Garagiola Sr. to receive Buck O'Neil Award

Garagiola Sr. to receive Buck O'Neil Award

Garagiola Sr. to receive Buck O'Neil Award

Joe Garagiola Sr. never could have imagined himself being honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

After all, the former Major League catcher experienced limited success while playing for four teams over his nine-year career from 1946-54.

Yet thanks to all that Garagiola has done since hanging up his cleats, the 87-year-old will receive the 2014 John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in Cooperstown at the annual awards presentation on July 26 as part of Hall of Fame Weekend.

"You get a call from the Hall of Fame, especially the way I played, and you wonder what they want," Garagiola said Friday in a conference call. "You know they don't want my bat, they don't want my glove. But this is a tremendous, tremendous thrill. To have me and the Hall of Fame mentioned in the same sentence, it's unbelievable. I don't have the words at this time to express how I feel."

And this isn't the first time Garagiola's name has been linked to the Hall of Fame. The legendary broadcaster was also presented in '91 with the Ford C. Frick Award by the Hall of Fame for broadcasting excellence.

The Buck O'Neil Award, however, carries added significance for Garagiola, who considered O'Neil a close friend prior to his death in 2006. Two years later, O'Neil was named the inaugural recipient of the award, which is given no more than once every three years to "honor an individual whose character, integrity and dignity is comparable to the late O'Neil." Longtime executive Roland Hemond received the honor in 2011.

"He was a friend of mine, so to receive an award named after him, is just an extra thrill," Garagiola said. "When you talked to Buck, I don't care what you were talking about, he always looked at you like you were saying the most interesting thing he's ever heard. And he always had something to say to keep it going. He was a warm man, who liked people."

While O'Neil did his part to help others and uphold the integrity of the game of baseball, Garagiola has certainly followed in the footsteps of his late friend.

Garagiola has founded two organizations -- The Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.) and the National Spit Tobacco Education Program -- to further his efforts around baseball in a positive manner. B.A.T. has helped those in need by distributing over $28 million in grants to over 3,000 individuals since 1986, and his tobacco education program has helped the game to create a Smokeless Tobacco Policy, while Garagiola has testified before Congress on the issue and continues to fight the ongoing battle against tobacco.

"It's hard for me to say, 'Hey I did this, I did that,' because everyone does a lot of things," Garagiola said. "It's not just me. But there were things happening in baseball that I was a part of and worked hard to get it going and keep it going, that helped a lot of people."

All of that was on the side of a lengthy broadcasting career that started immediately following his retirement as a player after the '54 season. Garagiola started calling Cardinals games on the radio alongside Harry Caray and Jack Buck from '55-62 before later working with the legendary Vin Scully during part of his 30-year tenure at NBC.

Through it all, Garagiola opened eyes in a variety of demographics, earning broadcasting duties for special events, ranging from the Rose Bowl Parade to the Westminster Dog Show.

He officially announced his retirement earlier this year after a 58-year television and radio career, the last 15 of which were spent with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Though hosting the Westminster Dog Show may have been the biggest surprise for Garagiola, it was far from the only one.

As a child, growing up on the same block as Yogi Berra, Garagiola said he had three dreams in life: play professional baseball, meet a pope and meet a United States President.

Though Garagiola has done all three -- he met Presidents Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, as well as Pope John Paul II -- even he could not have dreamed up being part of Hall of Fame Weekend.

"The baseball guys in the Hall of Fame, they're all so great ... If you ever played with them or against them, you know why they're there," Garagiola said. "I knew right away that if I was ever going to get into the Hall of Fame, I'd need to buy a ticket."

As it turns out, not only won't he need a ticket come July, but he'll have one of the best seats in Cooperstown that weekend. He said he's eagerly looking forward to seeing his childhood neighbor at the ceremony, though he already knows how Berra will likely greet him.

"I can already tell you exactly what he's going to say: 'What took you so long?'" Garagiola said with a laugh.

With months to prepare for the ceremony, Garagiola hopes to be able to better put into words exactly what receiving the award means to him. For now, all he can do is simply express his gratitude.

"When you get something like this, what do you say besides, 'Thank you'?" Garagiola said. "You've got to say more than just, 'Thank you,' but it's all just icing on the big cake for me right now."

Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.