This is an essay I have been dreading since September when Yogi Berra passed and I called up his good friend (and perhaps even his publicist-inventor) Joe Garagiola to see how he was doing.
Garagiola, who died Wednesday at 90, always called back, to tell stories, illuminate, maybe even heighten legends.
I’ve known about him since the 1946 World Series, when I was 7 and he was a brash 20-year-old rookie for the home-town Cardinals who out-talked the superstars, Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
Even the writers of the time, who did not make a practice of working the locker rooms for quotes, could not miss the ebullient kid.
And when Garagiola split a finger in the epic seventh game (when Enos Slaughter scored from first on a looped hit to left) Garagiola ran around the Cards’ clubhouse waving his bandaged finger and shouting, “Hey, I’m out for the season! I’m out for the season!”
This one is strictly personal. Joe was always a wonderful source — not a social friend but somebody I really liked and trusted. He was fair, even about a broken friendship with Musial.
Garagiola even invented himself, including the rep that he was a bad ball player. Fact was, he had been good enough to be stashed by the devious Branch Rickey as an under-age prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system, shining shoes and taking batting practice to evade the scouts until he came of age.
Let the record note that Garagiola hit .316 and drove in four runs in the 1946 World Series before, like many catchers, he got hurt. Later he accumulated the insights of a backup catcher, inventing himself — and maybe even his pal, Lawrence Peter Berra, from the Italian neighborhood, The Hill, who signed with the Yankees. Without baseball, they both could have been laboring in the brickworks or producing toasted ravioli on The Hill.
Garagiola and Musial used to drive for hours from the St. Louis region, talking to fans for a few bucks. They agreed they both had mike fright.
Musial, who was shy and had a bit of a stutter, was afraid they would hand him the microphone.
Garagiola was afraid they wouldn’t.
Garagiola’s road to the radio booth is well told in the Times. I got to know him in the mid-60’s when he went to work for the miserable Yankees, enlightening spare time by imitating Joe Pepitone’s protests of a called third strike, hairpiece slipping, arms waving.
Garagiola gave Pepitone’s gesture an operatic feel, calling it the “Ma Che Fai?” (What are you doing?)
Joe was always there for color and background. I once edited a quite lovely anthology called “The Way It Was” about great sports events and I chose the 1946 World Series (which I consider the greatest World Series, ever) for my own chapter. Joe was working for the Today Show, getting up in the dark, but at a more civilized hour he had time for me in his office at NBC. His stories make that chapter hum — the postwar hopefulness, the talent, the veterans, the fun.
In his later decades, Garagiola became an even greater man — helping create a charity for destitute players (B.A.T.) and lobbying against chewing tobacco, which had disfigured and killed some players.
When I was writing the Stan Musial biography in 2007–8, Joe talked, off the record, about the friendship gone bad over a mutual investment in a bowling alley, run by surrogates. The ultimate headline in the Post-Dispatch was: “Stan and Joe: Business Splits Old Friends.” I don’t believe they ever spoke again.
For my Musial biography, Garagiola — way off the record — told me sweet stories about Musial, their car rides, their early days when it all was good. His loving insights enrich my book.
I sent him a copy and one day after a siege of bad health he rang me and, nearly sobbing, thanked me for being fair to him — “and to Stan.”
That was Joe Garagiola — emotional, perceptive and fair. When he didn’t call back about Yogi, I knew it was bad.