For five and a half seasons, it was a true blessing and gift to be able to call major-league baseball games several times a month with one of the legendary voices of several generations, Joe Garagiola. Spending those unforgettable years with Joe, it was amazing how one of the game's greatest personalities of all-time still maintained a humility that allowed him to serve as a mentor and friend to everyone he encountered. This weekend in Cooperstown, Joe will be honored the third recipient of the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, a fitting accolade at the very minimum.
Joe was the joy woven throughout a baseball game: an interview with John Lennon, that cup of coffee shared with the Today Show, a page turning book he authored or a tireless battle against smokeless tobacco. Our rides to and from the ballpark together were nothing short of inspirational. Joe said goodbye to the microphone several years back, sharper and more talented than contemporaries who were 30 years younger. He will always be one of the game's great and grounded ambassadors.
In the not-so-distant past Joe and his amazing wife Audrey opened their home to me. As we toured their house, it was an honor to share U.S., television, broadcasting and baseball history with Joe in picture and scrapbook form. As we sat in his study, we documented a conversation about his life and all the journeys he has traveled. What follow are a few of the memories.
When Cardinals legend Stan Musial won his second MVP and a World Series title in 1946, he did so with 20-year-old catcher Joe Garagiola as his teammate.
“Stan was special because of his focus and his concentration, that’s the one thing that stood out. He knew he was going to hit the ball hard. He just knew it. If he got a base hit that first time up, he had to get that second hit. If he got that second hit, you could see that he was almost going into a shell to where he had to get that third hit,” Garagiola shared. “A lot of guys will get two hits and then say, ‘Hey I can make two outs and still be 2-for-4 and still have a pretty good day.’ Not Stan the Man. If he got two hits, he wanted to get three. If he got the third one—look out. He left nothing to chance. I remember doing the Game of the Week and the late great director Harry Coyle followed me as I talked about Stan in the dugout…and I said, ‘What he’s doing now you won’t believe. Doc Weaver’s not working on his eyes,’ which was the cue to go in really close (with the camera shot)…he was clipping his eyelashes. He didn’t want any lash to get in and impede his view. I mean that was Stan Musial in the batter’s box. What a thrill it was to go into Brooklyn, where he got the name Stan the Man. The fans would give him tremendous applause in batting practice. He was something to watch.”
Joe lived every young baseball fan’s dream as he was able to suit up in the uniform of his beloved hometown team and play with his heroes on the St. Louis Cardinals. Let’s take a tour of his ballpark, Sportsman’s Park, which hosted its final regular season game 20 years after Garagiola made his big-league debut.
“To me it was like the Wizard of Oz. It was the yellow brick road. I played there as a kid, a 15-year-old kid, in the championship of the ‘Keep the Kids Off the Street’ project. The Widow Dominica would take us to the ballpark, certain kids, and we would sit in left field in the knothole gang. Then I played with the Cardinals. So that ballpark to me was the Vatican in a sweatshirt so to speak. It was a great ballpark. Right field was 310 down the line, but you had to hit the ball high to get it on the roof. If you hit a line drive, the screen would stop it because there was a screen in front of the pavilion much like the Green Monster in Fenway. Some balls that hit the top of that wall would carry out of other ballparks. So it was a tough ballpark for home runs for left-handed hitters. The memories…going back to the ’46 World Series and I can remember I’m just a kid sitting in a meeting and talking about how Harry Brecheen was going to pitch Ted Williams and throw screwballs at his belt buckle. That’s the kind of confidence (he had) because you normally don’t throw screwballs, left-handed pitcher to a left-handed hitter, which meant he was really flirting with danger. If he missed by six inches, it was going to be right over the plate and you know Williams would tear out three rows of seats if he got pitches like that. I remember Howard Pollet losing a tough game (Game 1 of the 1946 World Series) when Rudy York (Red Sox) hit one in the hot dog stand in left field. I thought, ‘Man these guys are really strong to hit it that far.’ There are many memories for me. When we played the Dodgers (at Sportsman’s Park) it was like a war. It was wonderful. Tough competitors the Dodgers had: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and his quiet way, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges and funny lines that you heard. I remember one time (Red) Munger tried to throw a spitball to Hodges. Hodges said that it was spitball. (NL Umpire) Tom Gorman said, ‘No, that was a sinker.’ Hodges then said, ‘That sinker just splashed in my eye.’ So you remember those things. It was a wonderful ballpark.”
The St. Louis ties also knotted a lifelong friendship between Joe and Yogi Berra. Visitors to Garagiola’s home would not have to scan too many walls or shelves before finding a black and white photo of his and Yogi’s fathers at the end of a long work day.
“My pop and Yogi’s pop worked at a place that made clay pipes, sewer pipes. They were immigrants that came over from the Old Country and worked together. In fact it turned out that Yogi’s brother worked with my brother at the same restaurant as well. So our lives have been parallel. I was best man for him; he was best man for me. People ask me how long I’ve known Yogi,” Joe said with a grin, “I don’t remember a day not knowing Yogi. I talk to Yogi, I would say, at least once a week. His mother was a beautiful lady. She’s the one that got him into baseball because Yogi’s pop and my pop, I couldn’t go to him and say, ‘Hey I need a pair of baseball shoes.’ I was dumb enough, or naïve enough, to go to him and ask for baseball shoes. He said, ‘Where are you gonna wear them?’ I said, ‘To play baseball.’ He said, ‘Can you wear em’ to church?’ I said ‘No pop.’ He said, ‘Well then you can’t have em.’ I mean it was that kind of logic for both of our fathers. As far as my relationship with Yogi, I have a thing that I call my 3 a.m. friend, where you can call a guy at 3 o’clock in the morning and say, ‘I need you,’ and they come. Yogi’s at the top of that list. That’s the blessing that I have.”
On May 26, 1946, Garagiola played in his first big-league game. Eleven months later, Jackie Robinson made the same debut, yet it was different than Joe’s in so many ways. One had an impact on his hometown of St. Louis, the other changed a nation forever. And he could play!
“Jackie was a tremendous competitor. He was a better second baseman that he was a first baseman. When you went down the lineup, and they had some dandies, Campenella, power hitter, Hodges, power hitte. Stankey was a get one base guy. Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox, Duke Snyder, Carl Furrillo, but the one guy you didn’t want on base was Jackie. If he got on, as a catcher you’d try to call mostly fastballs so that you might have a chance to get him. But 9-out-of-10 times you would rush the play and throw it into center field. And he (Jackie) would go over to 3rd base, sacrifice fly, game’s over, they win. Nobody’s got an official time at bat because Jackie walked. That’s the kind of defeat that really bothers you. Jackie was the only guy in my entire career, and I played with the Pirates, Cubs and Giants, that they would follow him around the bases. I don’t know how he’d do in a 100-yard-dash, but I do know this: he had the quickest acceleration of anything I’d ever seen, including some cars.”
Thanks Joe for the stories, guidance, friendship and smiles…not just from me, from ALL of us.