TV ‘Good Guy’ Garagiola Downplays Diamond Career

This article was written by William G. Nicholson

Editor’s note: This article was published in the Baseball Research Journal #15 in 1986. In December 2013, longtime SABR member Joe Garagiola was named as the recipient of the 2014 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Board of Directors.

By W.G. Nicholson

Joe Garagiola has been a television personality for so long that it seems his career began with the medium’s early days. If he did not refer constantly to his baseball days, many would have forgotten that he was a National League catcher for nine years. A former member of NBC’s “Today” program for ten years and a host, guest star and panelist for countless game shows, Joe is presently an announcer for NBC’s Game of the Week. As a salesman for everything from Chryslers to home loans, he has become TV’s quintessential “good guy,” a fellow one can trust.

Although his TV strength is his credibility, his less-than-accurate comments about how bad a baseball player he was got him where he is now. Unlike Bob Uecker, the increasingly popular television personality and former Braves’ catcher whose .200 lifetime batting average does not belie his claimed athletic mediocrity, Garagiola was a solid player for many years. So successful has Joe been in disparaging his previous career that even many people in baseball today dismiss him as Yogi Berra’s amusing friend. The truth lies elsewhere.

Signed by the Cardinals’ Branch Rickey for $500 off the sandlots of St. Louis, Garagiola began his career as a 16-year-old catcher in 1942 with Springfield of the old Western Association. (Rickey always suspected that Joe’s childhood friend, Berra, was the better prospect, and a year later as a Brooklyn executive Rickey tried unsuccessfully to sign Yogi, who had already agreed to join the Yankees’ organization.) Joe’s .254 batting average with Springfield earned him a promotion in 1943 to Columbus of the American Association, where he batted a solid .293. Then came two years of military service for the promising catcher.

Upon his discharge Garagiola reported to the Cardinals in 1946 as a 20-year-old. The Cards dominated the National League throughout the 1940s, and 1946 was no exception. The young catcher’s teammates included Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Harry “The Cat” Breechen, Howie Pollet, Whitey Kurowski, Marty Marion, Red Schoendienst, Terry Moore and Harry “The Hat” Walker. Although he batted only .237, Garagiola divided the catching chores almost evenly with Del Rice, a fine receiver whose major league career spanned 17 years.

Friendly, likeable, full of fire and enthusiasm, Garagiola quickly became one of the team’s most popular players. He made a real contribution to the club’s success throughout the season, but he was to contribute even more that fall during the majors’ first pennant playoff.

Brooklyn and the Cardinals finished the 1946 season in a first-place tie with identical 96-58 records. The three-game playoff began on October 1 in St. Louis’ old Sportsman’s Park with the Cardinals’ ace Howie Pollet facing the Dodgers’ young Ralph Branca. Thanks to Garagiola’s three hits and two runs batted in, the Cardinals won the first game, 4-2. When they defeated the Dodgers in the second game at Ebbets Field, the Cardinals once again found themselves in the World Series, this time with the Boston Red Sox.

The 1946 World Series proved to be one of the most exciting in history, best remembered perhaps for Enos Slaughter’s mad dash from first base to home with the decisive run as the Cardinals won the seventh game, 4-3. Sharing the catching duties with Rice, Garagiola played in five of the seven games and batted .326, second only to Walker’s team-leading .426. Joe’s six hits included two doubles and four runs batted in. In the fourth game, the rookie catcher had four hits and drove in three runs.

Garagiola batted .257 in 1947, his second major league season, but the next spring got off to a terrible start. He was hitting a weak .107 after 24 games when he was sent down to Columbus of the American Association. But a .356 batting average in 65 games at Columbus led to his return to St. Louis in the spring of 1949. He never played another inning in the minor leagues.

In 1949 Garagiola hit a respectable .261, and the following season it appeared the 24-year-old catcher was about to achieve major league stardom. In mid-June he was hitting .347 and seemed certain to be named the National League catcher in the All-Star Game when fate intervened. During a game with the Dodgers, Joe put down a surprise bunt and took off for first base. Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn second baseman, raced over to first to take the throw but had trouble finding the base with his foot. Garagiola, in an attempt to avoid colliding with Robinson, broke his stride and fell after crossing the bag. The fall resulted in a shoulder separation, and the young catcher missed most of the remainder of the season. He never regained the form he exhibited early in 1950.

Hitting a weak .194 with the Cardinals in the spring of 1951, Garagiola was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in June. He played well with the Pirates that season, batting .255, and the following year when he hit .273, but in 1953 he was sent to the Chicago Cubs. While the 1954 season was under way, Joe decided that would be his last year as a player and so notified the Chicago management. In September Garagiola was hitting .281 and thoroughly enjoying his final days as a player when the surprising news of his $10,000 waiver sale to the New York Giants was announced.

The Cubs’ duplicity in dealing him to the Giants’ unsuspecting Horace Stoneham after having promised that he wouldn’t be traded shocked Garagiola. He submitted his case to Commissioner Ford Frick, who made the Cubs take the catcher back for the same price at the end of the season. In the meantime, Joe reported to the Giants and batted .273 in September. The Cubs wanted to sign him for the 1955 season with a raise, but the 28-year-old catcher had made other plans.

Ever since his 1950 injury Garagiola had quietly been making notes on baseball and its personalities while he practiced his delivery on a tape recorder. He began a new career as an announcer of Cardinals’ games in the spring of 1955. The rest is broadcasting history.

Garagiola concluded his playing career with a .257 batting average and for most of his major league stay finished among the top four National League catchers in fielding. His overall performance is all the more impressive when one considers the quality of catchers performing during his years as an active player. They included Walker Cooper, Clyde McCullough, Mickey Owen, Phil Masi, Bob Scheffing, Del Rice and Andy Seminick.

Although many baseball fans now think Garagiola the player must have been a prankster, he was never regarded as a clown during his baseball seriousness on the diamond and exercised his wit only as a clever bench jockey while commanding the respect of his peers.

Baseball during that period was not particularly rewarding financially for most players. Indeed, a one-hour speech today brings Garagiola more money than he earned in a full year of playing baseball in the 1940s, but Joe has always boosted the game during his highly successful television career.

When Berra, his boyhood friend, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Garagiola was there in Cooperstown like any other fan, camera around his neck, but with tears streaming down his cheeks. Despite his fame and wealth, Joe has always said, “I’d rather be a .300 hitter in the big leagues than anything.”