Joe Garagiola, Baseball Player Turned Hall of Fame Broadcaster, Dies at 90

Joe Garagiola GETTY - H 2016
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The former catcher, who often made fun of how bad a ballplayer he was, did games for NBC for a quarter-century and hosted the 'Today' show as well as game shows.

Joe Garagiola, who turned a stint as a light-hitting catcher in the late 1940s and mid ‘50s into a bounteous television career as a baseball announcer and TV host, died Wednesday, the Arizona Diamondbacks announced. He was 90.

Garagiola called games at NBC for a quarter-century and served as a host on the Today show from 1967-73 and 1991-92. The likable St. Louis native sat in at times for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and hosted a number of game shows, including Joe Garagiola’s Memory Game, Sale of the Century, To Tell the Truth and Strike It Rich.

His book Baseball Is a Funny Game, a collection of humorous anecdotes told in his neighborly fashion, was first published in 1960 and was perhaps the first New York Times best-seller with baseball as its subject. He said sales took off after he made an appearance on The Jack Paar Show, and the book gave him a huge career boost and put him on the national stage.

Garagiola did games for NBC starting in 1961 and worked on New York Yankees telecasts from 1965-68 before returning to the Peacock network. In 1976, he succeeded Curt Gowdy as NBC’s No. 1 play-by-play announcer to partner with former Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek. His folksy, comic style helped spur ratings for The Game of the Week each Saturday afternoon.

In the '80s, Garagiola shifted to the analyst chair to team with legendary play-by-play man Vin Scully. He resigned from NBC Sports after calling the Los Angeles Dodgers’ win in the 1988 World Series, did a brief tour as a commentator with the California Angels and spent 15 years analyzing games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, where his son, Joe Garagiola Jr., had served as the team’s GM.

He won a Peabody Award in 1973, was inducted into the broadcasters wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 and later hosted the televised Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.

Through the years, the energetic Garagiola was a popular TV guest, appearing on such programs as Late Night With David Letterman, often making fun of how bad a ballplayer he was.

“Each year I don’t play,” he once said, “I get better. The first year on the banquet trail, I was a former ballplayer, the second year I was great, the third year one of baseball’s stars, and just last year I was introduced as one of baseball’s immortals. The older I get, the more I realize that the worst break I had was playing.”

Tweeted Matt Lauer of the Today show: "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."

Joseph Henry Garagiola was born on Feb. 12, 1926. He was boyhood pals with another future big-league catcher, Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees.

A .257 lifetime hitter over nine seasons, Garagiola played with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and New York Giants. His Pirates in 1952 went 42-112, one of the worst records in baseball history.

His interest in broadcasting was spurred during the 1950 season when he listened to games on the radio while sidelined with a separated shoulder. After his playing career ended in 1954, he joined St. Louis radio station KMOX and called Cardinals games. His wife Audrie was the organist at the stadium.

Garagiola was active in a campaign against spit tobacco, a favorite avocation of big leaguers, and was president emeritus of the Baseball Assistance Team, the charitable organization that helps ex-players who have fallen on hard times.

On Opening Day in 2014, the Diamondbacks honored Garagiola for having received the 2014 Buck O’Neill Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The award is presented for “extraordinary efforts to enhance baseball's positive impact on society.”

The broadcast wing and TV booth at the team's Chase Field in Phoenix in 2009 was named in Garagiola's honor.

"Joe was so special to everyone at the D-backs and had an aura about him that you could feel the moment you met him," Diamondbacks president and CEO Derrick Hall said in a statement.

"Those of us who were lucky enough to know him personally were profoundly aware that the lovable personality that fans saw on TV was only surpassed by who he was in person and the way he treated everyone around him."

In addition to his wife and son, Garagiola is survived by his daughter Gina; another son Steve; and eight grandchildren.