Former NBC baseball broadcaster Joe Garagiola passes at age 90

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona (AZCentral.com) – As Joe Garagiola walked through the catacombs of Chase Field in Phoenix, he crossed paths with a newspaper reporter he had not seen in a few years.

“Where have ya been, in the witness-protection program?” Garagiola said.

That was Garagiola. He always was quick with a funny line and rarely forgot a name or a face, especially when it came to his beloved game of baseball.

Garagiola, a Scottsdale resident, died on Wednesday at the age of 90.

He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Audrie; sons, Joe Jr., a senior vice-president for baseball operations with Major League Baseball and former general manager of the Diamondbacks; Steve, a sportscaster in Detroit; and daughter, Gina Bridgeman, a writer in Phoenix; and several grandchildren.

Garagiola was known around the globe as a baseball announcer for more than 30 years and member of the broadcasters’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he was much more, a renaissance man of sorts.

He was a co-host of NBC’s “Today Show” from 1967 to 1973 and 1991 to 1992. He also was a guest host of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”; a host and participant in several game shows, including “To Tell the Truth” and “What’s My Line?” And he co-hosted TV coverage of the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York.

He wrote three baseball books: Baseball is a Funny Game (1960), It’s Anybody’s Ballgame (1980) and Just Play Ball (2007).

In his later years, Garagiola was involved with numerous charitable causes, notably a campaign to eradicate the use of spit tobacco, the Baseball Assistance Team that helps former players who have fallen on hard times, and the St. Peter’s Indian Mission in the community of Bapchule on the Gila River Indian Reservation.

Garagiola was nicknamed “Awesome Fox” by tribal leaders for his efforts to improve the school and community.

Joseph Henry Garagiola was born in St. Louis on Feb.12, 1926. He and his childhood friend, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, both went on to play in the major leagues. Yogi was a Hall of Famer with the New York Yankees and Joe played with four teams, the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and New York Giants.

“Not only was I not the best catcher in the major leagues, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street,” Garagiola said.

He was signed by legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey at the age of 16, and made his major-league debut with the Cardinals on May26, 1946. The Cardinals won the World Series that season, and Garagiola had six hits in 19 at-bats, including a 4 for 5, three-RBI effort in Game4.

Garagiola played in his final game on Sept.26, 1954, and finished his nine-year career with a .257 average, 42 home runs and 255 RBIs.

He was called into military service in the U.S. Army on April24, 1944, serving basic training at Jefferson Barracks (Mo.) and later playing on a service team called the Fort Riley (Kan.) Centaurs. He also served in the Philippines in 1945 and was discharged early in 1946.

Berra, too, served in the armed forces, working aboard the Navy ship USS Bayfield.

Not long after his final game in the majors, Garagiola moved to the broadcast booth and appeared on other TV programs.

As the “Tonight Show” guest host, one of his interviews was with two members of the Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

And during one appearance as a panelist on “To Tell the Truth,” Garagiola helped try to figure out which of three men, identically dressed as vagabonds, was an undercover policeman.

After the policeman finally identified himself, the first of the other two stood up and said he was the son of Garagiola’s fellow panelist, actress Kitty Carlisle.

Garagiola gave Carlisle a good-natured ribbing for not knowing her own son, only to find that the last contestant was his own son, Joe Jr., who was in law school at the time.

When his son was general manager of the Diamondbacks, Garagiola became a part-time color analyst and continued in that role even when his son went on to work for Major League Baseball. He announced his retirement Feb. 20, 2013.

Despite numerous changes to the game over the years, the focus of it remained the same and was the talking point for Garagiola, who enlightened everyone with tales of the golden era and its players.

“Baseball isn’t about steroids. It’s about the game and the people who put on the uniforms,” he told Republic columnist E.J. Montini in 2007. “That’s what makes baseball great. Not steroids or statistics. The people. The stories.”

Put Garagiola’s stories right up there among the best.