Former major league catcher and legendary broadcaster Joe Garagiola shares what happens when a kid wants something special for Christmas, something he knows is more than his mom and pop can give.
- Posted on Mar 23, 2016
We were sorry to learn of Joe Garagiola's passing at the age of 90 on March 23. We share this story from 1999 in remembrance of him...
You could always tell when Christmas was coming on The Hill, the Italian-immigrant neighborhood in St. Louis where I grew up—the Nativity scene appeared on the lawn of the rectory at St. Ambrose, our church.
The other sure sign was the store windows. They looked a little fancier, with sprayed-on “snow” and the best items on display. It was there, in one of those windows the year I was 10, that I saw the greatest thing I’d ever laid eyes on.
A golden-brown sheepskin coat appeared in the window of Russo’s Dry Goods. I’d take the long way home from school just to look at it and daydream about how it would feel buttoned around me. I wanted that coat more than anything, but I knew there was no way in the world I was ever going to get it.
Like most of the men in the neighborhood, my father worked a long, tough day at Laclede-Christy, a clay-pipe factory. He stretched his paycheck to support our family and to pay the mortgage on our house.
We always had food on the table, clothes to wear (I even had mine modeled for me by my big brother, Mickey, who wore them first), and a little to give to our church every week. But that didn’t leave anything for luxuries such as a sheepskin coat.
One Sunday evening in early December I stood in front of Russo’s staring at the coat, taking in every detail as if there were something I might have missed all the other times I’d come to see it. The buttery brown leather. The fleece lining that looked almost golden in the right light. The cuffs, fitted so that on a windy day cold air wouldn’t shoot up your arms.
I pulled my thin cloth jacket a little higher around my neck. It didn’t make me feel any warmer. Just the thought of that sheepskin coat did, though, and so close to Christmas, I couldn’t think of anything else.
“You see that coat in Russo’s window?” I asked as we sat down to dinner that night.
“That’ll keep you warm, I guarantee you,” said Uncle Tom, who lived with us. “Sheepskin, right?”
My mother set my favorite dish, risotto, on the table. For once I ignored it. “Yeah,” I replied. “The coat looks plenty warm.” I sneaked a glance at Pop. He smiled, but didn’t say anything as he spooned a big helping of risotto onto my plate.
“Probably costs plenty too,” Mickey laughed. “That coat would keep you warm even in a St. Louis winter!” We thought St. Louis was the coldest place on earth because we’d never been anywhere else.
“It’d sure be nice to have a coat like that,” I hinted.
“It would be nice. A lot of things would be nice...” my father murmured, his thought trailing off like my hopes.
“Pop’s right,” I said to Mickey as we climbed into bed that night. “Lots of things would be nice, but I’m never gonna get ’em.”
I wanted nice new things like other kids had. Not that any of those kids lived on The Hill. My friends got hand-me-downs too. We used cast-off baseball bats, fixing their cracks with nails. We taped up worn-out baseballs to get a few extra innings out of them.
The guys who played catcher—I was one—made shin guards by stuffing old copies of National Geographic into our socks. Spikes were out of the question; Pop didn’t believe in buying shoes you couldn’t wear to church or school.
After wearing Uncle Tom’s old shoes and Mickey’s outgrown clothes for as long as I could remember, I dreamed of having something that was mine alone, something new. My father always taught me to dream big and never give up, so as Christmas got closer, I kept mentioning the sheepskin coat whenever he was within earshot. But he didn’t say a word about it.
“What do you guess Pop is thinking?” I asked Mickey one night.
“What’s he gonna say?” my brother answered impatiently. “If he told you, ‘Forget about that sheepskin coat,’ you’d be disappointed for weeks. If he doesn’t say anything now, when you don’t get it Christmas morning, you’ll be disappointed for only a day.”
I knew as well as Mickey did that our parents looked at Christmas as a holy day to honor our Lord’s birth, not to give presents. We didn’t even have a tree.
Mickey and I would pull a kitchen chair beside our bed each Christmas Eve, and we’d wake up the next morning to find an orange on the seat, and maybe a shirt to wear to church. Our big holiday treat was panettone, an Italian fruit cake we ate only once a year.
With no word from Pop, I decided that if I was going to get my sheepskin coat, I’d have to ask somebody else: God. A few days before Christmas, I woke up before my brother and knelt by our bed. I know I haven’t been too good this year, God. But I promise, if you get me that coat, I’ll do my best from now on.
Christmas Eve night Mickey and I set the chair beside our bed as usual. I don’t remember how much I slept, but I sure remember waking up. I’ll never forget waking up that morning.
There, draped over the chair, was my sheepskin coat from Russo’s!
I jumped out of bed and got down on my knees. Rubbing my face in the golden fleece lining, I thought, Thanks, God, you did a great job! Then I threw the coat on—it felt so soft and warm, even better than I’d dreamed—and ran through the house, whooping and hollering.
Then I saw Pop standing in his bedroom doorway. Fat tears ran down his cheeks. I’d never seen my father cry. Still, I knew instinctively these were tears of happiness, like a safety valve on a full heart had opened, and I couldn’t hold back my biggest smile.
I wore that sheepskin coat long past winter, late into spring. Good thing I had baseball to get me through the days until it was cool enough for me to put the coat on again. A couple of years later I finally outgrew it, and my mother passed it on to another kid who lived on The Hill.
There was something I got that Christmas I would never outgrow, though, something I didn’t completely understand until the day I signed a contract at age 16 to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals.
I left Sportsman’s Park with a five-hundred-dollar check, my signing bonus, in my hand. It was a hot late-summer afternoon, but I was so excited it might as well have been that Christmas morning all over again.
I took the Grand Avenue streetcar and headed for Laclede-Christy, where my father and the other men from The Hill were just sitting down with their lunch pails. Before Pop could ask what I was doing there, I pressed the check into his hand. He stared at it, then looked at me.
Neither of us said anything. We didn’t need to. We both knew the check would fulfill his dream of paying off the mortgage on our house. Watching Pop wipe his eyes and smile made me feel warm in a way no sheepskin coat ever could. I realized then that the joy of Christmas, and of the whole year through, is in giving as my father did—from the heart.