Not to sound too much like a cranky, wistful, 57-year-old guy who misses the simplicity of the good old days, but there was something special about growing up and following baseball in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when moments of brilliance leaped from the television screen and became seared in the memory bank for eternity.
I learned to love the game and all its rhythms by listening to Ned Martin and Ken Coleman on Boston Red Sox radio broadcasts on our family front porch in Maine, and spending Saturdays in front of the TV watching Roberto Clemente leg out triples, Al Kaline throw out baserunners from the vicinity of Ann Arbor and Curt Gowdy routinely remind us that San Francisco Giants third baseman Al Gallagher's real name was "Alan Mitchell Edward George Patrick Henry Gallagher." You can look it up.
Joe Garagiola Sr., who died Wednesday at age 90, was a huge part of those formative years as a raconteur and blue-collar everyman who brought fun to broadcasts with a twinkle in his eye. It's hard to imagine the concept of baseball as "event television" in this age of MLB Extra Innings packages, 24-hour cable highlights and gratification on demand via mobile devices. But for those of us who learned to cherish the game when the designated hitter and free agency were coming into vogue, great moments were more meaningful because you knew another week would pass before you had a chance to experience them again.
Garagiola, who earned his greatest broadcasting acclaim working alongside Tony Kubek on "Game of the Week" telecasts from 1976 to '82, had a keen sense of humor and a blue-collar appeal that made him unique. He also had an endearing shtick that was predicated on two basic tenets: Entrée to the mind of his childhood friend Yogi Berra and lots of jokes about his own playing ineptitude.
Legend has it that Garagiola was the guy who conceived a lot of those Yogi-isms that have become part of the American lexicon. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. But when you get down to it, who really cares? They were funny, weirdly insightful and gave us a rare glimpse into life on the famed "Hill" in St. Louis.
Garagiola also got plenty of mileage out of poking fun at his own playing career, in a Bob Uecker kind of way. But the reality is, he wasn't that bad a player. In nine seasons as a catcher with the Cardinals, Cubs, Pirates and Giants, Garagiola logged a .739 OPS and drew 267 career walks to go along with 173 strikeouts. With that type of contact-hitting ability, he would have been right at home as Salvador Perez's backup on the 2015 Kansas City Royals.
Garagiola called Mickey Mantle's 500th career homer from the booth and worked three All-Star Games and three World Series before gravitating to other pursuits, which included a stint on the "Today Show" and a gig as host of the "Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show." But his work away from the microphone ultimately proved every bit as meaningful as his baseball portfolio. He fought tirelessly to stamp out the scourge of smokeless tobacco and won a Children's MVP Award from the Jim Eisenreich Foundation in 1998 for his work with kids.
If Garagiola's words and wit were the cornerstones of his professional persona, his huge heart and grasp of the big picture told people everything they needed to know about his priorities as a man.
Of course, the baseball world will mourn today, and Garagiola's admirers and fans extend their sympathies and prayers to his family. But it's hard to imagine a man living a fuller life or leaving a more gratifying legacy. From start to finish in his journey, Garagiola never lost his ability to laugh or make other people feel better. It was his greatest gift of all.