Buck O’Neil Award meets its match in Hall of Famer Joe Garagiola
PHOENIX — Joe Garagiola will make history this week. When Garagiola is installed as the winner of the Buck O’Neil award at the Hall of Fame ceremonies Sunday, he will be the first man honored twice by the Hall.
He used to joke that the only way he would get to the Hall was to buy a ticket. Now people buy tickets to see him, and they must make two stops.
Garagiola, inducted into the Ford Frick broadcast wing at Cooperstown in 1991, is the third winner of the O’Neil award, given every three years for positive contributions to the game. If this were Hollywood, it would be the lifetime achievement award. Not that Garagiola is done yet.
He continues to advise the Baseball Assistance Team as it looks to provide aid and comfort to former players who are in difficult circumstances. He has been a tireless advocate against the use of smokeless tobacco, a cause that never hit closer to home than it did with the recent passing of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
The Hall specifically cited Garagiola’s work in those areas while naming him the third winner of the O’Neil award, following O’Neil and Diamondbacks special assistant and long-time baseball man Roland Hemond. Garagiola’s humanitarian works hardly stops there. His outreach includes giving generously to the St. Peter’s Mission School on the Gila River Reservation in Bapchule, south of Phoenix.
"Joe qualifies for awards in many areas because he is such a benevolent man," Hemond said.
Garagiola does not travel and will not attend the ceremony, but he will take it all in on TV. As much as he deserved the award, he never expected it.
"When they (Hall) first called me, I was humbled and surprised by it," he said.
"The one thing that is paramount is that Buck was a friend of mine. I call him a New Year’s Eve guy. He always had a smile. It was always a good day for him. I don’t think Buck ever thought about having a bad day. And when he came around, he always was going to talk baseball and he was going to laugh and tell jokes. He was just pleasant to be around. He was an up guy."
Maybe the only thing that would make it better in Garagiola’s eyes is if O’Neil were enshrined, too. O’Neil was a legendary figure as a player/manager in the Negro Leagues and the first African-American to coach in the majors, passed away in 2006.
"Buck belongs in the Hall of Fame," Garagiola said, unequivocally.
Garagiola remembered the counsel O’Neil provided to young players such as Ernie Banks and Gene Baker. He remembered the goodwill. And the laugh.
"It was contagious," Garagiola said.
"We’d go out on the field and he’d say, ‘Hey, Joe, do you think I could out-hit you?’ Outhitting me is like going to church on Sunday. You just do it. Humpty Dumpty, the day he fell off the wall, he could out-hit me.
"You could say hello and get a laugh out of Buck. He’s one of those guys who made you feel important all the time. You always felt good when you were around him. That would be a pretty good thing for everybody."
That joie de vivre also describes Garagiola, whose career is as varied as his causes. He signed with his hometown St. Louis Cardinals for $500 as a 16-year old and was a major league catcher for four teams during a nine-year career. He often makes light of his playing career, but he had legitimate all-star credentials with the Cardinals in 1950 before an unfortunate injury. Garagiola, then 24, was hitting .347 in mid-June, but he suffered a separated shoulder when he attempted to avoid a collision at first base with Dodgers first baseman Jackie Robinson and missed most of the rest of the season.
Garagiola began his award-winning broadcasting career after retiring in 1954, calling Cardinals games on the radio before moving to the major league game of the week on NBC, his home for the better part of 30 years. Garagiola won a Peabody Award for his work on The Today Show, and he also called the Rose Bowl parade and the Westminster Dog Show.
His service comes naturally. His parents, John and Angelina, born in Milan, Italy, before moving to the U.S. and settling in St. Louis, were a driving force. Garagiola and neighbor Yogi Berra — he lived one light pole away — did the normal kid things, including playing baseball, but they also had time to help those in need. When the widow lady down the street needed her grass mowed, Garagiola, Berra and their friends got it done.
"There would be 10, 15 guys there," Garagiola said. "It wasn’t that you were going to get a medal or anything else. She needed help, and we were there, so you did it."
One of the perks of working at The Today Show, he discovered, was the chance to interact with the newsmakers of the day. Green room talks with Muhammad Ali — no entourage, just Ali — were memorable.
"I have always been a big Muhammad Ali fan." Garagiola said. "He said some profound things. He is a bright and thoughtful guy.
"Ali says that the service we give to others is the rent we pay for our time on earth. That’s pretty good."