Sports Collectors Digest: Baseball is a Funny Game

By Marty Appel

As best as I can determine, the first baseball book to ever hit the New York Times best seller list was “Baseball is a Funny Game,” by Joe Garagiola, published in 1960. The book spent about 4 months on best seller lists around the country, helped launch Joe’s national stardom, helped turn millions of people into baseball fans, and made the awful 1952 Pirates loveable, just in time for the dreadful ’62 Mets to unseat them.

“The book really has a double meaning,” says Joe, now 76, from his home outside Phoenix. “We put laughs in the book, because there are a lot of great characters in the game, but it also has that whimsical meaning to cover the times when things don’t go just as planned.”

Prior to its publication by Lippincott, the best humor books on baseball had been written by Al Schacht, the Washington coach turned “Clown Prince of Baseball.” “Clowning Through Baseball” was published in 1941, and “My Own Particular Screwball” in 1955. In 1957, The Sporting News put out the small softcover “Comedians of Baseball Down the Years.” There had, of course, also been the great 1914 novel “You Know Me Al” by Ring Lardner.

Garagiola had the ability to see the lighter side of the game and to weave great stories out of it. As he would say, “to be a ’52 Pirate, you had to have a sense of humor!” (The team went 42-112). And although Joe’s “act” was to put himself down as a ballplayer, he was really no slouch. As a 20-year old, he was a regular catcher on the world champion St. Louis Cardinals, and to be 20 and handle a veteran, World Series-bound pitching staff, was no small feat. He even had four hits in a World Series game that fall.

“After my career ended,” he recalls, “I became a Cardinals broadcaster, working with Harry Caray and Jack Buck. I used to drive to Busch Stadium with my wife Audrey, who was the Stadium organist. One day, probably in the summer of ’58, we were talking about baseball books. I had recently read one by Paul Richards with all the usual stuff – how to shift you feet, how to grip the curveball, how to hold runners on – and I said to Audrey, ‘geez, the guy driving the 18-wheeler who’s never gonna be a player, these books can’t be for him. Wait til I write MY book!

“Well Audrey sort of challenged me, one of those ‘go ahead!’ moments. And so I started to work on a book that was just for fans. I organized it like a march around the ballpark – here’s what happens in the bullpen, here’s what happens on the mound, in the dugout, in the front office, etc. I wrote it all in longhand, and I gave it to Bob Broeg, the great Post-Dispatch writer to look at.

“Bob, and his wife Dorothy, were very helpful – too helpful! They edited it so that it read too good, it just didn’t sound like me! They made it into a literary masterpiece, but it wasn’t what I was trying to do!

“So I gave my handwritten version to my ‘Godfather,’ Al Fleishman, the co-founder of Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations, and he put me together with one of their people, Martin Quigley. Martin had just the right touch. Now I began to type my version – typing was my best course in high school – and he made suggestions. We finished with a version I was proud to call my own.

“Lippincott wanted to publish it as a paperback, but I held out for a hardcover that would get into libraries, and we got it done. What really put it on the map was an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. Paar knew nothing about baseball, but he loved the book, and he told his audience how funny it was. And bang, we were a hit!

“I did an appearance with Dave Garroway on The Today Show, {Joe later was a regular co-host}, and on a Cincinnati TV show that was really in those days, the Ruth Lyons Show. She told all her viewers – mostly housewives – that the book was a riot. And soon we were number one on the Milwaukee Journal best seller list, #9 on the New York Herald Tribune list, and got up to around #12 on the Times.

“After Ruth Lyons, I did a book signing appearance at the Hudson Department Store in Cincinnati and I almost rolled over. People were lined up around the block!”

“Baseball is a Funny Game” went through nearly 20 printings and was in print until about 15 years ago. It remains popular with book collectors because it was such a breakthrough. And while people think it is the book that launched a thousand Yogi Berra stories, there aren’t really that many mentions of Yogi in there. It was more about Joe’s own National League days and the things he witnessed and found amusing. It’s still both funny and informative, a great behind-the-scenes look at baseball in the ‘50s.

Joe did another book 28 years later, “It’s Anybody’s Ballgame,” with his daughter Gina playing the role of Martin Quigley, following the same style. And Joe’s original typed manuscript for “Funny,” is now bound and in his possession, as well as several framed best seller lists from around the country which would have shocked his English teachers in St. Louis.

Joe remains one of the most passionate people the game has ever produced – about baseball, about players in need, about the dangers of smokeless tobacco, and in recent years, about an Indian Mission School in Bapcule, AZ. People who want books, balls, bats, gloves, etc., signed, can write to Joe c/o the Arizona Diamondbacks (for whom he still broadcasts, and for whom his son Joe Jr. is General Manager), at PO Box 2095, Phoenix, AZ 85001. A $25 check ($10 for cards or flats), should be made payable to the St. Peter Indian Mission School. It’s a good deal – Joe, as a winner of the Ford Frick Award, is among the broadcasters enshrined in Cooperstown. If there was a wing there for baseball books, he’d be there too.