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He is, appropriately and always, just Joe. He is recognized wherever he goes and, as with other celebrities, people want to touch him and get his autograph and pose for pictures with him. But unlike other celebrities he reminds people of someone they know: an uncle who moved to Tacoma, or a guy at the office, or the butcher, or just the nice man with the big smile at the bus stop every morning. Joe Garagiola reminds everybody of somebody. "He is Mr. Everyman," says a television colleague, Frank McGee. Garagiola visits with America ( America's word nowadays for that sort of thing), rather than descending upon it as other celebrities do.
"Joe is Rockefeller Center's anchor to the working class," says Stuart Schulberg, the Today show producer. He is the good guy next door who rotates his tires, enjoys a cold beer, attends the church of his choice and buys raffle tickets and Girl Scout cookies from neighbors. But he is not just Ozzie and Harriet: he spells his name funny, has no hair to speak of and could never hit a curveball. Joe Garagiola failed at something he wanted very much, and he is bald.
Al Fleishman is a St. Louis adman who was instrumental in getting Garagiola his first job in broadcasting. One evening not long ago Fleishman watched Garagiola being honored, a part-time .250 hitter sitting stage center while some of the greatest names in baseball spread out around him on the dais like mere spear carriers. "Will you look at that dago up there, the toast of America?" Fleishman said. "His father and mother could not speak English. Can you imagine that? But right now Joe Garagiola is closer to the soul of this country than anyone."
Few people in baseball appreciate what has happened to Garagiola. Within the lodge he still often is dismissed as Yogi Berra's funny friend who ended up a better announcer than player. Garagiola himself seems content to subscribe to that. It has been five years since he broadcast a game, but it is a point of pride with him, one he keeps bringing up, that he is the only run-of-the-mill player ever to make it big as a national baseball broadcaster. It does not appear to have occurred to him that this is now only an incidental footnote to his career.
Although Garagiola left Today last January with a weepy two-hour valedictory after being associated with the show for more than a decade, he retains plenty of other windows on America. He pushes Dodge cars, home loans for Associates First Capital and a new cooking device named Crock-Pot. "If people see Joe cooking with Crock-Pot, they'll know it's O.K. and anybody can do it," says Al Coleman, the product's account executive. Garagiola also broadcasts a network radio sports commentary 10 times a week, and he takes on as many banquets as he feels like handling—at $5,000 a pop or for nothing (he has only two prices). He is a guest star and host and panelist and a guest-star-host-panelist on everything from To Tell the Truth to Tonight. Although he abandoned Today, Garagiola still plays the second game of his old NBC morning doubleheader by emceeing Sale of the Century, a daily game show. Baseball and daytime TV are two disparate national pastimes; only Garagiola has found a major role in both.
Still, he says, "I'd rather be a .300 hitter in the big leagues than anything," and you can believe that. Everything else is only a consolation prize. Joe Garagiola's American Dream was written in just one place—on the back of a bubble-gum card. When his buddy Yogi made the Hall of Fame, Garagiola was seen standing in the crowd on a Cooperstown street, a camera hung around his neck and tears rolling down his cheeks.
In his office at NBC Garagiola has hung one baseball picture: it is a sequence showing him dropping a pop fly. That is in keeping with his line, of course. But while Garagiola's stock-in-trade has been his credibility, the thing above all that got him where he is was his lying about how bad a player he was. He was not much good, really, but then he was not bad. He hit .316 in the 1946 World Series, when he was only 20 and just out of the Army. He followed that with some rocky years, but started off 1950 like a house afire. He seemed a mature catcher who had finally arrived; he was hitting .347 into June and had a lock on the All-Star team.
Then, in a game against the Dodgers, Garagiola bunted and Jackie Robinson moved over to cover first. Robinson could not find the base with his foot and started fishing for it as Garagiola bore down on him. Robinson's foot was in the runner's path—and fair game—but in an effort to avoid spiking him Garagiola took some desperately odd baby steps, tripped and fell hard on his shoulder. By the time he got out of the hospital another catcher had made the All-Star team and Garagiola was not going to hit .347 ever again.
He began to ricochet around the league: a trade, a throw-in, a waiver. Still, when he decided to retire, he was coming off a .280 year and had been offered a nice raise to return. When all the jokes are done, when all the foul pops have been dropped again, Garagiola makes this point: "Look, I was still in demand when I left." He wants to get that on the record.
He took a cut of several thousand dollars and went to work for Anheuser-Busch, making speeches and handling color broadcasting for the Cardinals. Garagiola figured he had enough anecdotes—one advantage of being traded so often is that you get to know players on all the teams—to get by at first, which would give him a grace period to bring his diction, grammar and speaking voice up to professional standards. If not, he always figured he could sell cars.