SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Be it down on a baseball field or up in the broadcast booth, whether he was pinch-hitting for Johnny Carson or looking at pooches, Joe Garagiola could always tell a story.
So when the 87-year-old Garagiola was prodded Wednesday to reminisce about an on-air career that lasted nearly six decades, he obliged. Naturally, he did.
Garagiola, the ballplayer-turned-announcer who was honoured by the Hall of Fame, said he’s ending his days as a broadcaster. He’s retiring as a part-time television analyst for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and said goodbye at a 30-minute news conference at the team’s spring training facility.
“I don’t deserve a lot of things that have happened to me,” he said, “but I remember Jack Benny saying he had arthritis, he didn’t deserve that, either.”
Garagiola entertained audiences for 58 years with a sharp sense of humour and a seemingly endless trove of stories. Popular with those who followed sports and those who didn’t, his personality transcended games and landed him a pair of stints on the “Today” show, a slot as a guest host in Carson’s seat on “The Tonight Show,” spots as a game-show host and almost a decade on Westminster dog show telecasts.
A 20-year-old rookie with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in 1946 — he had more hits and RBIs in the seven-game matchup against Boston than Ted Williams — Garagiola spent nine seasons in the majors as a catcher. He was a career .257 hitter, then really became a star once he stopped playing.
Garagiola said his health is good three years after undergoing eight hours of surgery that successfully removed most of a tumour behind his left eye. He had to use a walker to get around afterward.
“I came out with a walker, then a cane. Now I walk without it,” he said. “I wobble a little bit. Guys think I’m drunk sometimes, but I’m not. The only thing that gets me is they say, ‘Can you run?’ I say I couldn’t run when I was playing, for crying out loud.”
Garagiola said he wanted to spend more time with Audrey, his wife of 63 years. He had worked at selected Diamondbacks games for the past 15 years.
Garagiola’s first broadcast job was alongside the famed Harry Caray with the Cardinals. He later with Curt Gowdy and Vin Scully on NBC broadcasts, mixing in keen insights gleaned from his playing days along with funny stories he picked up along the way.
In 1991, he won the Ford C. Frick Award for baseball broadcasting excellence that earned him a permanent place in the Hall.
On Wednesday, he offered a sample of the tales that made him a part of the game’s soundtrack for so long.
Garagiola recalled a pitcher “who will remain nameless” who threw only a fastball. But when Garagiola put down the sign for the fastball, the pitcher kept shaking it off. Finally, an exasperated Garagiola went out to the mound.
“I go out there and said, ‘What do you want to throw?’” Garagiola recalled. “He said a slider. I said, ‘You don’t throw a slider.’ He said, ‘That’s why I’ll get him out, he won’t be lookin’ for it.’”
He remembered a time when Dusty Rhodes, known for his clutch hitting, came to bat. The fidgety pitcher, Cliff Stein, was concerned about how to work. “Dusty,” Garagiola said, “was known to take a drink now and again.”
“I said I don’t care what you are going to throw,” Garagiola said, “but don’t hit him in the back pocket or we’ll have Jack Daniels all over home plate.”
For nine years, Garagiola worked on the telecasts of the Westminster dog show at Madison Square Garden in New York, taking an everyman’s approach to the entries. A proud owner of Yorkshire terriers, Garagiola was parodied by Fred Willard on the mockumentary “Best in Show,” an over-the-top portrayal that rankled the veteran announcer.
“Some people thought Joe didn’t know about dogs, but he really did,” longtime Westminster TV host David Frei said. “Nine times out of 10, he already knew the answer to the question he was asking me. He was just putting it in my wheelhouse.”
“He was a real pro, he taught me so much about the business. He was a perfect partner,” Frei said. “And he loved dogs.”
Garagiola will continue his efforts to fight the use of chewing tobacco, and he said he’d be available if the Diamondbacks ever get in a bind in the booth. A friend of Yogi Berra since the two grew up in the same St. Louis neighbourhood, he said he hadn’t called his old pal about his decision.
“Yogi’s moved into one of these assisted living and retirement communities,” Garagiola said. ‘I said, ‘How’s it going?’ and he says, ‘It’s all right, but geez, they’ve got a lot of old people here.’”
Garagiola said his fondest memory was the 2001 season when the Diamondbacks, with his son, Joe Garagiola Jr., as the team’s general manager, beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Garagiola said he will most miss being around the players and the interaction. Not to worry too much — Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall said Garagiola will have all the access he always did. The team will honour him at a game on April 12.
“Baseball, it hasn’t changed that much,” Garagiola said. “You still have to hit the ball and you still have to catch it. Good players will win and bad players will lose. Winners win and losers make excuses. It’s as simple as that.”