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The Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016 - #5: A farewell to Joe

2016 was a brutal year in terms of celebrity deaths. It didn’t leave the D-backs untouched.

New York Yankees v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

It would likely be incorrect to say that the death of Joe Garagiola Sr. in March came as a shock. As you’d expect of a man in his late eighties, his health had been increasingly playing him up, dating back to 2009 brain tumor. In September 2015, he didn’t make the trip to New Jersey for the funeral of his life-long friend Yogi Berra, who inspired one of Garagiola’s best-known lines: "Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn't even the best catcher on my street!" But even at age 90, it was still a hugely unwanted loss, of a man who had been part of the Arizona Diamondbacks family since the very beginning.

Of course, the 14 seasons spent providing occasional color commentary for us, was hardly the extent of Joe’s broadcasting career, which started in 1955, covering games for the St. Louis Cardinals on KMOX. In the eighties he was the face of the game, working on NBC at a time when their “Game of the Week” was one of the few chances to see baseball on your television. He was regularly teamed with Vin Scully, covering the World Series of 1984, 1986 and 1988, in what must have been close to the greatest pairing of all time in booth history. Baseball was only one of his talents: he guest-hosted The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson couldn’t, was a regular on the Westminster Dog Show, and even did pro wrestling commentary.

But it was his time in the Arizona ballpark that made him an institution, beloved by everyone who crossed his path, and virtually universally adored by those who heard his broadcasts. They were always a treat: a constant stream of baseball wisdom, anecdotes, and one-liners which were a delight to listen to, and almost provided a vacation in time, going back to an era when the game was a simpler one. In 2013, he was named the recipient of the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, presented once every three years by the Baseball Hall of Fame for positive contributions to Major League Baseball, and few honors can surely have been more roundly deserved.

But he wasn’t just a consummate professional in the booth. He was well known as a tireless campaigner, fighting against the perils of chewing tobacco for decades, after losing friend Bill Tuttle to oral cancer [I imagine not many baseball players get an obituary in Dentistry Today!] Perhaps less noted, but no less laudable, was his support for the St. Peter Indian Mission School on the Gila River Indian Community, which dated back a quarter of a century. There, the fundraising efforts of “Awesome Fox” (to give Joe his native name), helped lead to a 5,000-square-foot library and computer lab at the school, along with a soccer field, feast house, school buses and vans.

In May, the team paid tribute to Joe, with a ceremony before the game against the New York Yankees at Chase Field. His children, Joe Jr., Steve and Gina threw out the first pitch, along with Joe Torre, Bob Brenly and Yogi Berra’s granddaughter, Lindsay. A “JOE” emblem was unveiled in left field, and the D-backs commemorated Garagiola by bearing him on their uniforms this year - wearing the team’s heart on their sleeve, you might say.

Garagiola may be gone, but will never be forgotten by those who had the pleasure of hearing him at work - though it never seemed like a job with Joe in the booth. I’ll finish with one last anecdote, from the press conference announcing Joe’s retirement from the booth.

When Garagiola became teary-eyed during the news conference, he looked toward manager Kirk Gibson in the crowd and said that if he couldn't hold it together, he was going to ask Gibson to come up and finish for him. "I'd be happy to," Gibson said. "You'd be happy to?" Garagiola quipped. "Tell your face you'd be happy to, then, would ya?"