Early life and playing career
Garagiola was born in St. Louis on Feb. 12, 1926, and grew up on Elizabeth Avenue, just a few doors from Yogi Berra, who had been born the previous year. In high-school, most scouts rated him a better prospect than Berra, though as Garagoila subsequently said, "Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn't even the best catcher on my street!" Signed by the Cardinals at age 16, he made his debut for them in May 1946, going 1-for-4 but making an error, as part of a line-up that also included three future Hall of Famers, in Red Schoendienst, Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter.
The rookie started five games in the World Series, and hit .316 with four RBI as St. Louis beat Boston in seven. Joe went 4-for-5 in Game 4 - he and Thurman Munson are the only catchers with four hits in a World Series game since 1938. Garagiola never played in the post-season again, though was part of the Giants team that reached the World Series in his final campaign, 1954. He also appeared for the Pirates and Cubs: his nine-year career ended with 676 games, a career average of .257, and 42 home-runs. He said, "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."
After his career ended, at the surprisingly-young age of 28, he went in to the broadcast booth, and was the Cardinals' radio guying from 1955 through 1962. He had a three-decade association with NBC, that began in 1961 when he was paired with Bob Wolff, and he called several World Series on radio for the network. Away from baseball, he was one of the regular panelists on The Today Show, and filled in for Johnny Carson on a number of occasions, including when John Lennon and Paul McCartney appeared on the program, in May 1968. Only very limited video, recorded by a fan off their TV set, exists of that show, but here's the audio:
During the sixties and seventies, he was also the host on a number of game shows including He Said, She Said, Sale of the Century, To Tell the Truth and Strike it Rich. Showcasing his breadth of talent, he was also the MC for a popular local professional wrestling show in St. Louis, Wrestling at the Chase, and hosted the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for USA Network. But he remained best known for his baseball work, in particular being paired with legend Vin Scully during the mid-80's, the pair broadcasting the World Series for NBC from 1984 through 1988.
Joe in Arizona
His association with the Diamondbacks was largely due to his son, Joe Jr, who became the team's inaugural general manager in 1995, and held the position through the World Series title win in 2001. He left in 2005, to become the senior vice-president of baseball operation with MLB, but his father, who lives in Scottsdale with his wife of 63 years, Audrey, continued to fill in as color analyst for the team, as he had done since the franchise began. The D-backs named the broadcast wing of their press box after him in 2009, and he overcame health problems that same year, returning to the booth in April 2010.
Garagiola was inducted into Cooperstown for his baseball broadcasting career, receiving, the Ford C. Frick Award in 1991. He was also inducted into the Arizona Broadcasters Association's Hall of Fame in October 2010 and received the Bud Selig Award for lifetime achievement in the game of baseball from the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation in January 2011. His work in the community, in particular on behalf of the St. Peter's Indian Mission in the Gila River Indian Community led him to be nicknamed "Awesome Fox" by the staff there - the baseball field at St. Peter's School is named "Awesome Fox Field" in his honor. August last year, the D-backs also named a field after him, as shown below:
The man, the myth, the legend
Listening to Garagiola work a game was like listening to your favorite grandfather speak. What he said might not necessarily always be accurate, but it was told in such a way that it was a genuine pleasure to listen to. And that was true, whether or not you had previously heard the constant stream of anecdotes from his half-century plus in and around the game, in which his commentary was embedded. Little wonder he wrote a series of books filled with those tales, most recently. Just Play Ball, which was published in 2007.
He's perhaps best known for his tireless crusade against the evils of spitting tobacco, which he himself used to use during his playing days. Garagiola stopped, cold, when his youngest daughter Gina came home from school one day and asked him if he was going to die from tobacco. He has been going around spring training camps since well before the Diamondbacks started playing, telling players about the health risk, asking them to quit and urging MLB to ban its use in the dugout. I doubt that he'll be retiring from that. Oh, and he's the only D-backs broadcaster to be thanked in the credits of an Oscar-winning movie (Good Will Hunting).
Garagiola in quotes
- "Baseball is a game of race, creed, and color. The race is to first base. The creed is the rules of the game. The color? Well, the home team wears white uniforms, and the visiting team wears gray."
- "Never trust a baserunner who's limping. Comes a base hit and you'll think he just got back from Lourdes."
- "The Orioles' Dick Hall comes off the mound like a drunk kangaroo on roller skates."
- "The wind always seems to blow against catchers when they are running."
- On smokeless tobacco: "They tell you it’s a safe alternative, but my answer is, Hey, don’t jump out the 50th floor, jump out the 25th floor. You got 25 floors on your side. The results are going to be the same."
- "I'd get to first base and I'd have to beg the guy to hold me on. I'd plead with him that my kid was watching at home on TV and I didn't want him to be embarrassed."
- "I went through baseball as "a player to be named later.""