For baseball fans, especially those over the age of 30, the news of Joe Garagiola‘s passing was another reminder of how short life is. While the former major-league catcher and TV personality had been ill the past few years, Garagiola passing away at the age of 90 seemed too soon.
Garagiola proved versatile in his career, parlaying his time as a mediocre player into pop culture fame. His warm personality endeared himself to more than just baseball fans.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Garagiola grew up in the same neighborhood as Yogi Berra. While Berra went on to a Hall of Fame career, pro scouts actually rated Garagiola as the better prospect as teenagers, and he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 16.
During World War II, Garagiola went from farm clubs to being stationed in the Philippines. Discharged from the service at age 20, he made his debut in St. Louis on May 26, 1946. His 1946 season with the Cardinals culminated in his career-best performance in the World Series. Garagiola collected four hits in Game 4, helping beat the Boston Red Sox for the title.
Garagiola was a decent hitter for a catcher, but he never lived up to the potential he showed in his youth. He played nine seasons with a career batting average of .257 for four different teams: the Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and New York Giants.
Garagiola’s average playing career was highlighted by his memorable quips.
When remarking on his teenage days in St. Louis, Garagiola said, “Not only was I not the best catcher in the major leagues; I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street.”
Regarding the numerous moves in his brief career, Garagiola said he was always “a player to be named later. … I thought I was modeling uniforms for the National League.”
Garagiola was making Bob Uecker quotes before Uecker had a chance to tell them. He was able to take that humor and baseball smarts to the airwaves.
While most baseball fans associated Garagiola with his time at NBC, he actually got his start in 1955 calling Cardinals games on KMOX radio. He would later work for the New York Yankees from 1965 to 1967. More recently, he worked for the California Angels in 1990 before working with the Arizona Diamondbacks from 1998 to 2012 on a part-time basis.
For generations of baseball fans, Garagiola was the man we all tuned into on Saturday afternoons for NBC’s Game of the Week. After alternating play-by-play duties with Curt Gowdy, Garagiola took over as the main announcer in 1976. Teamed up with Tony Kubek, they were a dynamic team that gave great in-depth analysis for serious baseball fans. For the more casual fan, their colorful banter, highlighted by Garagiola’s self-deprecating humor, made him a household name.
In 1983, NBC decided to sign Vin Scully as their lead baseball play-by-play announcer after his falling out with CBS. Garagiola reluctantly accepted being Scully’s color analyst. For the six seasons they were teamed as NBC’s number-one baseball crew, the chemistry between the two was as great a pairing as Garagiola with Kubek.
Beyond the broadcasting booth, Garagiola did so much more. During his long tenure with NBC, which started in 1961 working NBC’s baseball radio broadcasts, he was a panelist on Today from 1967 to 1973 and from 1990 to 1992. Another added perk of working for NBC and having a warm, likable personality was his opportunity to guest host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
With the height of game show popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, Garagiola hosted many of them. From He Said, She Said to Sale of the Century, along with To Tell the Truth, Strike it Rich, and Joe Garagiola’s Memory Game, American households were entertained by the former catcher. Even being a guest panelist on Match Game was a sign you made it in American pop culture during the 1970s.
Garagiola made a huge impact even away from the small screen. During Curt Flood‘s lawsuit against Major League Baseball, Garagiola’s actually testified in favor of the reserve clause, an action he later regretted.
Garagiola was also an early and outspoken advocate against baseball’s long-time acceptance of chewing tobacco in clubhouses. Once a user, he quit cold turkey in the 1950s. He would go to spring training, urging players to not start or to quit.
Garagiola even had a hand in politics. Using his celebrity to help Gerald Ford on his 1976 campaign, he appeared in a series of informal ads with the then President. That would not be the only thing Garagiola ever advertised.
While Garagiola was far from a Hall of Fame-caliber player, he did earn the Ford C. Frick Award for his outstanding broadcasting accomplishments, along with the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award for his positive contributions to baseball. He also won a Peabody Award in 1973 for his work on Today.
It is hard to imagine a baseball season without Joe Garagiola around. While he is not providing the soundtrack to our summers anymore, he was everywhere during a period of American pop culture. Who would have thought that a middling catching prospect from St. Louis could turn a forgettable baseball career into so much more. It’s fortunate that we have these memories of Garagiola as a reminder of his contributions to baseball and culture.