Searching For Joe Garagiola
at the Polo Grounds
|Mays catching the ball a few feet in front of the wall.|
For most people “seeing is believing” but not for Anthony Scillia.
Dr. Scillia, a psychiatrist from Denville, New Jersey is a life long San Francisco Giants fan. His allegiance to the team dates back to its days at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium.
When Dr. Scillia read Joe Garagiola, had a direct view of “The Catch” Willie Mays’ dramatic game-saving over-the-head grab of Vic Wertz’s 450-foot blast in the eight inning of game one of the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians, he wanted proof.
Who could blame him?
(First, for most of us, “Who is Joe Garagiola?”)
How did Garagiola, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs wind up at the game? And how did he have one of the best seats of the 52,751 fans there. A journeyman player, his best-known baseball achievement is growing up in The Hill section of St. Louis, near his close friend, New York Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra.
“I was not the best catcher in baseball. I wasn’t even the best catcher on my block,” Gariagola once said.
His career took off after his playing days ended. Author of “Baseball is a Funny Game” he hosted NBC’s Today Show and its Saturday Game of the Week. He often guest-hosted Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show including the Beatles only appearance on that show and was a panelist on To Tell The Truth
The score tied 2-2 and no outs, base runners on first and second, power hitting Wertz, a four-time all-star slammed Don Liddle’s fourth pitch to centerfield. When Wertz connected with the ball, Mays known for playing a shallow centerfield, turned and ran over 130 feet with his back to home plate. If the ball remained in play everyone knew Willie would catch it. And he did! His throw to the infield prevented runners from scoring. The Giants won the game and swept the series; their last in New York. They moved to San Francisco in 1957.
While reading “Baseball’s 25 Greatest Moments” published by The Sporting News (the catch ranked ninth) the following quote spurred Dr. Scillia’s interest.
“It was an impossible catch, but what amazed me was how quickly Mays turned and fired the ball all the way to second base," said Garagiola. “He had to leave skid marks there-that’s how quickly he stopped and braced himself to throw.” Garagiola saw the play from a clubhouse window 483 feet from home plate, less than 30 feet from Mays.
|After making his over-the-head catch of Wertz's blast Mays stops quickly|
ready to throw the ball to the infield. Garagiola watches from the window.
He called his friend, Carl Kahn, a Brooklyn Dodger fan and a sports memorabilia collector. Kahn who knows Garagiola personally told Scillia “If Joe said it, then it is true.” Dr. Scillia thumbed through his baseball video library. He played his film and saw someone in the seventh window, on the far left side of the clubhouse. He noticed another face by the second window but that person had an obstructed view.
Scillia had a quote and a photo but he needed more. This had personal ties.
“My parents who are deceased were enthusiastic Giant fans. My best friend is a Yankee fan. He always urged me to become one,” he said. “If I had I would abandon my father.
“Rooting for the Giants keeps me connected with my parents. As a fan I was curious but I had to do it for my father.”
Dr. Scillia visited baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He found his evidence in their archives, a photo showing the entire clubhouse with Garagiola hunched by the window. He sent the picture to Garagiola who signed it.
So how did Garagiola wind up in the Giants clubhouse? He played five games with the Giants - batted 11 times, with three hits, two doubles. The Giants did not add him to their World Series roster and he watched the game from the clubhouse. “I had nothing to do with the outcome of the game,” he said.
Borrowing a phrase made popular by the late Red Barber, a sportscaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, Garagiola had the enviable position of sitting “in the catbird seat.”