As someone who came late to baseball, and even later to the state of Arizona, there is only one Joe Garagiola with whom I was ever familiar. I didn't know him as the kid who grew up in the same neighborhood at Yogi Berra ["Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn't even the best catcher on my street!"]. I didn't know him as the young catcher who played for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1946 World Series. I didn't know him as one of the linchpins on NBC's Game of the Week, or as the occasional host of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show - including getting to interview The Beatles. His storied career was something I only learned about in retrospect.
To me, Joe was just the man who occasionally popped up on the Diamondbacks' broadcast, either as a guest for a couple of innings or doing color commentary, alongside first Thom Brennaman, then Daron Sutton. I had no clue this was a man who had got to hang out at the White House with President Gerald Ford. To me, Joe - already well into his seventies - was simply an old guy who told stories. And yet, that description is like calling Shakespeare a medieval guy who wrote plays: technically true, but missing the level to which they each elevated their chosen art-forms.
For listening to Garagiola wax lyrical was to come into contact with a life of baseball, the likes of which I can only dream. He was signed by the Cardinals in 1942, and retired from broadcasting in 2012. That's seventy years of professional experience he brought to the microphone. But that alone was only part of Garagiola's brilliance. He could expound on any topic, in a way that made you feel like he was sitting on the couch next to you, drawing from a near-infinite wealth of anecdotes. Yeah, regular viewers would eventually recognize some coming round again - but, you know what? It didn't matter. Like good jokes, the pleasure was much less the punch-line than the telling.
Any appearance was a constant stream of wisdom ("Don't be afraid to fail. Experience is just mistakes you don't make anymore."), stories and one-liners ("I went through baseball as a player to be named later."), that managed to educate, entertain and inform in variable but always generous quantities. He truly put the "color" into "color commentator" - it may be heresy to say it, but in recent years, I'd rather have listened to Garagiola in that role than Vin Scully. Although I can only wonder what it would have been like to enjoy games with both men in the booth; they worked together for NBC in the mid-eighties, and it's hard to imagine a more perfect double-team.
I never had the privilege of meeting Joe, but still felt I knew and loved him, such was his easy-going approach in the booth. And it's not just me: reading Twitter today was a constant stream of people who knew him far better, sharing their experiences and admiration for him. Joe was married to Audrey for 66 years, and at the time of her retirement - largely because he wanted to spend more time with her - said, ""I've often said it's the best catch I ever made... I was the guy that was on the plane flying here, there, everywhere, coming home and telling her about it, and she'd just smile and say, 'That's great.'" I can only hope my own marriage is as long-lasting and happy.
The word "irreplaceable" is probably over-used. but is truly appropriate in this case, for a man about whom I have never heard a bad word. The baseball world is a little darker and a little less fun tonight, after the passing of Joe; his unfailing cheerfulness, wit and passion for the game should be an inspiration to us all. He will be missed, but never forgotten, and always remembered with the same smile he wore. Here's the audio of him speaking to the press on the occasion of his retirement, in February 2013.