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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Garagiola's life full of achievements and giving

For charitable work to enjoying and loving the game, O'Neil Award is deserving honor

Garagiola's life full of achievements and giving play video for Garagiola's life full of achievements and giving

PHOENIX -- There was the time Joe Garagiola Sr. playfully approached the great Dizzy Dean with a question.

"Dizzy, how would you have pitched to me?" Garagiola asked.

Yes, this is a setup line.

Dean's eyes lit up.

Here we go.

"Pardner," Dean said. "I'll tell you something. The way I'd pitch to you is to make sure a cab got you to the ballpark."

Garagiola laughs loudly in the retelling of the conversation. OK, maybe he wasn't the greatest player ever.

"I got traded three times when there were only eight teams in the league," he said. "I thought I was modeling uniforms."

Once before a game, Don Newcombe whispered to Garagiola that there had just been a fight in the Dodgers' clubhouse.

"What are you talking about?" Garagiola asked.

"It's just the pitchers," Newcombe said. "Whoever wins the fight gets to pitch against you guys."

At that point in Garagiola's career, he had been traded to the Pirates and was a member of the 1952 team that went 42-112.

"We had five or six guys who weren't even on bubblegum cards," he said. "That's how bad we were."

It was during parts of three seasons with the Pirates when Garagiola met the legendary baseball man Branch Rickey.

Cue the punchline.

"Mr. Rickey told me I really figured into the plans of the Pittsburgh Pirates," Garagiola said. "I did. He traded me two days later."

As the memories of 72 years in and around baseball roll through his mind, Garagiola pauses for just a moment.

In that instant, it's clear what he's thinking.

"There are no bad days at the ballpark," Garagiola said.

That's because this man who never met a stranger, this man who has almost never had a bad day, loves this wonderful game as much as he did on that day when he and the kid down the street in St. Louis began looking for pickup games.

"Let me tell you something about Yogi [Berra]," Garagiola said. "He could hit it into the seats when he was 14. When I saw Yogi, I knew I wasn't even going to be the best player on the block."

Let's say this right up front about Joe Garagiola Sr. No one has ever loved his life more than this man. No one has ever loved baseball more.

Indeed, Garagiola says one of the reasons for his lifelong love affair with baseball is that laughter is as much a part of the fabric of the sport as bats and gloves.

"There's only one place to be," he said. "That's the ballpark. The world is right at the ballpark."

Garagiola is 88 now and moving a bit slower these days. But his spirit remains strong, his sense of humor as sharp as ever.

On a recent afternoon, Garagiola welcomed MLB.com to the apartment he shares with Audrey, his wife of 64 years, to reflect on his remarkable life and times.

Garagiola's wonderful life has been one of humor and giving, of dignity, integrity and grace. Baseball has been a constant -- his enduring love. Yet that's just part of the story. Rather than curse the darkness, he has lit candles, hundreds of them.

For this life well-lived, the Baseball Hall of Fame board of directors has named Garagiola the third recipient of the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. Its purpose sounds like a description of Garagiola's life. Hall of Fame coverage begins at noon ET Sunday with MLB Tonight live from Cooperstown on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com and the At Bat app, with the induction ceremony beginning at 1:30 p.m.

"To honor an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball's positive impact on society, broadened the game's appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O'Neil."

The Hall of Fame Awards Presentation on Saturday will honor, in addition to Garagiola, broadcaster Eric Nadel, the Ford C. Frick Award winner, and the J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner for writers, Roger Angell. The presentation will air Sunday at 11 a.m. ET on MLB Network, simulcast on MLB.com. Then at 1:30 p.m., MLB Network will air the induction ceremony live, also on MLB.com.

On some level, there isn't a higher honor for a baseball man. O'Neil and Roland Hemond, a legendary and beloved former general manager, are the two previous recipients.

"Well, I'm honored," Garagiola said. "I don't know that I deserve it. I'm humbled."

For Garagiola, it's the latest honor in a life filled with them. He has made more friends than he could ever count. People appreciate his huge heart and essential decency. Famous people feel this way, presidents and kings. Regular folks, too.

Sometimes, they've needed a helping hand. Or maybe a laugh. Garagiola delivered both. Along the way, he has had the gift of making almost everyone feel better about themselves, and isn't that about the best thing you can say of someone?

Garagiola has traveled a long and amazing road, from growing up near Berra in The Hill neighborhood of St. Louis to nine years in the big leagues to rising to the highest levels of broadcasting.

Garagiola still watches every D-backs game and gets to Chase Field when he can. He will tell you proudly that his finest moment in baseball came in 2001 when the D-backs team constructed by his son, Joe Jr., won the World Series.

"I looked at his mother [after Game 7], and she was crying," he said. "I was crying. I said, 'What are we crying about?' My wife said, 'Those are happy tears.' They were happy tears."

Joe Garagiola Jr. is now senior vice president of standards and on-field operations for Major League Baseball.

Thanks to television and his appearances on NBC's Game of the Week, The Today Show and The Tonight Show, Garagiola Sr. was given a huge stage to advocate for the things he cared about. His legacy will be that he did his part to leave this world a better place than he found it.

Garagiola helped get B.A.T., the Baseball Assistance Team, off the ground and has watched it help hundreds of former players and others in need. He has advocated tirelessly against the use of smokeless tobacco. And there have been other projects, raising money for churches and kids' groups and assorted other things that have caught Garagiola's attention.

To know this man is to love him and to care about him and to appreciate his commitment to doing the right thing.

Garagiola waves off such talk. Instead, he will tell you that he only did what most people would do. When people need help, you help. He will emphasize he had plenty of people working with him.

"There are a lot of good people in this world," he will say.

Garagiola is quick to credit others in every project, especially B.A.T. He said that Joe Black, Frank Slocum, Ralph Branca and others were all instrumental in making it successful.

"We had nothing when we started," Garagiola said. "We used to meet in a room at NBC or at the baseball office. All we needed was just a little bit of a shove, and Joe Black was great. Thanks to a lot of good people, we've done some good."

Garagiola's fight against smokeless tobacco began when an assortment of people he knew, or knew of, suffered mightily before they died. Some underwent disfiguring surgical procedures. Garagiola has grieved for them all, including, most recently, Tony Gwynn.

"First of all, it's more than talk," he said. "People say, 'We ought to do this, we ought to do that.' Well, get started. Maybe you'll get three or four people to help. I just started going into the clubhouses and asking the manager. I've had some guys, believe it or not, call me names I've never been called before."

Another of Garagiola's loves is St. Peter's Indian Mission in Phoenix. When he heard its athletics facilities needed refurbishing, he gave speeches, called up friends and got the place rebuilt.

For this, Garagiola wants no credit, which speaks to the goodness of his heart.

"It's no ministry," he said. "It's just getting off your duff and getting the job done."

One of the people Garagiola met along the way was Gerald Ford, a relationship that got him invited to the White House to watch the 1976 election returns and sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter, and what struck Garagiola was his attitude the following morning.

"We got a message that said the president doesn't want you to leave until he and Betty say goodbye to you," Garagiola said. "I threw my arms around him and said, 'We should have won that thing, boss.'"

Ford pushed Garagiola away, put both hands on his shoulders and spoke forcefully.

"Now what we have to do is give the new president the White House in better shape than I got it," Ford said.

For Garagiola, it has stayed with him that Ford, even in one of his worst hours, thought of the country first.

"He was thinking of the other guy and the country," he said. "Nobody can knock President Ford to me."

That's also how plenty of people feel about Joe Garagiola.

Wait, did he tell you about the first time he met Ted Williams?

"It was the [1946] World Series, Cardinals-Red Sox," Garagiola said. "Ted came to bat, and I was in awe. I didn't know whether to give a signal or get an autograph. The first pitch was a fastball inside. He turned around and said, 'Joe, that ball was inside.'"

"Yes, sir," Garagiola replied, "that ball was way inside."

With that, he laughs again, the laughter of the ballpark, the laughter of a full and giving life.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["hall_of_fame" ] }
{"event":["hall_of_fame" ] }