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COMMENTARY : Garagiola Takes Cuts for Baseball's Needy

March 27, 1994|DAVE KINDRED | THE SPORTING NEWS

Joe Garagiola remembered the woman. She was young and beautiful and vivacious.

He remembered her from St. Louis.

They were in St. Louis, the years after the war.

That war was World War II.

She was a teammate's wife, and Garagiola remembered her the way we remember youth. As a snapshot of a moment. The woman smiling. Everyone happy to be near her. Time caught in a bottle, time suspended. In memory, we are forever young.

When she called Garagiola, he hadn't heard her voice for 40 years.

Her voice caused a flash of memory.

A snapshot of youth.

Those were the days. Garagiola came to the Cardinals as a kid catcher with a big future. Signed for $500 off the St. Louis sandlots by Branch Rickey, Garagiola, only 20, was a World Series star in 1946: .316, with four hits in Game 4. He was at .347 in mid-June of 1950 when he tore up a shoulder avoiding a collision with Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman Jackie Robinson. He never was as good again. In 676 games, Garagiola hit .257 with 42 home runs.

The numbers say: just another guy.

A catcher in 70 games a year.

Hundreds did that.

We'd have forgotten Joe Garagiola by now.

Except for this: He made himself unforgettable by becoming baseball's savviest and funniest broadcaster. For almost 40 years he has given radio and television audiences daily demonstrations of his love for the game and its people.

One of those people was the beautiful young woman from all those years ago.

"And now she's calling me," Garagiola says, "and I'm seeing her the way I remember her--until she starts talking. Sobbing, really. She's breaking down. She says, 'Joe, I'm going to jail. I'm 69 years old, Joe, and I'm going to jail.' "

Garagiola says, "How can we help you?"

For eight years now, Joe Garagiola has been at the heart of BAT. That's the Baseball Assistance Team. It's an organization created to help baseball people who no longer can help themselves. Garagiola says it's there "for those who are hurting and forgotten."

The woman from Garagiola's youth owed tax money. She had fallen behind on credit-card bills. Her husband was dead and she had nowhere to turn. It was then that Garagiola and BAT helped. "She wasn't going to jail," the old catcher says. "We paid her bills."

At its start, BAT intended to help only former big league players who weren't covered by baseball's pension plan, mostly those whose work preceded the pension's creation in 1947. But BAT's reach was extended when Garagiola heard about a woman who didn't have the money for a double mastectomy and hip-replacement surgery.

"She'd worked 31 years in a minor league team's front office," Garagiola says. "She was more baseball than Babe Ruth! And somebody should help her."

Now BAT helps umpires, scouts, widows, front-office workers, Negro League veterans, anyone in the baseball family. It has paid the burial expenses for a ball player's 11-year-old son. It has paid for the funeral of a ball player whose body went unclaimed for four days at a morgue. It helped a widow put a tombstone on her man's grave. A player who once made $800,000 a year sought BAT's help when he couldn't pay for health insurance.

"When you get a call like I did this week, a minor leaguer needing a bone-marrow transplant and no way to get it," Garagiola says, "it's a crusher."

So Garagiola and BAT go looking for money. The organization works out of offices made available by the baseball commissioner at 350 Park Ave., New York. BAT has only two employees, Executive Director Frank Slocum and his secretary. Everyone else is a volunteer, including Ted Williams, Bob Gibson and Willie Mays. As Garagiola put it, "We're always scrounging and clawing and scraping for money."

In BAT's case, corporations are not eager to make donations to a game filled with millionaires apparently unwilling to help the hurting and forgotten people who made today's wealth possible. The players tell you, though, they are reluctant to make contributions until the owners also kick in.

The biggest--the only--breakthrough came with a $150,000 donation of one game's receipts by George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. Garagiola says, "If one owner each year gave BAT one game's receipts, we're home free. And each owner's turn would come up once every 28 years."

Not that all players today ignore BAT. Donations have come from Dwight Gooden, both Ken Griffeys, Dave Valle, Dave Stewart and Willie McGee. And BAT has a $1 million endowment: $300,000 from Gannett's Freedom Forum, $300,000 from the Major League Baseball Players Assn., $300,000 from the commissioner's office and $100,000 from USA Today's All-Star promotion.

Still, the interest earned by a $1 million endowment covers only a fraction of BAT's costs. Garagiola says, "Unfortunately, our business is picking up."

Upper Deck, the baseball-card people, donates $10,000 per old-timers game.

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