There were few bigger names in media during the 1970s and 80s than Joe Garagiola. A good humored everyman, he’d turned an average pro baseball career into a broadcasting gig that eventually landed him in a guest host role on the Tonight Show. To baseball card collectors and fans in the era, he was the voice of summer Saturdays.
Garagiola died Wednesday at age 90 in Phoenix, leaving behind quite a legacy—one that crossed the hobby on multiple occasions.
In one of the great pairings of all-time, Garagiola grew up in an Italian neighborhood in St. Louis just steps from childhood friend Yogi Berra.
“Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street,” he often quipped of a career spent with four different teams from 1946-1954. “I went through life as the player to be named later.”
Garagiola’s rookie card is in the 1951 Bowman set, but his career had begun just after World War II and he did appear on earlier issues like 1947 Tip Top Bread and the 1949 Eureka Sports Stamps. His smiling mug is hard to miss in the classic 1952 Topps set, too. It’s hard to find an image of Garagiola when he wasn’t smiling. The personality that lent itself to conversation and storytelling as a player served him well when it was time to leave the flannel jersey behind.
One such story involves Willie Mays’ famous catch in the 1954 World Series. See those signed Mays photos online? See the figure peering out the window of the Giants’ clubhouse on the left side of the image? That’s Joe, who was a member of the team but not on the playoff roster. He had the best seat in the house.
After landing a radio role with the Cardinals, he caught the eye of network radio and TV His folksy style and easy charm made him a staple on NBC’s Game of the Week telecasts, teaming with Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Vin Scully at various times. Garagiola would spend 30 years at NBC.
He parlayed his sports broadcasting jobs into other roles including two stints as one of the hosts on NBC’s Today Show. The show’s producers once set up a Garagiola interview with Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen in a segment that played a big role in bringing long-forgotten collections out of America’s attics.
Garagiola himself appeared on a promotional card issued by NBC in the mid-70s and hosted the Joe Garagiola Bubble Gum Blowing Challenge in 1975. Won by Kurt Bevacqua of the Brewers, the contest was immortalized with a card in the 1976 Topps set.
In another segment on his own show, The Crazy World of Joe Garagiola, he did another segment on collecting.
Later, he founded the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) and helped promote the sale of items that benefitted retired players who were down on their luck or aging. He often learned who needed help by reading hobby publications.
“When I see a guy selling rings or trophies, I figure he`s hurting and contact him,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “Most of these guys don`t want to talk about getting rid of something like that. It`s really sad. One of the players we were helping sold one of his two World Series rings just before he died. The last thing he said to me was, `Please, I just want to die with one of my rings’.”
Garagiola signed autographs through the mail until a couple of years ago when his health began declining. He requested donations to the funds that aided the cause but those who asked for an autograph often got one even without a check.