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THE SWEET SOUND OF SUCCESS
Huston Horn
March 15, 1965
Joe Garagiola, baseball's most famous .250 hitter, reached the top in broadcasting—his new career—when he took Mel Allen's spot with the New York Yankees
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March 15, 1965

The Sweet Sound Of Success

Joe Garagiola, baseball's most famous .250 hitter, reached the top in broadcasting—his new career—when he took Mel Allen's spot with the New York Yankees

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The rust-red acetate tape uncoils at seven and a half inches per second, and the voice, southern-inflected and flat, declaims: "And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery...." A swallow is heard, then a pause, then the Gospel According to St. John is resumed in stentorian cadence: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." One thinks: it must be somebody doing his lab work down in a Tennessee seminary. But hark! The message is no longer the Word: "The grass is just as green, Tom, the barefooted boy did say." Another silence, and now: "Preshrunk shirts. White vin-e-gar. Strange strategic statistics. Da pitcher—the pitcher—begins his windup, checks the runner, uncorks...it's high and inside for ball one."

This little amalgam of Scripture, poesy and tongue twisters, ranking among the truly undistinguished selections in home recording, was produced and filed away 10 years ago in the basement of a three-bedroom ranch house in St. Louis. Voice, house and tape recorder belonged to Joe Garagiola, a washed-up major league baseball catcher who was preparing, at the time, to break into sports broadcasting. But nowadays call him Joseph Henry Garagiola. And notice: when he plays that funny old tape for laughs he uses a $900 Ampex, which is built into a wall of his cherry-wood-paneled den, which is part of his $90,000 garrison colonial home, which is set in a tony suburb in New York's Westchester County. And although he admits he is still no Alexander Scourby, the contemporary Garagiola always says "the pitcher," and his timing is perfect, his sibilants are stutter-free and his job is one of the best in his field. For, while tidying up and making a few modernizing amendments and deletions lately, the New York Yankees gave Joe Garagiola Mel Allen's old chair in the broadcast booth. And announcing for the Yankees, as Garagiola says with some awe, is "the wall-to-wall job in sportscasting."

At 39 and a decade out of uniform, Garagiola (it is best pronounced, its owner says, as if you were strangling yourself) has a formidable reputation as a convulsing after-dinner speaker. An example of what they've been hearing this past winter is his anecdote about the Cardinals, Garagiola's old team. "After they won the Series," says Joe, " Gussie Busch decided he'd write a book about his experiences with Rickey. He's calling it Out on a Limb with Branch." But his baseball announcing, heard in the past in St. Louis, on national television's Game of the Week and on four World Series, is marked not so much by the one-liner jokes for which he is famed as by his expert insight into the game. Among the half dozen or so ex-ballplayer-sports-casters, in fact, Garagiola stands out as a teacher of baseball's methodology, a result not at all coincidental with the fact that for nine years as a catcher he was privy to the strategies worked out by his pitchers and managers—even though he had to observe some of them through a mental telescope from the distant bullpen.

Still, notwithstanding his scholarship, Garagiola has managed to keep his broadcasting light, breezy and relatively free of mindless statistics—strange, strategic or otherwise. And if he must be faulted for anything, it is that once a ballplayer, grammatically speaking, presumably always a ballplayer. During the five years Garagiola was a Cardinal announcer, says one St. Louis critic, "he never mastered the demonstrative pronoun 'that.' I once heard him say, 'That Klu really hit that ball with that bat and that shortstop couldn't do nothing but give that ball that wave goodby.' " And it has also been said that Joe, anecdotally speaking, will sometimes keep telling a story right up to the instant the pitcher releases the pitch, thus violating that ineffably suspenseful silence that is supposed to fall between that windup and that call. But if Garagiola may be permitted a modest boast in his own defense—a departure, by the way, from the normal behavior of this singularly unassuming celebrity—he enjoys claiming an unusual distinction. "All the other players who became broadcasters," he says, "were really pretty good athletes. I mean, they showed up at the clubhouse wondering how many hits they'd get that day. But I'd show up wondering if I was going to play. And often I didn't. So these guys—the Phil Rizzutos, the Dizzy Deans, the Pee Wee Reeses—they can talk about baseball from the star's point of view. But I talk from the little guy's point of view. And there are a lot more of us underdogs than anything else." Says one Garagiola fan: "Listening to Joe is like sitting in the bullpen next to a catcher with a low batting average and a gift for gab. He always seems to know what's going on and why."

Although articulate mediocrity has proved to be a splendid background for broadcasting, Garagiola, naturally, did not start out with the intention of specializing in underdogs. Almost until the year he quit the game he kept believing, he says, that somewhere in the Hall of Fame they were saving a spot for him. But if his career, in unfolding, never became remarkable it at least had a rich variety of high ups and low downs.

As is somewhat well-known (for the fact is frequently and comically exploited in his banquet routines and television appearances), Garagiola began to play baseball at the same time and place as that other ex-catcher, Yogi Berra. Garagiola and Berra, as a matter of fact, were across-the-street neighbors as boys in a St. Louis Italian neighborhood called The Hill by its residents and Dago Hill by others in St. Louis. Their fathers worked at the same brickyard, and they both signed their first professional contracts in the early 1940s. Joe signed with Branch Rickey, the patriarchal genius, in those days, of the Cardinals. For his first baseball job, Rickey appointed Garagiola assistant groundkeeper for the Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals. Joe was 15 then and, for the $65 a month he was paid, he cut the grass, caught batting practice and, for a bonus, was allowed to wash Stan Musial's sweat socks. (Musial was a minor leaguer, too, in those days.) Even so, Joe twice packed his things over at Mrs. Sue Wicker's boardinghouse and set out for the bus station. "Then I'd remind myself that big leaguers don't get homesick," says Garagiola. "So back I'd go."

Eventually, after finishing high school, Garagiola began to play for Springfield and a year later went to Columbus, Ohio (another team in the Cardinal farm system). In 1944 he was drafted by the Army, but V-J day occurred while he was aboard a troopship bound for the South Pacific. Consequently, instead of being assigned to a tank unit, for which he had been trained, he became a military policeman in Manila. "One day I came into the barracks and this guy on the armed forces radio station was talking about how the St. Louis Cardinals had this great catcher who was going to take over for Walker Cooper, who had been sold to the Giants," says Garagiola. "He said the new guy had a great arm, was a terrific hitter and could run the bases like a deer. He said his name was Garagiola. Well, I figured he couldn't mean me, so I wondered if Rickey had hired some distant cousin of mine or something."

No such luck. On Mother's Day 1946, Garagiola got his discharge in St. Louis, and a few days later, wearing an ill-fitting suit and lugging a cardboard suitcase ("I looked like somebody who had flunked customs"), he caught up with his team in Philadelphia. "They assigned me to room with Marty Marion, who was one of the Cardinal stars then, and I stood outside his hotel room for 15 minutes trying to get up the courage to knock," says Garagiola. The next day the Cardinals played Cincinnati, and Joe remembers the event as though it were yesterday—or at least as though it were last night's bad dream. "I got one hit in four tries," he says, "which was to establish forever after my average as a .250 hitter, and my catching was on about the same level. There was this one pop foul—it may have gone all of 20 feet in the air—and when it came down I stood there and dropped it. Beautiful. And later, in the sixth inning, chasing a pop foul, I ran into the backstop screen. My forehead looked like a waffle. But I caught that ball, boy, I held on."

By October of that year Garagiola was holding on to so many pop fouls and whatnot that he and the Cards wound up in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Garagiola caught five of the seven games in the Series and batted .316. And the four hits he got in the fourth game were only one less than Ted Williams had in the entire Series for Boston. "Well," says Joe, "I honestly hadn't had much of a season up till then, but when we won that World Series I was an instant home-town hero. I was 20 then, single and carefree, and I bet I grabbed at the brass ring 15 times a day." The next year, however, Garagiola's popularity drooped in direct ratio to his batting average (.257 for 1947), and by 1948 he had become a certified ex-celebrity. The crowd booed him so lustily when he came to bat in one exhibition game with the old St. Louis Browns that, after driving a double to left center field, he sprinted to second base and, in the presence of Sam Dente, the Browns' shortstop, burst into tears. "A few weeks later, there I am down at Union Station on my way back to Columbus and the minors," Garagiola remembers. "And funny thing: all those people who had been my best friend after the World Series forgot to come down to see me off. The only ones who did show up were my mother, my brother, a priest friend and Audrie Ross, the girl I was going to marry. Now, there is a loyal fan for you. I met Audrie when she was playing the organ in a skating rink. Later on she played it at our ball park—things like How High the Moon when Wally Moon got a homer. I remember our first date. We went bowling. Me and Audrie. And Audrie's father."

Whether from a need to get back to Audrie and her father or merely to get away from Columbus, Garagiola had a good year and was recalled to St. Louis. His momentum carried him through 1949 and into a highly promising 1950 season. "I had married Audrie and now everything was working like magic," he says. "My grounders were taking nasty hops over the infielders' heads, my high, lazy flies were disappearing into the sun and I was hitting .347. Then one day in June—two days after I had hit a pinch three-run homer off of Murry Dickson of the Pirates—we were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers and I fell over Jackie Robinson's feet at first base. I came down on my left shoulder and it separated. I was in the hospital for three weeks."

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