He is, appropriately and always, just Joe. He is recognized wherever he goes and, as with other celebrities, people want to touch him and get his autograph and pose for pictures with him. But unlike other celebrities he reminds people of someone they know: an uncle who moved to Tacoma, or a guy at the office, or the butcher, or just the nice man with the big smile at the bus stop every morning. Joe Garagiola reminds everybody of somebody. "He is Mr. Everyman," says a television colleague, Frank McGee. Garagiola visits with America (America's word nowadays for that sort of thing), rather than descending upon it as other celebrities do.
"Joe is Rockefeller Center's anchor to the working class," says Stuart Schulberg, the Today show producer. He is the good guy next door who rotates his tires, enjoys a cold beer, attends the church of his choice and buys raffle tickets and Girl Scout cookies from neighbors. But he is not just Ozzie and Harriet: he spells his name funny, has no hair to speak of and could never hit a curveball. Joe Garagiola failed at something he wanted very much, and he is bald.
Al Fleishman is a St. Louis adman who was instrumental in getting Garagiola his first job in broadcasting. One evening not long ago Fleishman watched Garagiola being honored, a part-time .250 hitter sitting stage center while some of the greatest names in baseball spread out around him on the dais like mere spear carriers. "Will you look at that dago up there, the toast of America?" Fleishman said. "His father and mother could not speak English. Can you imagine that? But right now Joe Garagiola is closer to the soul of this country than anyone."
Few people in baseball appreciate what has happened to Garagiola. Within the lodge he still often is dismissed as Yogi Berra's funny friend who ended up a better announcer than player. Garagiola himself seems content to subscribe to that. It has been five years since he broadcast a game, but it is a point of pride with him, one he keeps bringing up, that he is the only run-of-the-mill player ever to make it big as a national baseball broadcaster. It does not appear to have occurred to him that this is now only an incidental footnote to his career.
April 9, 1973
Although Garagiola left Today last January with a weepy two-hour valedictory after being associated with the show for more than a decade, he retains plenty of other windows on America. He pushes Dodge cars, home loans for Associates First Capital and a new cooking device named Crock-Pot. "If people see Joe cooking with Crock-Pot, they'll know it's O.K. and anybody can do it," says Al Coleman, the product's account executive. Garagiola also broadcasts a network radio sports commentary 10 times a week, and he takes on as many banquets as he feels like handling—at $5,000 a pop or for nothing (he has only two prices). He is a guest star and host and panelist and a guest-star-host-panelist on everything from To Tell the Truth to Tonight. Although he abandoned Today, Garagiola still plays the second game of his old NBC morning doubleheader by emceeing Sale of the Century, a daily game show. Baseball and daytime TV are two disparate national pastimes; only Garagiola has found a major role in both.
Still, he says, "I'd rather be a .300 hitter in the big leagues than anything," and you can believe that. Everything else is only a consolation prize. Joe Garagiola's American Dream was written in just one place—on the back of a bubble-gum card. When his buddy Yogi made the Hall of Fame, Garagiola was seen standing in the crowd on a Cooperstown street, a camera hung around his neck and tears rolling down his cheeks.
In his office at NBC Garagiola has hung one baseball picture: it is a sequence showing him dropping a pop fly. That is in keeping with his line, of course. But while Garagiola's stock-in-trade has been his credibility, the thing above all that got him where he is was his lying about how bad a player he was. He was not much good, really, but then he was not bad. He hit .316 in the 1946 World Series, when he was only 20 and just out of the Army. He followed that with some rocky years, but started off 1950 like a house afire. He seemed a mature catcher who had finally arrived; he was hitting .347 into June and had a lock on the All-Star team.
Then, in a game against the Dodgers, Garagiola bunted and Jackie Robinson moved over to cover first. Robinson could not find the base with his foot and started fishing for it as Garagiola bore down on him. Robinson's foot was in the runner's path—and fair game—but in an effort to avoid spiking him Garagiola took some desperately odd baby steps, tripped and fell hard on his shoulder. By the time he got out of the hospital another catcher had made the All-Star team and Garagiola was not going to hit .347 ever again.
He began to ricochet around the league: a trade, a throw-in, a waiver. Still, when he decided to retire, he was coming off a .280 year and had been offered a nice raise to return. When all the jokes are done, when all the foul pops have been dropped again, Garagiola makes this point: "Look, I was still in demand when I left." He wants to get that on the record.
He took a cut of several thousand dollars and went to work for Anheuser-Busch, making speeches and handling color broadcasting for the Cardinals. Garagiola figured he had enough anecdotes—one advantage of being traded so often is that you get to know players on all the teams—to get by at first, which would give him a grace period to bring his diction, grammar and speaking voice up to professional standards. If not, he always figured he could sell cars.
The character that Garagiola turned into a national institution is a natural enough extension of the real man, but make no mistake: it is the end product of clever planning and diligent industry. From the time he ruined his shoulder, Garagiola began keeping voluminous files on players and practicing announcing with a tape recorder. While at Anheuser-Busch he would agree to give a speech if a crowd so much as gathered for an automobile accident. The closer one gets to St. Louis the more the tales of Garagiola's enterprise compete, in melodrama, with those of the young Abe Lincoln. Garagiola remains a thorough worker. "A damned fine interviewer," Barbara Walters says of him. He still likes to arrive in a new town a couple of days before he gives a speech—he often turns local issues into fresh jokes—but by now that effort is superfluous since everybody knows that he is coming in at five big ones plus expenses and at that price the crowd starts laughing before he says anything funny.
Still, with all his negotiable facets, Garagiola continues to run scared. Long after he was earning well into six figures he would scuffle for any new job, go home to Scarsdale exhausted after a 14-hour day and moan to his wife Audrie, "They're nipping at me. They're nipping, honey. They're getting closer." Maybe no one who grew up in the Depression and was sold for the straight waiver price ever can feel comfortable.
Says Garagiola: "I believe whoever wrote this was right: 'Once you're poor, you're never rich.' Audrie disagrees. She thinks you can restructure yourself, but I don't think you can, however much you have, for however long. I can't handle money. I depend completely on Audrie for that. A guy with a truck full of zircons could back up to the house and I'd pay for it in a hurry."
Otherwise, Garagiola is a most adaptable man. His wife recalls that although playing baseball was the very essence of his being, there was never any looking back once he decided to retire. He shifts roles easily. At banquets he is close to a stand-up comedian, while on Sale of the Century he appears affable, even avuncular, issuing modest attempts at humor only when it is necessary to calm someone or ease an embarrassment. An amalgamation of these two types emerged on Today.
"Oh, Joe's beloved," says Producer Schulberg in the same offhand way he might say, "Oh, Joe's got brown eyes." One day when he stumbled out of bed at the usual 4:30 a.m. Garagiola forgot to put on his wedding ring. On a commercial that morning there was a close-up of his hands, and in the week that followed he received several letters expressing the fond hope that everything was still all right with the missus in the Garagiola household.
Even a decade ago, when Garagiola was almost strictly a baseball broadcaster, polls showed he had a large female constituency. "I've never been interested in the sports nut," Garagiola says. "I've got him to start with. I've always gone after the fringe guy or the ladies." Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and his long-ago baseball career hooks in a few stray men. His daytime TV fans tolerate his baseball as an idiosyncrasy, much as they once forgave Arthur Godfrey for buzzing airport towers, and they even roar with programmed delight when Garagiola tells obtuse baseball jokes. There they are, grandmothers and nuns, chuckling as much at "Well, I hit higher than the area code," as at "Somebody put Nair in my Brylcreem."
Garagiola has honed his routine so sharply that he is assured laughs just by mentioning certain code words. Yogi, for instance. Berra has become in Garagiola dialogues a category existing apart from baseball, a figure he uses as George Burns did Gracie Allen. His own baseball exploits, in contrast, are primarily a matter of self-denigration, similar to Woody Allen's bemoaning his sexual failures; the mention of his athletic feats gets Garagiola the kind of laughs that Jack Benny draws by saying "violin." Garagiola works his bald head as Bob Hope does his nose or Phyllis Diller her face. And as a final weapon in his comic arsenal, Garagiola turns to growing-up material, in the fashion of Sam Levenson or Bill Cosby.
He studies other comedians as carefully as he ever did pitchers, and he knows his territory: topical references are confined to the latest in familiar television commercials. Garagiola leans easily toward baseball analogy. "In the banquet business your legs go first," he says winking. "I tell my kids that you should go through life as a pinch hitter. Don't worry about not playing. Just be ready when you get the chance." He views each television appearance as "a time at bat" and finds specific comparisons between managing and being a game-show host. "Once you've worked one game you're always in demand," he explains. "It's like when Jimmy Dykes or Frankie Frisch automatically were offered every new managing job."
In point of fact, there are nearly as many game shows on television as there are major-league teams. Garagiola has hosted three different ones in recent seasons. But game shows offer more action and variety than baseball. There are the party games, such as To Tell the Truth and The Newlywed Game; the pricing games like Let's Make a Deal and The New Price Is Right; the pro-am games featuring celebrities, such as Hollywood Squares and Password; and the seven cerebral games: Jeopardy, Who, What or Where, Gambit, The Joker's Wild, Three on a Match, Split Second and Sale of the Century.
Sale with Garagiola, is matched at 11 a.m. EST against Gambit, which comes out of Los Angeles on CBS. A man named Wink Martindale is the host of Gambit, and he is to Garagiola what Harry Chiti used to be (if you do not understand that, just goon to the next question). Sale is on a higher intellectual plane than Gambit, but Gambit has more gimmicks and a slight edge in the standings, uh, ratings. As any game-show connoisseur knows, the programs out of New York are more mentally demanding than those from Los Angeles. The West Coast shows tend to be flashier; there is a lot of kissing and hugging. Contestants usually slobber over the emcee when they win. On Gambit there is a female assistant whose major function appears to be offering herself up to the winning husband to kiss. There is considerably more dignity on Sale of the Century. Nobody ever kisses Joe.
Garagiola is as loyal to game shows as he is to the game of baseball. "Many people ask me, 'How can you possibly do a game show?' They want me to know that they consider such a thing beneath them. I'm used to this. I've listened to the same kind of sophisticated stuff before, people who would say they wouldn't be caught dead at a baseball game. Well, fine. I'm not out to convert the world to baseball or to game shows. But don't try to impress me by being snobbish about it. The guy who sneers at Sale of the Century is probably the same guy who devotes hours to watching football."
People talk about those football fans and of a sports boom in this country, and yet in the course of a year as many people watch game shows on network TV as watch sporting events. But does anybody say this country is having a game-show boom? There are no game-show pages in the newspaper. There is no Wide World of Game Shows. There is not, alas, even a Game Shows Illustrated. Yet games, as Garagiola knows better than anyone, are just games.
Baseball was Garagiola's vehicle to fame and fortune so, not surprisingly, he is an unabashed booster of the sport. He snorts at the mention of iconoclasts like Jim Bouton, and he spoke ardently on behalf of the reserve clause and the baseball establishment in the Curt Flood case. Yet he knows well enough how grubby and mean the sport can be.
He is a prized St. Louis commodity now, but in his playing days his neighbors could be so vicious when he performed poorly as a Cardinal that once, after a bad day, he hid for hours in a movie theater. Another time, after being booed pitilessly, he hit a stand-up double, and when he came into second, he stood there, a grown man, a major-leaguer, and sobbed, tears rolling down his cheeks while the shortstop held the ball and stared in wonder.
Garagiola both entered and left baseball's playing ranks under circumstances that might have clouded another man's thoughts about the game. He feels certain that the Cardinals signed him—for $500, a figure he suggested himself since it was the amount left on the family mortgage—instead of Berra despite the fact that Branch Rickey of the Cardinals suspected Berra was the better prospect. Shortly after the signing in 1941 Rickey left to take over the Dodgers, where he promptly tried to sign Berra, proof again, as Rickey once said, that "luck is the residue of design." Unluckily for Rickey, Berra had committed himself to the Yankees a few days before.
Garagiola's career ended soon after the Cubs waived him to the Giants for $10,000 in September 1954, even though he had informed Chicago that he would not play another year, and the Cubs had promised not to dump him as a lame duck on another team. Stunned, and by one account "nearly hysterical" at this display of deceit, Garagiola contacted Giant Owner Horace Stoneham, who yelled for Commissioner Ford Frick, who quietly but forcefully ordered the Cubs to take Garagiola back at the end of the season for the same $10,000 price they had flimflammed from the Giants.
Joe himself has suffered the charge that he has used his friend Berra—in effect, created a funny comic figure that does not really exist—to further his career. But Garagiola stoutly maintains that he never has made up or even embellished a Berraism. There is no need to, he claims, when truth is goofier than fiction. Garagiola says that real Berra remarks are easy to spot—they are not dumb, just angled off center—and argues that it is others who have fabricated Yogi quotations. Garagiola did ghostwrite one classic baseball line, but it was said to Berra, not by him.
In 1964, when Yogi was managing the Yankees and Garagiola was a play-by-play man, Joe went to Phil Linz, a bench-warming infielder, and suggested that Linz say to Berra: "Play me or keep me." Linz did, and has been cited ever since as a humorist. Now that the record has been corrected, Linz can lay claim only to being the first designated pinch quipper.
At 47, Garagiola is a trim man who wears well the scores of suits he must own for his business. Since he has been bald for so long, he has an ageless quality about him. The Garagiolas have a large house in the suburbs, a vacation home in Florida and other good things large amounts of money can buy, but Joe is neither ostentatious nor vain. If he were, he would wear a toupee. Indeed, he has succeeded because he has been willing to be exactly himself.
It may seem hard to believe, but when Garagiola first started broadcasting Cardinal games in 1955, August Busch received some stiff protest mail: "How can you hire a wop?" "Couldn't you find an American?" That sort of stuff. As recently as 1952, Garagiola could not rent an apartment in Pittsburgh because he was Italian. Ethnic identity was not fashionable then, but Garagiola always flaunted his heritage. In retrospect, the smartest things he ever did were to be Italian and bald. His views and values are fairly traditional—he says sarcastically he served as Today's "Midwest Catholic conservative"—but they do not fit into any dogmatic niche so much as they are molded by his enthusiasm and optimism. "Don't label me a hardhat," he says, which is fair enough since the hardhat brand of conservatism is often bitter and selfish. Garagiola views himself as Exhibit A of great American success stories and perhaps for that reason his attitudes about the world are generous and hopeful. He does not see himself as being the last one out of the melting pot.
He must be on guard because he is among the most visible and most representative Italian-Americans in the nation, and thus he is propositioned by all sorts of groups purporting to have Italian affiliations. He refuses to play ball just because somebody waves a green, white and red flag in his face. He speaks harshly of The Godfather, nailing it as "a sellout"; the producers, he believes, bootlegged the honor of Italians and the Roman Catholic Church to the Mafia peddlers.
Garagiola is considered by some a knee-jerk Catholic, an image that stems from the fact that he deals openly with his religion, referring to it in the same easy way he does to the other things in his life. In contrast with most TV stars, it seems that he is dressed in clerical robes. He is an active churchman, but there is more to it than that. "If there are $3 Catholics, I'm a $1.98," he says. "I don't buy everything. Since I was a child I've worried about the contradictions. I was talking to a parish priest right after Cardinal Cooke attacked the Supreme Court's abortion ruling. I said, 'Well, it only took him a day to do that. Why was it 10 years before anybody in the Chancery made any statements about what America was doing in Vietnam?'
"But I have my own prayers. Before a speech I ask God to keep the fear in my stomach and off my tongue. And I believe there's a saint of the siren. Let me explain. There must be a couple of guys up there with nothing to do all day. Maybe they need part-time work. Whenever I hear a siren or see an ambulance or a fire engine go by, I pray that one of those guys who isn't busy will take over and be the saint of the siren, looking out for whoever is in trouble."
Perhaps there is a saint of baldness, too, for Garagiola's baldness is heavensent. Huge corporations, politicians, actresses, even small countries, spend years searching and paying through the nose for an identifiable trademark—and Garagiola has fallen heir to one. Adlai Stevenson and Khrushchev are dead, Melvin Laird has retired, Yul Brynner is out of fashion, and so many others have gone to toupees or transplants. Joe Garagiola may be the last famous bald man on earth. He regularly receives mail from mothers, brides and sweethearts urging him to write a balding loved one and assure him that he, too, can overcome this cursed mark. "I've had to become an Ann Landers," Joe says. It is getting tougher all the time, being bald. When short hair was in vogue, the difference between crew cuts and no cuts was negligible. And in those days bald guys could always wear hats. Now a hat is just a giveaway. Nobody else wears them but baseball players—on the diamond.
Wherever Garagiola goes (usually hat-less) he not only must endure a legion of witless jokes, he must provide counsel and confidence to the balding young men who seek him out. It sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when they gather around him. With humor that is ever on the edge of sorrow they discuss toupees and hats and how to arrange the remaining strands, and complain of the thoughtless, insensitive millions who are not afflicted by this horrible infirmity. "Don't let anybody tell you what a nice shape head you have," Joe tells a sad young musician who is showing a lot of daylight on top. "That's the most prejudiced, discriminatory thing anyone can say. It's always the guys with a lot of grass who say that."
The musician nods vigorously, jarring loose a few more strategically located strands. He smiles proudly. His leader has spoken. Nobody with grass is ever again to get away with telling him what a nice shape head he has. When Willie Stein, the producer of Sale of the Century, ran a Joe Garagiola look-alike contest recently, the significant thing was not the response (many thousands of pictures), but the fact that to an objective eye 99.44% of the entrants look no more like Joe Garagiola than 99.44% of men with blue eyes resemble Paul Newman. "It is perfectly apparent to me," says Stein, "that everybody in the United States without hair thinks he looks like Joe."
Up to age 28, while he still had some hair, Garagiola was a dashing, even handsome, man, and certainly no less engaging. At their introduction Grantland Rice nearly broke into a sonnet. "When you first meet Garagiola," he wrote, "you get the feeling that the human race isn't so bad as it has looked to be. Friendly, likable, full of fire and enthusiasm, your first reaction is that he is quite a guy. His eyes shine and his teeth show white when he gives you a quick smile." And Arthur Daley gushed in the Times: "Joe is a big, good-looking kid...with an easy smile, twinkling brown eyes and overwhelming charm."
The young Garagiola never was viewed as a clown. "I was always a pop-off kinda guy," he acknowledges, a top bench jockey, but he commanded respect from his peers. "Joe was the brains, the leader of a gang," his brother Mickey recalls. Though Garagiola remains in awe of Berra the athlete, the youthful Yogi, then known as Lawdie (from Lawrence), leaned heavily on the clever kid who lived directly across the street at 5446 Elizabeth Avenue. "I'll come and make the speech if Joey talks," Berra said years later in a comment that illuminates their relationship to this day.
Berra dropped out of school at 14, but there was nothing unusual about that in the Depression days on The Hill, the Italian section of St. Louis. Mickey Garagiola, four years older than Joe, went to work washing dishes at Ruggeri's Restaurant for $5 a week after he got out of grade school and, now a waiter, he has been there for 37 years.
The Hill was not a ghetto, in the sense in which that term is used today, so much as it was a retreat. If poor, it was a neat, stable community, for anti-Italian prejudice was real enough to keep the residents in their place, literally. Only a year or so before Mickey was born, mobs in a coal town southeast of St. Louis stormed the Italian section, brutally clubbing the residents at random and burning their homes.
Nobody on The Hill was looking for a way out. Mickey recalls that his mother would go downtown only twice a year, once to register as an alien and once to visit the Famous-Barr department store during "Dollar Days" with Mrs. Berra, who "knew how to get around some." Mr. Garagiola was hardly more venturesome. A bus driven by an enterprising neighbor carried him to and from work, and every Sunday afternoon he took a city bus to visit the cemetery where his old friends lay.
It was left for the new generation to discover what America was out there on the other side of Kingshighway. "After the war...immigrants were confirmed in their belief that they were not and never could be real Americans," Barbara Green leaf writes in her book America Fever. "[They] accepted the larger society's stereotype of the American as someone with English-speaking parents, probably a British-sounding name and a body ideally fitted out with blonde hair, blue eyes and long limbs. They hoped their children would get to mix with real Americans, but they didn't think they themselves could."
Yogi and Joey were permitted a shot at America (though Mickey Garagiola had to forge his father's signature to permit his kid brother to play amateur ball), but not all of that generation were given a chance. Mickey's fiancée, Adele Riba, from down the street, was never permitted to wear short shorts, but Mr. Garagiola registered no complaint when Joe brought Miss Audrie Ross around in the same sinful attire. "She's American," Mr. Garagiola explained.
Television was not around to tantalize the working class with sagas of the suburbs, and life remained regular and ordered: early Masses, confession at three on Saturday afternoons, a pitcher of beer for father's return from work at 4:30, dinner at five, bed at nine. "Stay up to eleven and you saw the priest," Mickey recalls. It was a community of place and mind, caring for and nurturing its own, and what Garagiola took out of it may have been his edge later in a more rancorous, cluttered world.
Christopher Morley wrote: "To be deeply rooted in a place that has meaning is perhaps the best gift a child can have. If that place has beauty and a feeling of permanence, it may suggest to him unawares that sense of identity with this physical earth, which is the humblest and happiest of life's intuitions."
In many ways, the hardscrabble Hill of the Depression may seem to have no relationship to the hard-drug sectors of the '70s, but there are universal fibers woven into these places, past and present. For all the comic-strip ethnic fellowship, The Hill was crowded and oppressed. Every room, Garagiola recalls only half-joking, had a bed or two; what meager amounts of money were left after essentials and the church building fund went into tin cans buried in the backyard. Giovanni Garagiola never took a day off because he was constantly in fear that his brickyard employers would give his job away. And he dared to cry only twice in his life. Once was when his wife was seriously injured in an automobile accident. The second occasion came a couple of years before he died. Joe was emceeing a political rally in St. Louis and, one by one, he asked Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Stuart Symington and the governor of Missouri to stand up beside him. Then he looked out into the audience and addressed his father: "I just want you to see the guys I'm hanging around with." The next day, when he was alone with his son, Mr. Garagiola began to cry at the memory of the scene.
When they held a banquet in St. Louis to honor Garagiola before he left for the network bigtime in New York, Branch Rickey got up and said: "This is our country's party tonight."
If Garagiola would save a line for himself, surely it would be: "Play me or keep me."