Garagiola retires with typical humor, humility

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Hall of Fame broadcaster Joe Garagiola announced his retirement Wednesday with the humility and grace with which he led his life and with the stories that made him one of the most popular and beloved commentators of his generation. He humanized the game, and fans everywhere loved him for it.

Garagiola was on the Diamondbacks broadcast team for 15 years, the first nine coinciding with the years his son, Joe Jr., was the D-backs’ first general manager. The D-backs named their broadcast wing at Chase Field for Garagiola three years ago.

“I really appreciate everything that has happened to me. I don’t deserve a lot of things that have happened to me,” Garagiola said, eyes welling briefly.

“But I remember Jack Benny said he had arthritis, and he didn’t deserve that, either.”

Garagiola always kept them laughing.

Garagiola, 87 on the day spring training opened this year, underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2009, but he made it clear that health was no factor in his decision to leave the booth. He said he does not run much anymore, but …

“Run? I couldn’t run when I was playing, for crying out loud. You remember Ted Kluszewsk? I used to get on first base, and he’d never hold me on. I’d say, ‘Just hold me on so my kids can see that you are holding me on. I’m not going to run,'” Garagiola said.

Garagiola, who spent 58 years in broadcast booths from New York to St. Louis to San Diego while also working the Today Show for NBC, wants to spend more time with Audrey, his wife of 63 years and “the best catch I ever made,” he likes to say.

The Garagiolas have had D-backs season tickets since 1998, and they will continue to use them.

“The Diamondbacks took me into the family. The biggest thrill I had in my life so far was when Joe was the GM and we won the pennant and the World Series,” Garagiola said, searching for 2001 World Series hero Luis Gonzalez in the packed interview room at Salt River Fields.

Gonzalez stood along the far wall, 10 feet away from radio color man and former pitcher Tom Candiotti.

“You’re staying away from the knuckleballer. I don’t blame you,” Garagiola said, noticing the relative positioning. “Knuckleballers, I hate them. If you ever get to watch a knuckleballer pitch, don’t look at his hands. Look at his face on delivery.”

Garagiola breaks into a maniacal smile and tunes his voice higher.

“‘Good luck.’ They’re sadistic. You know what I’m talking about, Kirk.”

Manager Kirk Gibson attended the press conference, as did the D-backs new TV broadcast team of Steve Berthiaume and Bob Brenly and many local TV and radio sports reporters. So did longtime baseball executive and fellow Hall of Famer Roland Hemond, who knows not to believe it when Garagiola glosses over his nine-year major league career as a catcher with four different teams that was cut short by a shoulder injury.

A New Englander, Hemond got tickets to Game 4 of the 1946 World Series that matched Boston and St. Louis.

“Joe was 20 years old and the first-string catcher for the Cardinals, so when he demeans his ability, that’s erroneous,” Hemond said.

Garagiola get four hits and drove in three runs, and he bought all the Boston papers the next day. But because Red Sox star Ted Williams got a bunt single in the game, that was all the Boston papers wanted to write about. The only notice of Garagiola’s hits was in the box score.

“I told him I’ve told that story so many times that he is over 3,000 hits now, so the veteran’s committee may get him into the Hall as a player,” Hemond said.

Garagiola entered the Hall of Fame as the 1991 Ford C. Frick Award winner, given annually to a broadcaster for major contributions to baseball. He was the recipient of the Bud Selig award in 2011, given for lifetime achievement in baseball from the professional baseball scouts foundation.

He has a baseball field named after him in Flagstaff and a park named after him in Tucson, adjacent to the rodeo grounds. He also served as the celebrity host for the PGA’s Joe Garagiola Tucson Open from 1977-84.

Garagiola, who grew up with Yogi Berra in the same neighborhood on “The Hill” in St. Louis, signed with the Cardinals at age 16 and made his major league debut the year Hemond saw him in the World Series. He hit .257 with 42 home runs and 255 RBI in 676 major league games, and he was 6-for-19 in the 1946 Series. He was hitting .347 six weeks into the 1950 season with St. Louis and a candidate for the NL All-Star team before a shoulder injury sidelined him for three months.

He began broadcasting with the Cardinals in 1955 joined NBC in 1961. He and Vin Scully were the network’s No. 1 broadcast team from 1983-88.

“I remember listening to him when baseball was just coming on TV for me as a kid,” Gibson said. “When I talk to him, it certainly brings back memories. His voice is very distinct.

“You are happy for him. He has certainly put in his time and given so much to the game of baseball, both as a player and a broadcaster. It’s kind of cool to hear his voice on TV, too, selfishly, so you kind of hate to see it end. But like anything else, it’s time. He’s paid his dues. It’s time for him to enjoy the game a little differently.”

Gagariola knows what he will miss most in retirement: being at the ballpark and talking to the players.

“To me, baseball is the players,” he said.

No one told their story like Garagiola.