PHOENIX – Joe Garagiola, who turned a modest major league catching career into a 57-year run as a popular broadcaster in the sports world and beyond, died Wednesday. He was 90.
The Arizona Diamondbacks announced his death before their exhibition game against San Francisco, and there were murmurs of shock and sadness at the ballpark. Garagiola had been in ill health in recent years.
Growing up in the Hill neighborhood of St. Louis not far from future Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, Garagiola went on to hit .257 during nine years in the majors. His highlight came early, getting a four-hit game in the 1946 World Series and helping the hometown Cardinals win the championship as a 20-year-old rookie.
“Not only was I not the best catcher in the major leagues, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street,” Garagiola once remarked.
But it was after he stopped playing that his fortunes took off. He thrived as a glib baseball broadcaster and fixture on the “Today” show, leading to a nearly 30-year association with NBC.
Garagiola won baseball’s Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting in 1991. He kept working well into his 80s, serving as a part-time analyst for Diamondbacks telecasts until he announced his retirement in February 2013.
“He had a genuine impact on the craft. He was among the first to bring a humorous, story-telling style to the booth,” NBC announcer Bob Costas said.
Garagiola’s son, Joe Jr., is a former general manager of the Diamondbacks and a current executive with Major League Baseball.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of this amazing man,” his family said in a statement, “who was not just beloved to those of us in his family, but to generations of baseball fans who he impacted during his eight decades in the game.”
“Joe loved the game and passed that love onto family, his friends, his teammates, his listeners and everyone he came across as a player and broadcaster. His impact on the game, both on and off the field, will forever be felt.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred said “all of us at Major League Baseball are deeply saddened by the loss of Joe Garagiola.”
“Joe began illustrious career as a baseball player, but it wasn’t long before everyone knew that this unique individual would combine his multi-talented media skills and wonderful personality to make a mark off the field as well,” Manfred said.
Manfred also praised Garagiola for being a leader in baseball’s fight against smokeless tobacco.
The Cardinals signed Garagiola after rejecting Berra at a 1943 tryout. The two remained lifelong friends, with Berra often the good-natured subject of Garagiola’s wit. Berra died last Sept. 15.
When both men entered retirement communities a few years ago, Garagiola recalled a phone conversation with Berra.
“I said, ‘How’s it going, Yog?’” Garagiola said, “and he said, ‘It’s all right, but geez, they’ve got a lot of old people here.’”
Garagiola played for the Cardinals, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs. He broke in with the Cardinals, joining a powerful team led by the great Stan Musial. Garagiola got four hits in Game 4 of the 1946 Series against Boston and batted .316 overall as St. Louis beat the Red Sox in seven games.
Garagiola broke into broadcasting in 1955 as a radio and television analyst for the Cardinals. He spent 27 years at NBC and was paired with Tony Kubek as the lead broadcast team from 1976-82 and then with Vin Scully from 1984-88. He was 62 when he left on Nov. 1, 1988, when his contract expired. He broadcast Angels home games on TV in 1990.
He didn’t limit his talents to sportscasting.
Garagiola was a co-host of the “Today” show from 1969-1973, working with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs, and again from 1990-1992, working with Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric.
“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,” tweeted “Today” host Matt Lauer.
When he stepped down from hosting in 1992, he continued as a “Today” correspondent at large, doing sports and human interest stories. Garagiola also stepped in on occasion to host “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” including a 1968 show featuring guests John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Garagiola’s work as a commentator for the Westminster dog show helped inspire Fred Willard’s daffy character Buck Laughlin in the mockumentary “Best in Show.”
“One of the world’s good guys,” said his longtime Westminster broadcasting partner, David Frei. “He loved the game, of course, but he loved life. That’s why he was so well-loved everywhere he went, including the dog show.”
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.