Joe Garagiola once said, “Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street!”
The street in question is Elizabeth Avenue, which is located in The Hill, an Italian-American neighborhood in St. Louis Missouri. The block he lived on is now called “Hall of Fame Place” and with good reason. The best catcher was Garagiola’s childhood friend, Yogi Berra. Berra, who died last September, meant there was one less legendary boy from the Hill still walking among us. Berra and Garagiola lived across the street from each other, played together as kids, and watched each others’ stars rise as they matured.
In spite of Garagiola’s insistence to the contrary, at one point he was seen as the golden boy. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him when he was 16 and he made his major league debut in 1946 as a part of the organization’s farm team, the St. Louis Red Birds. Garagiola enjoyed some career highs, such as appearing in the 1946 World Series, but he never really made a mark on the game beyond being a personality. Looking back on his career in a 1970 interview with Sports Illustrated, he reflected on how often he was moved when the deadlines rolled around.
“It’s not a record, but 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.”
Once his playing career was over, Joe Garagiola parlayed his veteran status as an author of books about baseball, one of the voices of St. Louis baseball from 1955 to 1962, and, later on, a part of the developing sports bureau at NBC. Garagiola was a natural. Like many sports broadcasters of his generation, he saw the medium evolve from the artful literacy of radio color commentary to visual dissection of every second of play that intensified as technology caught up with and then passed the speed of a pair of cleats on Astroturf.
Prior to calling MLB for the Peacock Network as part of their regular team, Garagiola was a regular part of their World Series coverage. His announcing is the version most often included in sports archive collections that feature Mickey Mantle’s 500th home run.
In the late ’70s he hosted NBC’s pregame show The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola. It was a mix of sports history, baseball 101, and analysis of the teams scheduled to play that day that never talked down to casual fans and created appreciation for the game at a time when network bean counters were starting to take a harder look at market shares and Nielsen ratings. NBC moved him to the booth in 1974, where he shared a desk with Vin Scully, Tony Kubek, and Bob Costas.
Garagiola worked as a presenter in other areas of television, gaining fame as one of the announcers of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show from 1994 to 2002, but baseball was always his true north. He left NBC after a contract dispute in 1988 and after a two-year hiatus from baseball he returned, this time as a commentator for the regional cable carrier of California Angels games. From 1998 to 2012, he was the voice of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were managed by his son, Joe Garagiola, Jr.
During his lifetime, Joe Garagiola received accolades for his work on both sides of the mic. Along with his 1946 World Series ring, he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1970, was the recipient of the Ford Frick Award in 1991, joined former teammate and sometime nemesis Stan Musial on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and in 2014 was awarded the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.
Joseph Henry Garagiola, Sr, was born on February 12, 1926, and left this world on March 23, 2016. He is survived by his son, Joe, Jr., who followed his father’s career path into baseball, his son Steve, and his daughter, Gina, both of whom worked as broadcast journalists.
With Garagiola’s passing, the door closes on another connection to America’s past. When we lose someone like Stan Musial or Yogi Berra or Joe Garagiola, what mythic truths aren’t revealed in life become matters of apocryphal legend after they’re gone.
[Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images]