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Joe Garagiola, a Hall of Fame broadcaster and one of baseball’s great raconteurs, died on Wednesday at the age of 90. Best remembered as a part of NBC’s national broadcasting team from 1961 to '88, Garagiola spent nine years in the major leagues as a catcher from '46 to '54 and subsequently became one of the most recognizable American broadcasters of the second half of the twentieth century. He was also as a champion of retired players as the co-founder and president of the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), which provides financial assistance to former players, umpires and team personnel.
Though he made his name through baseball, Garagiola’s reach as a broadcaster extended well beyond the game, though rarely beyond the NBC network. He is perhaps best known among non-baseball fans for his two separate stints on NBC’s Today Show (from 1967 to '73 and '90 to '92), though he also served as an occasional guest host for Johnny Carson on TheTonight Show and hosted multiple game shows on the network, as well as in syndication, including four years on Sale of the Century from '71 to '74. He later co-hosted the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on the USA Network from 1994 to 2002, lending a bemused outsider’s perspective to the proceedings that was parodied by Fred Willard’s performance in the film Best In Show.
Born in St. Louis on Feb. 12, 1926, Garagiola grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood in the city known as Dago Hill where he became early and fast friends with another future major league catcher and Hall of Famer from the neighborhood: Larry Berra, later nicknamed Yogi. Garagiola, who was less than a year younger than Berra, signed with his hometown Cardinals at the age of 16 in 1942, only to watch the team subsequently pass on Berra. Drafted into the military two months after his 18th birthday in 1944, Garagiola served in the Philippines in '45 and was discharged in early '46, after which the Cardinals sent him directly to the major leagues.
A lefthanded hitter, the 20-year-old Garagiola emerged as the strong-side of a three-man platoon behind the plate for the Cardinals in his rookie year. He didn’t hit much that season, but the team won the National League pennant by two games over the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Garagiola excelled in the World Series against the Red Sox, starting five of the seven games and hitting .316/.316/.421 as St. Louis defeated Boston on Enos Slaughter’s mad dash for home in Game 7.
Garagiola carried that hot hitting into the 1947 season, but he found himself back in the minors after a slow start in '48 and suffered a separated shoulder in '50 that cost him three months of the season. Traded to Pittsburgh in June 1951, Garagiola finished his career on some awful Pirates and Cubs teams before a five-game stint with the Giants in September 1954 that did not come with a spot on that year's World Series-winning roster. Altogether, Garagiola hit .257/.354/.385 over nine seasons and never collected enough plate appearances in a single season to qualify for a batting title. At 29, he retired and took a job calling Cardinals games, replacing Milo Hamilton alongside Harry Caray and Jack Buck for radio station KMOX in St. Louis.
Garagiola first reached a national audience via the written word with Baseball Is A Funny Game, a collection of Garagiola’s autobiographical anecdotes assembled by ghostwriter Martin Quigley and published in 1960. Per The New York Times’ favorable review of the book, by that time, Garagiola had “made a new reputation in sports broadcasting, as a dinner speaker and as a general raconteur.”
"Each year I don't play," the review quotes from Garagiola’s book, "I get better. The first year on the banquet trail I was a former ballplayer, the second year I was great, the third year one of baseball's stars, and just last year I was introduced as one of baseball's immortals. The older I get, the more I realize that the worst break I had was playing."
Baseball Is A Funny Game was a tremendous hit, and Garagiola’s self-effacing humor—both about his own playing career and the game in general, featuring anecdotes that would have easily slid into the script of Bull Durham—established a template that another Cardinals catcher, Bob Uecker, would later take to arguably even greater heights of popularity. It was in the wake of that success that Garagiola was invited to join NBC’s national broadcast team in 1961, calling the Game of the Week, the All-Star Games and World Series. For that year’s World Series, Garagiola provided color commentary alongside Mel Allen’s play-by-play call, marking the first time the broadcast used that now commonplace two-man booth style.
Garagiola called several World Series for NBC radio beginning in 1962 and replaced Mel Allen on Yankees broadcasts from '65 to '67, but it was in the '70s that he became one of the omnipresent voices of the game. Garagiola served as a play-by-play man for NBC’s Game of the Week from 1974 to '82, with Tony Kubek as his color commentator beginning in '76. Garagiola then served as Vin Scully’s color man from 1983 until both resigned after the 1988 World Series in anticipation of NBC losing the rights to the Fall Classic. Between pre-game and in-game duty, Garagiola was part of NBC's television broadcast team for 18 World Series from 1961 to '88.
Garagiola won a Peabody Award in 1973 for a segment on his NBC pregame show, “The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola,” that featured his old neighborhood in St. Louis. In 1991, he was inducted into the broadcasting wing of Baseball Hall of Fame as that year’s recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award. Garagiola later returned to broadcasting on a part-time basis for the Diamondbacks—who had previously hired his son, Joe Garagiola Jr., as their first general manager—and called D-Backs games from 1998 to 2012. Upon his retirement from broadcasting in 2013, the Hall of Fame honored him again with the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.
Beyond his own reputation, Garagiola was instrumental in creating the mythic personality of his best friend, Yogi Berra, immortalizing Yogi-isms such as “When you get to the fork in the road, take it”—reputedly part of Berra’s actual directions to his home in Montclair, N.J. It thus seems somewhat fitting that the two friends both arrived and departed this life within mere months of one another, arriving as the sons of Italian immigrants in a working-class neighborhood in St. Louis and departing as not only Hall of Famers, but also as two of the most famous and beloved baseball men of the second half of the twentieth century.