Friday, March 25, 2016

Joe Garagiola, RIP: An Erudite Everyman

By Jeff Kallman

If you'll pardon the expression, Joe Garagiola — who died at 90 Wednesday — made it necessary for the Yankees to sign Yogi Berra. And, in turn, the U.S. Senate made it necessary for Garagiola to transition from a journeyman catcher to a broadcaster. Which story would you like to read first?

Oh, all right. In 1954, a Senate committee was holding hearings on monopoly practices, and Sen. Edwin Johnson (D-Colorado), who was part of the committee, was pushing a bill to ban corporations from owning baseball teams. Johnson's particular target was Anheuser-Busch, a big rival to Colorado's Coors operation, and whose chief Gussie Busch bought the Cardinals from Fred Saigh in 1953.

Never mind that Busch's buy kept the Cardinals in St. Louis. (A tax attorney by trade, Saigh bought out Sam Breadon, agreeing to help Breadon avoid a huge tax bill on the fund he'd begun to build a new ballpark, but the tax dodge ended up forcing Saigh to sell. Busch stepped in when another purchaser looked prepared to buy the team and move it to Houston.)

Johnson trained in on Garagiola's bid to line up a radio job after his playing career would end. The Senator accused the Cardinals of tampering with Garagiola while he was still suiting up for the Cubs. "Senator," Garagiola replied, "how can you tamper with a .250 hitter?" That and other charmers so enthralled the gallery and the press that, when Garagiola did put his glove away after the 1954 season, the Cardinals hired him to join the KMOX team headed by Harry Caray.

Only to move Garagiola in, the Cardinals had to move Milo Hamilton out. Twenty years later, when Garagiola was very well seasoned as a baseball voice and wit, when NBC wanted to move him in for its World Series coverage starting in 1976, they had to move Curt Gowdy out. Small wonder there was a sense of poignance in Gowdy's work on the 1975 World Series, since Gowdy had been a longtime Red Sox voice as well.

Garagiola might have been a delight to his listeners but he wasn't always a delight to his colleagues, incumbent or ex. When Garagiola left the Cardinals to work for NBC, Caray — part of NBC's 1964 Series broadcast team as the Cardinals' representative — walked over to him near the batting cage to say hello. Garagiola walked toward him, and saying a mere "Hi, how are you, nice to see you," walked right past Caray, who'd worked hard enough to help Garagiola break in as a baseball voice.

"I called him every name in the world," Caray told Curt Smith for Voices of the Game, "and I'm half Italian myself. But that's Joe. As long as you can help him, you're his friend, but if you can't help him anymore he doesn't have time for you."

Caray was not exactly renowned for modesty, of course, and it's very possible that he'd seen Garagiola as a burr long enough. But not long after Garagiola landed at NBC, he also landed in the Yankees broadcast booth, after the 1964 World Series. He got there at just about the same moment the Yankees, prodded by then-sponsor Ballantine Beer, dumped Mel Allen permanently. (The Yankees had hinted at what was to come when they named Phil Rizzuto their World Series rep for the NBC broadcasts.)

"Hell, it wasn't his fault," Allen would say of Garagiola. "The Yankees just decided to make a change. In fact, Joe said later that the first wire he got when the Yankees hired him was from me. It read, 'Hope you stay on the job as long as I did.' I remember Joe telling me, 'Christ, Mel, I didn't know there were nice people like you still around'." Garagiola stayed three seasons, straining to keep Yankee fans engaged with Rizzuto and Red Barber as the aging, injured team collapsed almost completely.

Garagiola's heralded wit belied his earnestness going into the broadcast booth. "To be honest, I almost expected a former big-league player and a star to come into the booth and just take it easy and say, 'I know all about this game','' says Vin Scully, with whom Garagiola worked several World Series for NBC in the 1980s. "But he really prepared himself, and that really shocked me. I marveled at the things that he had in his mind and in his notebook."

Whether at a baseball mike, anchoring a television game show, becoming a morning presence on The Today Show, or writing bookfuls of his unsophisticatedly clever and witty baseball yarns, Garagiola was an erudite Everyman. Not for nothing did he land a Peabody Award, in 1973, for a television segment on The Hill (a.k.a. Dago Hill), the Italian St. Louis neighborhood where he grew up "a pickoff throw away" from the home of his BFF from boyhood.

Oh, that's right. You wanted to know how Garagiola pushed Yogi Berra into the Yankees' arms.

Their fathers worked in the same brickyard. They played ball together, sharing a glove because there wasn't enough money for each to have one of his own. They did practically everything together, including worshipping the Cardinals. They even played American Legion baseball together and worked as Cardinal bat boys together, which led to them both trying out for the team when they were 16 each.

Masterminded still by Branch Rickey, the Cardinals swept up Garagiola with a $500 bonus. Garagiola's father was staggered — the bonus meant the final payment on the Garagiola home, according to Berra biographer Joe Trimble. But the Cardinals practically ignored Berra, who was heartbroken in turn. It had taken enough, including the family priest, to convince Berra's stern father to allow the kid with no taste for anything other than baseball to go into the game. This was too much to bear.

Berra tried out for the rival (if that's the word for it) St. Louis Browns. The Browns wanted to sign him but with no bonus. That quashed the idea for Berra, who "wanted to prove to Mom and Pop there was dough in baseball."

Meanwhile, not long afterward, Rickey was out of St. Louis and running the Brooklyn Dodgers. And one of his first orders of business, apparently, was sending Yogi a telegram — woffering him $500 and asking him to report to the Dodgers' wartime spring camp in Bear Mountain, New York. Now, it made sense: Yogi looked so good at that Cardinal tryout that the ever-manipulative Rickey, knowing he wasn't going to be in St. Louis much longer, thought he could keep the kid on ice and then sign him for the Dodgers.

Unfortunately, it was one of the few times Rickey outsmarted himself. Because in the interim, according to Trimble, a Browns scout who'd seen Berra's tryout tipped off a bird dog for Yankee scout Johnny Schulte. "He only wants $500," the bird dog is said to have told his master. "He's worth ten times that much. He's better than Garagiola, the kid the Cardinals signed." When Schulte arrived at the Berra home with a $500 check, Pietro Berra signed for his son.

Garagiola made a nine-season career as a journeyman catcher; his best season, arguably, was 1952, with the then-lowly Pirates, where he was worth 2.6 wins above a replacement level player, and he was actually pretty adept at reaching base when he played. (Lifetime OBP: .354.) Not to mention being unusually swift for a catcher; he only tried to steal seven times but he was successful five. And he was useful and slightly above the league average defensively; teammate Red Schoendienst remembers him with less than a cannon for a throwing arm but a good handler of pitchers and a student of the game.

It's possible that Garagiola lost a good bit to wartime military service. He was sent to Fort Riley in Kansas in 1944, then to the Philippines, playing ball at both stops but probably not getting as much as he needed to get. He debuted with the Cardinals in 1946 and his big moment in the sun was his 6-for-19 World Series that year, including 4-for-5 with three RBIs in Game Four. But it's likely that a shoulder separation in 1947, when he was on a hitting tear, turned him journeyman for keeps.

Yogi, of course, was exactly what Johnny Schulte's St. Louis bird dog predicted and then some. Garagiola only quit telling stories about pal Yogi when Yogi stories became so popular and massive that he figured he could give them a break from his own mouth. It didn't matter. Garagiola only ran out of clever stories when he slept at night.

"[We] were the most courageous team in baseball," he said of joining the 1952 Pirates, in the classic self-deprecating style that telegraphed his fellow Frick Award Hall of Famer Bob Uecker by over a decade. "We had 154 games scheduled and we showed up for every one of them. We lost eight of our first nine games and then we had a slump. That was probably the only team that clinched last place on the opening day of spring training."

And he wasn't ashamed to own up when he booted one. He'd testified against Curt Flood's reserve clause challenge before a New York judge in a preliminary trial. But he would admit later that he made a terrible mistake testifying that way.

That would be Yogi Berra extending a hand and a drink to his old BFF inside the pearly gates, winking and saying, "Joe, it got late early up here."

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