction was a yuck. One year Yogi, Dizzy Dean, and Garagiola joined the Missouri Hall of Fame. “What do you want? Good grammar or good taste?” Game mixed aplomb and nonchalance. “I’m an expert on two things – trades and slumps.” How far did Yogi go in high school? “Nine blocks.” If Howard Cosell lunched “with everyone he says he does he’d weigh 720 pounds.”
ABC’s 1976 power grab was no laughing matter, buying half of all big-league coverage. “Still, Game, half of post-season – we got lots left,” Joe said. Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson fought in 1977. Next year New York again made the Series. Game Two: L.A., 4-3, ninth, two on. Reggie kept fouling off Bob Welch. Finally: “He gets him!” Joe cried. “What a battle!”
Garagiola never caught a no-hitter. In 1981, he called Nolan Ryan’s fifth. Pressure building! This may be it [game-ending grounder]!” A year Vin Scully got play-by-play, Joe retaking color. “People couldn’t wait for us to be the odd couple, always sniping at each other,” Vin later mused. Once again Joe adjusted. Wolff, for one, was not surprised. “If I couldn’t see who was warming up, he’d write me a note. ‘Smith to the left, Jones to the right.’ That way I could say it: Joe wanted me to look good.”
By late 1983, The New York Times wrote: “That the duo of Scully and Garagiola is very good, and often even great, is no longer in dispute.” Talking less, Joe was saying more. “He understood the cash,” a friend said of NBC’s 1984-49 407 percent bigs hike. Scully was the star”; Garagiola, Pegasus, the Peacocks’ junior light. In 1984, he predicted a Series pitchout. “How did you know that?” Vin gawked. The fist sign, he said, hadn’t changed since 1944. “He’d say the batter wiggled,” said Harry Coyle, “so we’d put the replay on him, and the camera proved him right.”
The 1980s tied flag-waving, supply-side economics, and Ronald Reagan’s remembered and/or reinvented past. NBC’s fused: 1984, Jack Morris’s’ no-no; 1985, Ozzie Smith’s L.C.S. parabola; 1986, Buckner Series; late 1988, baseball’s excising Game. Joe resigned that fall – “I was trying to renegotiate, and they left me twisting” – returning to 1990-91’s Today. Cooperstown followed. “The Hall of Fame!” he said. “My God, Rickey wouldn’t believe it!” Miming Yogi, Garagiola thanked those who made the day necessary. “I couldn’t hit my way in here. I talked my way in instead.”
In 1993, the Smithsonian Institution hailed Joe’s baseball world. “Tonight’s honor might not be Mt. Rushmore,” wrote Jack Paar of his folically-challenged friend, “but there’s still a place on Mt. Baldie.” Joe was Gerald Ford’s emcee in the 1976 Presidential campaign. Recalling another president, Jack termed him the only Voice to have slept in the Lincoln Bedroom before it became the Hollywood Hotel.
Garagiola moved to Phoenix, called the Angels and Diamondbacks, and hailed Arizona’s first general manager: “My Rickey! Dad said of son Joe. Pop helped open a gate for former players: the Baseball Assistance Team.
By 2002, the average big-league salary, $29,000 in 1968, neared $2.4 million. “These guys,” he snapped. “Where’s concern for the players before?” A pitcher couldn’t afford to bury his 11-year-old son. An ex-Dodger pondered a raffle for an amputated leg. “Nobody cares about no pension then. Without them, guys today wouldn’t be living like they are.”
BAT paid bills, bought insurance, above all, gentled shame. Unlatching hope: a conservative, turned do-gooder; the hustler, aiding those whom life forgot. Bob Dole once told Richard Nixon that he was too complicated to be understood. “Aha! Nixon enthused. “Now you’re getting somewhere.”
Complexity was also true of Joe Garagiola. His final stint was 18 years of airing the Diamondbacks. His final gate was knowledge, unlatching it for every viewer.