Beloved baseball hall-of-famer, philanthropist Joe Garagiola dies at 90

1
Los Angeles Dodgers head coach Joe Torre talks to Joe Garagiola before playing the Chicago White Sox in a 2010 spring training baseball game in Glendale, Ariz. Garagiola, a legendary broadcaster and former baseball player, died March 23 at age 90 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (CNS photo/Rick Scuteri, Reuters)
Los Angeles Dodgers head coach Joe Torre talks to Joe Garagiola before playing the Chicago White Sox in a 2010 spring training baseball game in Glendale, Ariz. Garagiola, a legendary broadcaster and former baseball player, died March 23 at age 90 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (CNS photo/Rick Scuteri, Reuters)

PHOENIX (CNS) — Baseball legend and popular sports broadcaster Joe Garagiola, who died March 23 at age 90, was a lifelong Catholic who was a tireless advocate for the poor in Arizona.

“In addition to being a great baseball player, Joe Garagiola was a man with deep love for God, his wife and family, the Church and those in need,” said Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted.

“He had a special place in his heart for the Native People, in particular for the children and their families, together with the Franciscan Sisters, at St. Peter’s Mission School. Joe’s personal commitment to these children’s Catholic education, and his interest in their physical, spiritual and emotional health, made a major difference in their lives and that of their families. When it comes to role models among professional athletes, no one surpasses Joe Garagiola.”

Garagiola, a resident of Scottsdale, recounted in a Catholic News Service interview 20 years ago how St. Peter Mission School in the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix claimed his heart.

A few years earlier, he said, when he stepped into “the quicksand” of love at the mission school, there was no turning back. He found his heart rooted there.

“He was one of the best people I have ever met. There was no limit to his generosity,” said its principal, Franciscan Sister Martha Mary Carpenter, who estimates that Garagiola was responsible for bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the school.

The death of Garagiola was announced by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Joe was so special to everyone at the D-backs and had an aura about him that you could feel the moment you met him,” said D-backs President and CEO Derrick Hall.

“Those of us who were lucky enough to know him personally were profoundly aware that the lovable personality that the fans saw on TV was only surpassed by who he was in person and the way he treated everyone around him.”

In 2012, Joe Garagiola received the Catholic Community Foundation’s Bishop’s Crozier Award for Lifetime Leadership and Service.

“On the charity side of Joe’s life his generosity to the Native American community south of Phoenix was special,” said Joe Bruner, who headed the CCF’s board of directors at the time, and first met Garagiola 25 years ago during efforts to bring a MLB franchise to Arizona. “My wife and I attended the dedication of some addition to their school. I forget exactly what it was but I’ll never forget how the kids and the Nuns treated and loved him. ‘Saint Joe’ in their eyes.”

Students of St. Peter Indian Mission School sit under the shaded basketball court in 2015 that was built with help from Joe Garagiola in the Gila River Indian Community in Bapchule, Ariz. Garagiola, a legendary broadcaster and former baseball player, died March 23 at age 90 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Students of St. Peter Indian Mission School sit under the shaded basketball court in 2015 that was built with help from Joe Garagiola in the Gila River Indian Community in Bapchule, Ariz. Garagiola, a legendary broadcaster and former baseball player, died March 23 at age 90 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

“I also recall that he wasn’t bashful about asking anyone for financial support for the school,” Bruner added. “For example, his former associates at the “Today Show” helped support the school on a regular basis, long after Joe was gone from the show.”

His funeral Mass was celebrated in his hometown of St. Louis at St. Ambrose Church.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of this amazing man who was not just beloved by those of us in his family, but to generations of baseball fans who he impacted during his eight decades in the game,” the Garagiola family said in a statement.

“Joe loved the game and passed that love onto family, his friends, his teammates, his listeners and everyone he came across as a player and broadcaster,” they added. “His impact on the game, both on and off the field, will forever be felt.”

Garagiola first became aware of St. Peter Mission School in 1991 after Sr. Carpenter gave a talk at Garagiola’s local parish. He was in New York at the time, but fellow parishioners told him about her talk and about the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity and their fondness for sports.

“He said, ‘Those are my kind of sisters. How can I meet them?’” Sr. Carpenter told CNS March 23, recalling her first meeting with the Hall of Fame sportscaster.

Garagiola spent quite a bit of time at the mission and its school through the years. He hit up those he knew in Arizona sports and business for donations and help for St. Peter’s.

“He nicknamed us ‘Our Lady of the Quicksand,'” Sr. Carpenter said. “Because once you get your feet into St. Peter’s, you can’t get out.”

The list of repairs and new buildings he facilitated is long and included a basketball court, a soccer and track field, an all-purpose facility for gatherings and events, a new convent, a library and computer learning center and extensive repairs to the old mission church.

“He nicknamed us ‘Our Lady of the Quicksand,'” Sr. Carpenter said. “Because once you get your feet into St. Peter’s, you can’t get out.”

The list of repairs and new buildings he facilitated is long and included a basketball court, a soccer and track field, an all-purpose facility for gatherings and events, a new convent, a library and computer learning center and extensive repairs to the old mission church.

Sr. Carpenter said his legacy will remain with the school.

“Joe couldn’t talk to people for more than five minutes without talking about the mission. … He will be with us in spirit for a very long time.”

She said St. Peter’s schoolchildren still recite “Joe’s Prayer” twice each day. Garagiola himself taught them the short invocation: “Teach us O Lord, that every day, down every street, come chances to be God’s hands and feet.”

Born Feb. 12, 1926, in St. Louis, he grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood just across the street from his childhood friend and competitor, Yogi Berra. The two were lifelong friends. Berra died last September at age 90.

At age 16, Garagiola was signed to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, for five seasons, including a 1946 championship. He also was a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and New York Giants.

After his pro career ended in 1954, he became a broadcaster for the Cardinals and the Yankees before co-hosting the “Today Show.” He was a broadcaster for NBC for years and also for the California Angels baseball team.

He later did TV baseball broadcasts for the Diamondbacks. His awards include a 1973 TV Peabody Award and Baseball Hall of Fame induction in 1991 for broadcasting. In 1996, Garagiola won that year’s Gabriel Award from the U.S. organization for Catholic communicators.

Popular for his colorful personality, he also made numerous appearances on game shows, both as a host and panelist.

That he always carried a rosary in his pocket is among the lesser-known aspects of a man long in the public eye. Garagiola also had a strong devotion to Mary.

“If you ever want anything, go to the Mother,” he once said, adding that her month of May was his favorite month.

He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Audrie; sons Joe Jr., a senior vice president for baseball operations with the MLB and former general manager of the Diamondbacks, and Steve, a newscaster in Detroit; a daughter, Gina Bridgeman, a writer in Phoenix; and several grandchildren.

Sr. Carpenter said she and the other sisters at St. Peter’s were going to travel to St. Louis for Garagiola’s funeral.

Contributing to this story was Nancy Wiechec from Catholic News Service and Gina Keating from The Catholic Sun.

1 COMMENT

  1. Yes I meet him at a friend’s house one day and all he talked about was St Peters mission and how he loved to visit them whenever he had a chance. God bless him and the family

LEAVE A REPLY