In this story from April 1974, former major leaguer and broadcasting legend Joe Garagiola shares how he used humor to help smooth over life's rough spots.
- Posted on Mar 23, 2016
One day shortly after I retired from baseball I was asked to help out at a luncheon honoring Stan Musial. My duty would be to introduce a lot of big names in St. Louis—athletes, businessmen, politicians. I was kind of scared. Most of my public speaking had been limited to hollering at umpires.
So I prayed about it. “Look, God,” I said, “I’m going to need Your help to keep the fear in my belly and off my tongue.”
And sure enough He helped me—helped me use a bit of humor when bringing on the famous guests. The light approach seemed to loosen everyone up, including me.
Prayer and laughter. I learned both by example from my parents. My father and mother came to America from Italy and neither one ever really learned to speak English. Papa was a bricklayer who worked long, backbreaking hours to provide for his wife and two sons.
In the best of times this wouldn’t have been easy, but those were the Depression years when building jobs were hard to come by.
But though I grew up right in the middle of this period, I never knew what the word “depression” meant. In our home there was faith in God and a smile for every situation—faith to banish fear and a joke to take the growl out of an empty stomach.
That doesn’t mean my brother and I didn’t have to do without a lot of things. I remember how long it took me to convince Papa that I needed a pair of spiked baseball shoes. Papa couldn’t understand why anyone would buy a new pair of shoes that he couldn’t wear to church.
On the Hill, a section of St. Louis that is predominantly Italian, life centered around the church, as it does in most Italian neighborhoods. Saturday was take-a-bath, get-to-church-for-confession, help-mama-fill-out-the-collection-envelope day.
Mass the next morning was the high point of every week. It was a joyful occasion, not a solemn one. Church was where you met your friends, where the guys hung out.
This kind of natural-as-breathing religion was all the more important when I entered major league baseball. When a ballplayer hits .300 for the season, which means he gets three hits every ten times he comes to bat, everybody says he’s had a great year. But this also means he’s failed seven times out of ten. In a job where success means failing most of the time, you better have a faith that sees things in perspective.
And you’d better learn to laugh at yourself. I always liked Ernie Fazio’s answer when someone asked him why he’d switched from a 34-ounce bat to a 29-ounce bat. “Because it’s lighter to carry back to the bench when I strike out.”
I remember one close ball game when the other team had a runner on every base. Tension was building and I went out to the mound. There was a big hush over the field and then all at once I heard someone shout from the other team’s dugout, “Hey, Joe, the only thing you know about pitching is that it’s hard to hit.”
Suddenly my own importance and the spot we were in were cut down to size.
In baseball failure isn’t only built into the game. There are personal setbacks and disappointments too. One year I got off to a good start only to break my shoulder in May and miss almost all of the rest of the season. The next year I was traded.
After growing up in St. Louis and playing for the Cardinals in a World Series, it had just never occurred to me that I might have to leave them. Worse yet, it meant moving from a winning ball club to the Pittsburgh Pirates which had clinched last place that year on the opening day of spring training.
It’s easy to laugh about that trade now, but believe me, at the time it would have been far easier to cry. I think the person who helped me most to keep my sense of humor then, and during the trades that followed, was my wife Audrie. “Dad’s modeling uniforms,” she’d explain to the kids each time I changed clubs.
Like laughter, prayer works better too when you have someone to do it with you. I never went in much for “professional” praying—asking God to help my team win or to let me get a base hit. I’d always think, What if the pitcher out there is praying for a strike-out while I’m asking for a home run?
My boyhood pal Yogi Berra put it well once in a game between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Jimmy Piersall came to the plate and made the sign of the cross before stepping into the batter’s box. Yogi watched from his catcher’s crouch, then said, “Why don’t you let God just watch the ball game?”
Audrie’s and my prayers are more often for strength in daily life, for joy and love in our family, for others in need, for God’s gift of a merry heart. If you can smile and pray, you’re part way there. If you have someone to pray with, and share that smile with, you’ve reached home plate.
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