So Long, Joe Garagiola

Joe Garagiola died today. I miss him already.

Like all fans my age, I grew up watching the Game of the Week on NBC. In the 1970s, if you didn’t live in a big-league city, you could only see one baseball game a week. At 1 o’clock Saturday afternoon, Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek would introduce the Game of the Week from Shea or Three Rivers or Riverfront or some other long-gone ballpark. Tony would read the lineups, the organ player would play the national anthem and then, play ball.

Joe announced the game like he was talking with a friend. He had an easy style that a lot of ex-players never master. He even ventured outside baseball, as a host of the Today Show and, if I recall correctly, a couple of game shows. I remember him sitting in for Johnny Carson once in a while.

As color commentator, the ex-Yankee Kubek had no sense of humor. And his partner Joe was incapable of not being funny. But Joe never once stepped on Kubek’s analysis or made it sound like he and Kubek were anything but best friends.

Joe wasn’t gimmicky, like Bob Prince or Dizzy Dean. He wasn’t erudite, like Vin Scully. And he appeared to have no ego whatsoever. Joe was Bob Eucker before Eucker was Eucker. He spent eight years in the majors, a journeyman catcher with a lifetime .257 average and 46 career homers. You could do worse.

Once, a particularly off-key singer delivered a slightly dented rendition of the national anthem before a game in Kansas City. As soon as she knocked out her “home of the brave,” Joe jumped in and said, cheerfully, “Well, she made it! And now we’re ready for baseball!”

He grew up in St. Louis, across the street from his lifetime friend Yogi Berra.

In his later years, he’d do color for the Diamondbacks, the team for which his namesake son served as GM. I heard his familiar sunny voice a few times with the DBacks, but he didn’t quite have the spark he had back in the 70s.

I won’t say there’ll never be another Joe Garagiola. There are plenty of good announcers around. But Joe was the last of the one-game-a-week announcers. The guy whose voice will, to me, forever sound like one o’clock Saturday afternoon.

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