Joe Garagiola, baseball catcher, broadcaster and humorist, gingerly removes the framed newspaper clipping from a wall at his home office in Phoenix. The 86-year-old can’t help but chuckle as he examines his prized possession more closely. He runs his fingers down the New York Times best-seller list from July 10, 1960 until he finds what he’s looking for. There, in small type, next to the number 16, it reads: “Baseball Is A Funny Game,” by Joe Garagiola.
“Look at the names on this list,’’ he marvels. “Robert F. Kennedy. Harry S. Truman. Jack Parr. I was in the high-rent district – that’s for sure.”
By penning “Baseball Is A Funny Game,” Garagiola went where no baseball author had gone before. Chockfull of humorous, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the book entertained millions and helped Garagiola land a network broadcasting job and become a household name. Believed to be the first book about the sport to crack the Times’ prestigious best-seller list, “Baseball Is A Funny Game” also helped pave the way for humorous works to follow such as Ron Luciano’s “The Umpire Strikes Back”, Bob Uecker’s “Catcher in the Wry” and Sparky Lyle’s “The Bronx Zoo”.
“It was ground-breaking in several respects,’’ says baseball author and historian Curt Smith. “It certainly established Joe as the premier baseball humorist and anecdotist of his time. And it also showed his appreciation of how baseball is a very simple game and ought not be numbered or analyzed to death. As a broadcaster, Joe often lampooned people who would over-analyze the game. He knew listeners were more interested in the people stories and humor rather than in statistical or strategic overload. ‘Baseball Is A Funny Game’ was Joe telling tales on the printed page the way he had in the broadcast booth. It really was a seminal book.”
And a book he never dreamed of writing.
The son of Italian immigrants who settled in St. Louis, Garagiola said he struggled mightily in high school English classes he attended in the early 1940s. Like his neighbor – fellow catcher and baseball comedian – Yogi Berra, Joe dreamed of authoring a big-league baseball career, not a best-seller. Ironically, both dreams came true.
Despite painting himself as a lovable bumbler, Garagiola actually was a decent big-league catcher, once rapping out four hits in a World Series game for the St. Louis Cardinals. But injuries wound up shortening his playing career and launching his broadcasting career. Joining icons Harry Caray and Jack Buck on powerhouse radio station KMOX, Garagiola endeared himself to Cardinals fans with his human-interest stories and self-deprecating sense of humor
One day, during the 1958 season, he and his wife Audrey – who was the organist at Busch Stadium – were driving to the ballpark, when Joe began lamenting the dearth of entertaining baseball books for the average fan. He recently had read a “how-to” tome by former big-league player and manager Paul Richards.
“I said to Audrey, ‘The guy driving the 18-wheeler isn’t going to be interested in that book. He wants to learn more about the person throwing the curve ball than how to grip a curve ball,’ ” Garagiola recalls. “I told her that when I wrote my book I was going to fill it with anecdotes about people. Well, her ears perked right up and she began needling me. ‘Yeah, Joe, when you write your best-seller.’ Well, that’s all I needed to hear. She had challenged me, and not long after that I began writing down anecdote after anecdote until I had filled several notebooks.”
Initially, he gave his rough manuscript to St. Louis sports columnist Bob Broeg, who edited it to the point where, in Garagiola’s words, “it sounded too good, like a literary masterpiece, not at all like me.” After amicably parting ways with Broeg, he was pared with Martin Quigley, a writer who worked for Fleishman-Hillard, the public relations agency that represented Anheuser-Busch and the Cardinals. Quigley tweaked the manuscript so that it sounded more like Joe. He also helped Garagiola organize it so it flowed like a trip around the ballpark: Here’s what happens in the clubhouse; here’s what happens during a game in the dugout; here’s what is said on the mound; here’s the way the front office people interact, etc.
Lippincott, out of Philadelphia, published the book, and Garagiola promoted it masterfully. His big break came when he appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Parr, who was the Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman of his day. “Jack wasn’t a baseball fan, but he loved the book and told the audience that they needed to go out and buy it,’’ Garagiola says. “It just went gangbusters from there. And the interesting thing is that not only baseball fans bought it, but also a lot of people – especially women – who hadn’t been interested in the game before.”
“Baseball Is A Funny Game” spent nearly four months on the best-seller lists and went through about 20 printings – the last occurring in 1987. Now a collector’s item, it continues to resonate with fans. Much of its humor is timeless.
Consider, for example, this anecdote:
One day to the surprise of all fans and players (umpire Bill) Klem threw Pie Traynor, the great third baseman, out of a game. To see Traynor argue was a rarity, and he was a man who never used bad language on the field. To believe that he had said something to cause an ejection was almost impossible. After the game the newspapermen had to get the answer. “What did he say?” a reporter asked Klem.
“He wasn’t feeling well,” Klem said calmly.
“He looked OK before the game,” a reporter countered.
“Well,” Bill shrugged, “that’s what he told me. He said he was sick of my stupid decisions.”
Garagiola also includes this marvelous story about a conversation between Berra, the Yankees catcher, and Milwuakee Braves slugger Hank Aaron during the 1957 World Series.
When Henry came up to hit, Yogi noticed that the trademark on the bat was facing the pitcher. “Henry,’’ Yogi said, “you don’t want to break that bat. Better turn it around so you can read the trademark.” “Yogi,” Henry replied, “I didn’t come up here to read.”
And, finally, there was this funny account about Tex Rickard, the former public address announcer at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field who occasionally became tongue-tied.
Once there were some coats draped along the left field railing, and the umpire asked Rickard to tell the fans to get them off. “Attention, please!” came Rickard’s call. “Will the fans behind the rail in left field please remove their clothing.”
“The stories, like the game itself,’’ says Smith, “stand the test of time and make you laugh as hard as you did when you first read them a half century ago.”
But Garagiola’s light-hearted book did more than make millions laugh; it wound up changing the course of baseball literature.
“It’s flattering when people tell me that, but I certainly wasn’t looking to be a pioneer,’’ said Garagiola, a two-time Hall of Fame Award winner, having received the 1991 Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters and the 2014 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. “Baseball is supposed to be an escape for people, and sometimes broadcasters and writers make the game way too serious and complicated. I wanted to loosen things up a bit and make people laugh a little. And I’m glad my book did that.”
Scott Pitoniak is a freelance writer from Rochester, N.Y.
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