Baseball legend Joe Garagiola dies at 90

The Republic/azcentral sports
Joe Garagiola, Sr., the great Yogi Berra's best friend.

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 Wednesday. He was 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 newscaster in Detroit; and daughter, Gina Bridgeman, a writer in Phoenix; and several grandchildren.

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His family released a statement on Wednesday:

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of this amazing man who was not just beloved by 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."

"Joe was one-of-a-kind and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to get to know him and his family,” Diamondbacks Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick said. “His sense of humor certainly stood out to all of us, but perhaps more importantly, the mark he left in the community around him will carry on his legacy for generations to come."

SEPT. 24, 2015: Boivin: Garagiola crushed by loss of close friend Berra

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.

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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 an array of charitable causes and became a part of the community fabric in Phoenix, often appearing at charity events. Three of his most notable causes were his 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.

Joe Garagiola Jr. and Joe Garagiola have a moment after throwing out the first pitch at the then-Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix on Sunday Aug. 7, 2005.

Joseph Henry Garagiola was born in St. Louis on Feb. 12, 1926. He and his childhood friend, Lawrence Peter “Yogi'' Berra, grew up in the same working-class Italian-American neighborhood in St. Louis and 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 for $500 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.

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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, calling radio games for the St. Louis Cardinals. He eventually moved to NBC, where he spent most of his broadcast career. He was part of the lead Game of the Week broadcast team with Tony Kubeck and later was paired with another broadcasting legend, Vin Scully. He called three all-star games and three World Series. In between stints at NBC, he worked for the New York Yankees in the mid 1960s, where he called Mickey Mantle's 500th home run. But baseball wasn't his only broadcasting talent.

Joe Garagiola holds a photo in 2006 taken with President Gerald Ford and a few baseball greats including Yogi Berra and Tommy Lasorda.

As the “Tonight Show” guest host, he once interviewed 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.

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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.

The Diamondbacks have announced that a funeral service will be held in his hometown of St. Louis and a local memorial will take place in Arizona at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, the Garagiola family has asked that donations be made to B.A.T. or the St. Peter Indian Mission.