Joe Garagiola, who turned a lackluster professional baseball career into a star turn in the broadcast booth, on the set of the “Today Show” and in a variety of ads for everything from Doan’s Pills to the Dodge Dart (“I own a Dart!”), died yesterday at 90 in Scottdale, Ariz., where he lived.
“Joe Garagiola's nine-year baseball career was a modest one,” according to ESPN.com’s obituary. “His 57 years in broadcasting that followed made him one of the most popular figures in the sports world and beyond.”
It all started, as so few broadcasting careers do, with an appearance in the U.S. Congress.
As the New York Times’ Richard Goldstein tells the story, Sen. Edwin Johnson of Colorado, chairman of the subcommittee on monopolies, “sponsored a bill to make corporate ownership of baseball teams illegal and was targeting one of Garagiola’s former teams, the St. Louis Cardinals, who were owned by the Anheuser-Busch brewery.
“Garagiola, who was near the end of his playing career, had been looking for a radio job in St. Louis. Because the advertising agency working on his behalf also represented the brewery, Johnson suggested that the Cardinals were guilty of ‘tampering’ by improperly trying to lure him from the Cubs.
“‘Senator, how can you tamper with a .250 hitter?’ Garagiola said.”
It was a taste of the irreverent, self-deprecating humor that would not only be the hallmark of his well-travelled broadcasting career but also of his groundbreaking 1960 book, Baseball Is a Funny Game.
“Garagiola went where no baseball author had gone before. Chockfull of humorous, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the book entertained millions and helped Garagiola land a network broadcasting job and become a household name,” writes Scott Pitoniak on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s site. It is also “believed to be the first book about the sport to crack the [New York] Times’ prestigious best-seller list.”
“Not long after his final game in the majors, Garagiola moved to the broadcast booth, calling radio games for the St. Louis Cardinals. He eventually moved to NBC, where he spent most of his broadcast career,” reports the Arizona Republic. “He was part of the lead ‘Game of the Week’ broadcast.… In between stints at NBC, he worked for the New York Yankees in the mid 1960s, where he called Mickey Mantle's 500th home run.”
He also was co-host of the Today Show from 1967 to 1973 and again from 1990 to 1992, and did some guest stints as host of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” He was also a panelist on several game shows and the co-host of the televised coverage of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show — a role that was famously parodied by Fred Willard in Christopher Guest's mockumentary, “Best in Show.”
“Shortly after the news broke of Garagiola's passing, Today's Matt Lauer tweeted: ‘God I'll miss Joe Garagiola. Was part of the soul of our show, and told me stories that made me laugh till I cried. Hall of fame person,’” Alexandra Zaslow writes on Today.com.
The Arizona Republic’s Jeremy Cluff compiles some of the other appreciative tweets about Garagiola here.
“Garagiola was a boyhood friend of Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra in St. Louis, growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood known as The Hill…,” writes Dave McNary for Variety. “He said of Berra: ‘Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street!’”
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred also praised the former chawer for his ardent campaigning against the use of smokeless — or “spit” tobacco.
“With lung cancer you die of lung cancer,” Garagiola told the New York Times’ George Vecsey in 2010. “With oral cancer, you die one piece at a time. They operate on your neck, they operate on your jaw, they operate on your throat.”
Garagiola is survived by his wife of 66 years, Audrie; sons Joe Jr. and Steve; daughter Gina; and eight grandchildren. The funeral will be held at an unspecified date in his hometown of St. Louis. A memorial service also will be held in Phoenix.
Let’s not forget that Garagiola was also the host of the Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubblegum Blowing Championship in 1975, brought to you by the B.F. Goodrich Tire Co., where the Milwaukee Brewers’ Kurt Bevacqua and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Johnny Oates helped the announcer skewer every competitive cliché in the book while blowing bubbles the size of balloons.
(Okay, Bevacqua won.)