Joe Garagiola said it: Baseball is a funny game. And, Garagiola would probably say that baseball cards can be a funny game. That’s funny, as in ironic.
That’s because not only did Garagiola view “The Catch.” He also owned “The Card.”
That card would be a 1909 T206 Honus Wagner, the Holy Grail of baseball cards.
The card is graded “A” for Authentic by SGC because of sizing issues. The back bears tell-tale signs of once being pasted inside a scrapbook but the front is among the better looking Wagner cards to come to market in recent years.
Stories behind the Wagner card are usually iconic, too, and the “Garagiola Wagner” card is no exception. According to his son, Joe Garagiola Jr., the longtime baseball announcer and game-show host made a trade to acquire the card–one that involved some other popular cardboard and his 1954 New York Giants uniform.
“Hat, jersey, pants, socks, even the jacket he used to wear around in wintertime,” stated Garagiola Jr., who was general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks from 1997 to 2005.
Garagiola, who died in 2016 at the age of 90, only got into five games with the 1954 Giants, but it was his last uniform as a major leaguer. After a career that began with the St. Louis Cardinals when he was a 20-year-old in 1946, Garagiola Sr. hung up his catcher’s mask and other gear after the World Series, when New York swept the Cleveland Indians in four games. He was not eligible to play in the postseason that year, so he would not have been wearing a uniform. But on Sept. 29, 1954, he was sitting in the center-field clubhouse at New York’s Polo Grounds and got the best view of one of the World Series’ greatest plays.
Garagiola saw Willie Mays make his back-to-the-plate, over-the-shoulder grab of Vic Wertz’s deep fly ball. Known simply as “The Catch,” it was hit nearly 460 feet. With two runners on base and the score tied 2-2 in the eighth inning of Game 1, the Indians would have taken the lead if the ball had gotten behind Mays.
Al Rosen, who was on first base at the time, told me in a May 19, 1983, interview with The Stuart (Fla.) News that he never thought Mays would catch the ball.
“No. Absolutely not,” Rosen said. “I felt the ball would drop and we’d be two runs ahead with a man on third. “I had one of those surprised looks, I had already rounded second. It shocked me.”
Garagiola said he had “a hell of a seat in New York” to watch the catch. In a wide-angle shot of the photo, Garagiola can be seen watching the play from the clubhouse.
“I tell people I was the only guy to see Willie’s eyes,” Garagiola told the East Valley Tribune in an October 2007 interview. “But then I add that I’m just pulling their leg. I wasn’t eligible for the World Series, but I felt like a contest winner who got it in 25 words or less with ‘I’d like to travel with the Giants for the World Series.”
Garagiola had a lithograph of the play, signed by Mays, who wrote, “To Joe: For this catch, you had the best seat in the house.”
The Giants went on to win that game 5-2 when Dusty Rhodes hit a pop-fly, three-run pinch-hit home run that traveled 260 feet and plopped into the first row of the right-field seats. New York would win the next three games to complete an improbable sweep against a Cleveland team that set an American League record with 111 victories.
“I did nothing except being in the right spot,” Garagiola told the East Valley Tribune. “When I talk to Willie about it, he laughs. I tell him if I had been catching, I would have called for a pitch that would have made him run even more.”
Garagiola Jr., 70, said his father threw in a set of Goudey cards from the 1930s to complete the deal for the Wagner card.
“I am also very sure there was no money involved. That was not anything he ever did.” Garagiola Jr. said. “That’s a very important part of the story: He had the true passion of the real collector. Dad would trade things. He would be in touch with other collectors. He worked hard his whole life and could have written checks for any of this. But he chose not to.”
Garagiola Sr., who grew up in The Hill section of St. Louis, could not afford baseball cards as a youth. His father was a bricklayer, and even though Goudey cards cost a few pennies per pack, it was beyond the means of the aspiring baseball fan.
“He often talked about how he saw other kids with those Goudey cards and wished he could get them,” Garagiola Jr. said. “So, over the years he put together this complete set.”
Trading most of your personal collection and memorabilia for one card might seem steep — but not for a Wagner card. Garagiola Jr. said he never asked his father why he engineered the trade. He didn’t have to.
“Anybody who is any kind of collector in baseball memorabilia — and even if you’re not — you know about the Wagner card,” Garagiola Jr. said. “It has a mystique to it. It was simple if you’re a collector, and he was a collector of cards: That was the card. So, when the opportunity arose to own it, it was just irresistible.”
Irresistible is one way to describe Joe Garagiola Sr.’s broadcasting career. While a journeyman catcher with the Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs and Giants, Garagiola found his niche in broadcasting and was a fixture on major league baseball telecasts. He began his announcing career in 1955, broadcasting Cardinals games on KMOX radio in St. Louis.
He loved to tell stories and enjoyed poking fun at his baseball career.
“Each year I don’t play, I get better,” The New York Times quoted Garagiola Sr. in a May 1960 review of Baseball is a Funny Game. “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.”
Garagiola Sr. even has a connection to Tampa, the site of Super Bowl LV. In the spring of 1945, when Garagiola was a private during World War II, he was part of the 785th Tank Battalion that guarded Japanese prisoners of war in the Philippines. He drove a Jeep for the prison’s chief officer, Tom McEwen. That started a friendship that lasted more than six decades. Garagiola Sr. went on to play baseball and achieve fame as a sportscaster, while McEwen became the longtime editor of The Tampa Tribune. McEwen wrote several columns through the years that referenced his Jeep driver.
As for the Wagner card, it has been in a bank vault for years. Garagiola Jr. said his mother and siblings recently decided it was time for someone else to enjoy the card.
“We’re all temporary custodians of these items,” Garagiola Jr. said. “It brought a lot of pleasure to my dad, and now it’s time for someone else to feel the same way about this Wagner. Somebody owned it before he did, and now it will move on. Yes, of course, this card has a value, a dollar amount. But it clearly has value beyond that. It certainly did for my dad.”