A few days after receiving word that he was the recipient of the 2014 John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, Joe Garagiola still had trouble explaining his good fortune.
“You get a call from the Hall of Fame, especially the way I played, you wonder what they want,” said Garagiola during a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon. “They certainly don’t want my bat, they don’t want my glove.
“But this is a tremendous, tremendous thrill. I’ve had nothing but telephone messages, faxes, and to be (the third Buck O’Neil Award winner) and have the Hall of Fame in the same sentence, it’s just unbelievable. I do not have the words at this time to really express how I feel.”
The 87-year-old Garagiola is the third winner of the Hall of Fame’s O’Neil Award, which was established in 2007 to honor an individual whose efforts broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity is comparable to the late O’Neil, who passed away in 2006 after eight decades of contributions to the game. O’Neil was honored as the first recipient of the Award in 2008, while longtime executive Roland Hemond was honored with the second Buck O’Neil Award in 2011.
“Buck O’Neil was, first of all, a friend. And for me to receive an award that is named for him is an extra thrill,” Garagiola said. “I couldn’t wait to get into Wrigley Field because that’s where I always saw him.
“A lot of things that were said about Mr. (Nelson) Mandela in the news and papers the last couple of days (following his passing) would apply to Buck,” he added. “When you talked to Buck, I don’t care what you were talking about, he always looked at you like it was the most interesting thing that he had ever heard. And he had something to say to keep it going. Buck was just a warm man who liked people.”
Garagiola was a big league catcher for four teams during a nine-season (1946-54) career and then began a lengthy radio-television broadcast career, but cherishes his role in founding two organizations to impact baseball in a positive manner: The Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.) and the National Spit Tobacco Education Program.
“It’s hard for me to say, ‘Hey, I did this; I did that,’ because everybody does a lot of things,” Garagiola said. “But there were things happening in baseball that I was a part of and worked hard to get going and keep going that helped a lot of people.
“And it’s special just to be honored in Buck’s name because Buck was like that. If Buck had a quarter and you said, ‘Buck, I need 50 cents,’ he’d have that other quarter for you in four minutes. He was always willing to help people. That’s what it’s all about.”
The trip to Cooperstown this summer to accept his O’Neil Award will be Garagiola’s first since he was honored with the 1991 Ford C. Frick Award for baseball broadcasters.
“Well, I don’t want to get religious about it, but to me it’s the Vatican of baseball,” Garagiola said of the Hall of Fame. “And the baseball guys in the Hall of Fame, they’re all great.
“I had three dreams when I was a kid: I wanted to be a baseball player, I wanted to meet a Pope, and I wanted to meet a President. Well, I met them all, but I’ve got to tell you something: The Hall of Fame, when you’re a part of the induction, I’d be happy to say, ‘I’ll get the coffee, guys. Just stay here,’” he added. “At the Hall of Fame, when see these guys, the cards come alive. And I knew right away that if I was going to get into the Hall of Fame, I was going to have to buy a ticket.”
And one special person Garagiola is looking forward to seeing this summer is a another former catcher and childhood friend from St. Louis.
“I just know that Yogi (Berra) will be there, and I haven’t seen him in awhile. I can pretty much tell you what he’s going to say first time he sees me: ‘What took you so long?’ What took me so long was (he) could hit and I couldn’t.”