Joe Garagiola, Whose Charm Outlived MLB Career, Dies at 90

  • Part of 1946 Series-winning Cardinals, nominated for Emmys
  • Broadcasting career began in 1955 covering games for NBC

Joe Garagiola, whose exuberant personality carried from the baseball field to the broadcast booth to morning and late-night network television, has died. He was 90.

He died Wednesday, according to an article on Major League Baseball’s website, which didn’t give a cause. He lived in Phoenix, where he did occasional broadcasts for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Joe Garagiola
Joe Garagiola
Photographer: Vincent Laforet/Getty Images

Like his friend and fellow Major League Baseball player Yogi Berra, Garagiola exuded an Everyman charm that turned him into a celebrity even among those who didn’t follow sports. The similarities didn’t start or stop there: Garagiola and Berra, both catchers, grew up as across-the-street neighbors in an Italian-American neighborhood in St. Louis.

“I liked being a catcher because I like to talk to the batter,” Berra wrote in a foreword to “Just Play Ball,” Garagiola’s 2007 book. “Joe liked being a catcher because he remembers everything he ever hears, if it makes him laugh.”

Compared with Berra’s career with the New York Yankees, Garagiola’s injury-shortened Major League career was unexceptional. He hit .257 in nine seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and New York Giants. His experience on the field helped shape him as a broadcaster, he told Sports Illustrated in 1965.

“These guys -- the Phil Rizzutos, the Dizzy Deans, the Pee Wee Reeses -- they can talk about baseball from the star’s point of view,” he said. “But I talk from the little guy’s point of view. And there are a lot more of us underdogs than anything else.”

Kubek, Scully

He made his move from the dugout to the Cardinals’ radio booth when his playing career ended after the 1954 season. He began broadcasting games for NBC and was a regular on the network’s “Game of the Week” telecasts from 1975 to 1988, with partners including Tony Kubek and Vin Scully. The Scully-Garagiola team, one of baseball’s most celebrated, provided the coverage for All-Star, playoff and World Series games in the 1980s.

In his commentary, and in the three books he wrote, Garagiola celebrated baseball’s history, quirks and characters. The essence of the game, he told the Arizona Republic in 2007, is “not steroids or statistics,” but “the people, the stories.”

After 35 years as a radio and television announcer, he was voted into the broadcaster wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

His family released a statement Wednesday describing Garagiola’s impact on and off the field: “Joe loved the game and passed that love onto family, his friends, his teammates, his listeners and everyone he came across as a player and broadcaster.”

Emmy Nominations

NBC twice added Garagiola to the cast of “Today,” first with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters from 1967 to 1973, and again from 1990 to 1992 as a co-host with Bryant Gumbel and Deborah Norville. He was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1970 for his work on “Today,” and again for his work at the 1975 World Series.

On occasion Garagiola filled in for Johnny Carson on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” including one episode in 1968 when the guests included John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles. He was a regular guest on “Match Game” in the late 1960s and hosted other game shows including “Memory Game,” “Sale of the Century” and “To Tell the Truth.” From 1995 to 2002, he hosted USA Network’s coverage of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, offering layman analysis that actor Fred Willard studied for his role in the comedy “Best in Show” (2000).

Describing his canine commentary, Garagiola told Sports Illustrated: “I react to what I see more than I inform the viewer. I wonder aloud why a guy with a $900 suit puts Alpo in his pocket.”

Rickey’s Discovery

Joseph Henry Garagiola was born on Feb. 12, 1926, in St. Louis. He was the second of two sons of Giovanni, a brick worker, and Angelina Garagiola, who had both come to the U.S. from Inveruno, Italy, near Milan, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Branch Rickey, the Cardinals executive credited with creating baseball’s farm system, spirited the 15-year-old Garagiola out of St. Louis to hide him from scouts for other teams -- “a common Rickey tactic,” George Vecsey wrote in his biography of Stan Musial. Assigned to the Cardinals’ minor-league team in Springfield, Missouri, until he turned 16 and could sign a legal contract, Garagiola worked in the clubhouse, caught batting practice and provided “comic relief” to Musial, who spent part of 1941 with the minor-league team, Vecsey wrote.

Garagiola’s service in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, including a stint as a military policeman in the Philippines, interrupted his rise to the majors. He began his rookie season following his discharge in 1946. That year, he was part of a Cardinals team that defeated the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series.

Kid’s Dream

“It was a dream every kid has, to be in the Series,” Garagiola later recalled to Parade magazine. “It was the first time I’d ever seen Ted Williams live. I didn’t know whether to call for the pitch or ask for his autograph.”

An injury to his shoulder in 1950 landed Garagiola in the hospital in the midst of his best season. Listening to Harry Caray announce Cardinals games on the radio, he began weighing a broadcast career when his playing days were over.

He became a Cardinals broadcaster in 1955, started covering games for NBC in 1961 and succeeded Mel Allen in the New York Yankees booth from 1965 to 1967. His bestselling 1960 book, “Baseball Is a Funny Game,” established him as one of the game’s leading raconteurs, as did the banquet speeches he gave around the country.

In 1986, Garagiola helped found the Baseball Assistance Team, which aids former players who are struggling with financial or health problems. He also led a long -- and, he said, frustrating -- campaign to discourage the use of smokeless tobacco, the dangers of which he would discuss with players on annual visits to teams during spring training.

Garagiola and his wife Audrie had three children: Joe Jr., a senior vice-president for baseball operations with Major League Baseball and former general manager of the Diamondbacks; Steve, a sportscaster in Detroit; and Gina Bridgeman, a writer in Phoenix, according to the Arizona Republic.

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