Joe Garagiola Sr., one of the most popular television personalities in the U.S. during the 1970s, who got his television broadcasting start in pro wrestling, passed away today at the age of 90.
Garagiola, a native of St. Louis, grew up in a neighborhood now known as Hall of Fame place because of how many baseball players it produced. Garagiola and Yogi Berra grew up across the street, and ended up being major league catchers. When both were growing up, Garagiola was considered the better player.
Both also became known for their comedic skill and timing. Garagiola often poked fun at his own mediocre major league career by saying not only was he not the best catcher in the major leagues, but he wasn’t even the best catcher on his block.
He started as a radio announcer with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1955. A few years later, when Sam Muchnick, a lifelong Cardinals fan, created the local “Wrestling at the Chase” television show, he hired Garagiola as his first announcer. Garagiola was more a personality with a smooth delivery and not an expert on wrestling, but he greatly respected the wrestlers and was a lifelong friend of Gene Kiniski.
He was very proud of his association with the business and talked fondly about socializing with Kiniski, and the antics of people like Dick the Bruiser, Pat O’Connor, Rip Hawk, Cowboy Bob Ellis and other stars of the show.
“Wrestling at the Chase” was a unique wrestling show, held in an expensive hotel ballroom where fans attended in suits and ties, and women in evening gowns. Garagiola felt Muchnick should have syndicated the show, which featured the top talent in the country, but Muchnick, who was the backbone of the NWA, felt it was better for the overall business to not put his television into the territory of other promoters.
Garagiola’s success on local television led to him being hired by NBC in 1961, which ended his run as a local wrestling announcer. His brother, Mickey, who is in the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame, remained the ring announcer for Wrestling at the Chase into the early 80s.
Garagiola was a fixture on NBC as the sportscaster on The Today Show, a frequent replacement host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and announcer for the weekend Major League Baseball Game of the Week.
He had a falling out with NBC in 1988. He later worked as an announcer for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 1998 to 2012, where his son worked as General Manager, and announced his retirement from broadcasting in early 2013.