As a catcher and longtime TV broadcaster, Joe Garagiola has always had one of the best seats in the house. Yet a game when the Scottsdale resident was as far away from home plate as he could get produced one of the most memorable moments in baseball history. And Garagiola had a bird’s-eye view.
On Sept. 29, 1954, in Game 1 of the World Series, Willie Mays of the New York Giants made what many observers consider the most exciting defensive play of all time. With men on first and second and no outs, Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians hit a towering drive to center field. Mays, on the run with his back to the ball, sprinted an estimated 150 feet to make an amazing over-the-shoulder catch near the Polo Grounds’ fence. The ball reportedly traveled more than 450 feet. Mays whirled and put his entire body into the throw back to the infield.
The play is known simply as “The Catch” to generations of baseball fans. Although he didn’t play in the series swept by the Giants in four games, Garagiola was in perfect position to see Mays’ acrobatics.
“I was up in the clubhouse when he made that catch,” Garagiola said of his perch above Mays and to his right. “I can prove it if I have to.”
Garagiola shows off a 20-by-30-inch color lithograph of “The Catch” displayed prominently on one of his basement walls. There’s a man peering out of a clubhouse window watching as the ball gets ready to plop into Mays’ glove.
You guessed it.
“I tell people I was the only guy to see Willie’s eyes,” Garagiola said. “But then I add that I’m just pulling their leg. I wasn’t eligible for the World Series, but I felt like a contest winner who got it in 25 words or less with 'I’d like to travel with the Giants for the World Series.’
“I got good seats in Cleveland and was able to sit in the clubhouse in New York. It was a hell of a seat in New York.”
Mays signed a copy of the lithograph for Garagiola with the inscription, “To Joe, For this catch you had the best seat in the house.” On an 8-by-10-inch black-and-white version, he put, “I’m glad you didn’t call this pitch.”
There are two versions of the photo, a shot that just shows Mays making the catch and a less available horizontal one that shows the clubhouse and fans in the right field bleachers.
“People in the bleachers were blocked off by a screen put up to make the hitters see better, so they missed it,” Garagiola said. “I saw the whole thing. I thought the ball was going over his head. I didn’t think he’d catch it.
“He made a better catch against Rocky Nelson of the Pirates at Forbes Field. On the dead run in the deepest part of center field with the ball slicing away from him, Willie reached out with his bare hand and made the catch. Willie also says that was a better catch.”
While Garagiola said he has told the tale countless times, he can’t recall ever reading a story about it.
“I don’t know why (no one has written about it),” he said. “When I tell people, they say 'That’s you?’ and then they look and say, 'Yeah, that’s you.’ How important could me being the only player in the clubhouse and looking out the window and being in the picture be?”
The Hall of Fame broadcaster’s presence in the historic photo only adds to its mythological proportions.
Garagiola began the 1954 season with the Chicago Cubs. They sold him to the Giants on Sept. 8, 1954. He played five games and had three hits and one RBI. His last major league game was Sept. 26. The Giants couldn’t put him on their World Series roster because he was acquired after Sept. 1.
“They gave me $1,000 for being there that month,” said Garagiola, who told the Cubs he’d retire after the 1954 season. “I did nothing except being in the right spot. When I talk to Willie about it, he laughs. I tell him if I had been catching, I would have called for a pitch that would have made him run even more.”