MILWAUKEE — Mr. Baseball celebrated his 87th birthday on Tuesday. Here are some of our favorite stories about legendary Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker.
The time he aged two years on one birthday
No matter what other sources tell you, Robert George Uecker was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 26, 1934. Throughout his playing career, the back of Uecker’s baseball card said he was born in 1935. Uecker says he never paid attention, but when he got older and people began to more frequently ask his age, he noticed that most databases had it wrong. When he turned 80 in 2014, Uecker finally set the record straight — and lamented a missed opportunity.
“If I was going to cheat on my age, I would certainly make it more than one year,” Uecker said. “This just gets me into the Village at Manor Park sooner.”
For out-of-towners, that’s one of the Milwaukee area’s prominent retirement homes.
From St. Boniface to the big leagues
Uecker’s father, August, was a Swiss immigrant who worked as a tool and die maker and mechanic. His mother, Mary Schultz, was born in Michigan and had a brother, Bernard, who played professional baseball in the Tigers’ organization. August and Mary settled on Milwaukee’s near north side at 10th Street and Meinecke Avenue and had three children — two daughters and Bob, who grew up surrounded by baseball.
At St. Boniface grade school, Uecker was within walking distance of Borchert Field, home to the original iteration of the Milwaukee Brewers, a Minor League team that played from 1902-53. Fans today know about Uecker’s exploits as a light-hitting catcher for his hometown Milwaukee Braves before stints in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Atlanta, but he actually began his baseball life as a pitcher, as he told MLB.com in 2015.
“I was a pretty good pitcher, you know,” Uecker said. “I threw a no-hitter. I threw pretty hard, actually. I had a workout with the Braves. I was, like, 16 years old, and they invited me down there during the afternoon. The catcher was a guy named Bob Keely. The pitching coach was a guy named Johnny Cooney.
“I’m on the sidelines throwing down at County Stadium. And like I said, I was a pretty good pitcher and I’m down there humping pretty good. I threw upper 80s, low 90s maybe. I’d been playing sandlot baseball and we won a city championship a couple years in a row with Rohr Jewelers downtown. We were good. So, I’m humping for about 15 minutes. All of a sudden, Cooney says, ‘All right, now let me see your good fastball.’ I said, ‘I have been throwing my good fastball!’ And he says, ‘Well, then I recommend you get a job.’
“Years later, I ran into him when I was a catcher with the Braves and I asked if he remembered me. He looked at me and said no. That’s a true story. It was pretty much a destroyer.”
Everyone has their favorite one-liner from Uecker. Here’s the setup for one of our favorites: Prior to the 1956 season, Uecker signed with his hometown Milwaukee Braves for $3,000.
“That bothered my dad at the time because he didn’t have that kind of dough,” Uecker said. “But he eventually scraped it up.”
In Milwaukee, Uecker was a teammate of Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn. Then he went to the Cardinals to back up catcher Tim McCarver in 1964 and won a World Series ring. But the achievement Uecker mentions most came in his final Major League season, 1967, when he was traded by the Phillies to the Atlanta Braves and joined a roster that included knuckleballer Phil Niekro. That season, Uecker was charged with 27 passed balls, 25 coming with the Braves.
That’s an all-time record, as he proudly notes.
“There was a game, as a matter of fact, during that year when Phil Niekro’s brother and he were pitching against each other in Atlanta,” Uecker said in Cooperstown in 2003. “Their parents were sitting right behind home plate. I saw their folks that day more than they did the whole weekend.”
Welcome home, Uke
On Monday, July 19, 1971, The Associated Press reported that the Brewers had hired Uecker as a full-time scout and part-time public relations man. Uecker was a hit at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner in New York earlier that year and was already appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, a gig he landed on the recommendation of jazz trumpeter Al Hirt, who’d once asked Uecker on stage at a concert in 1969. Uecker became a favorite of Carson, making more than 100 appearances.
As Uecker’s star rose — eventually leading to roles in a popular series of Miller Lite television ads, the sitcom “Mr. Belvedere” and the “Major League” franchise of films — he always kept his ties to baseball. When the Brewers hired him, he was 37, and his speaking talents figured to “make him an ideal representative for the Brewers and for baseball,” club owner Bud Selig said.
Uecker’s scouting territory was close to home in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but it was slow going. When the Orioles came to Milwaukee that August, Uecker happened by their dugout and was asked if he’d signed any players yet. No, Uecker told his audience, including the Cumberland Evening Times’ J. Suter Kegg, although he had recommended someone only to be turned down by the club. Uecker was asked why.
“Well, he couldn’t throw and he couldn’t bat,” he said in an already-trademarked deadpan delivery. “You see, the kid doesn’t have any arms, but I thought he’d make a helluva pinch-runner.”
‘You’d better start talking’
Frustrated by receiving scouting reports from Uecker that were smeared with mashed potatoes and gravy — Selig swears to this day that the oft-told story is true — Uecker was sent to the radio booth late that season, where he teamed with Merle Harmon and Tom Collins. On Nov. 30, 1971, the UPI reported that Uecker was formally joining the radio team. (That nugget of news was mentioned in a story about the Brewers adding seven television broadcasts to their schedule — bringing to 33 the number of games scheduled to appear on TV in 1972.)
Harmon and Collins were broadcasting veterans who went all the way back to the Milwaukee Braves. Uecker at first provided color and was hesitant to try his hand at play-by-play, until one day at Yankee Stadium both Harmon and Collins abruptly left the booth in the fifth inning. Uecker held down the cough button and begged them to come back. Eventually, he turned to the engineer and asked what he was supposed to do.
“I don’t know, but you’d better start talking,” came the answer. “There’s one out.”
So, Uecker started talking.
“It was awful,” he said. “It sounded like The Chipmunks.”
Thankfully, he’d logged countless hours of practice during his playing days, sitting in the bullpen and entertaining the relief pitchers with mock broadcasts. All these years under owners Selig and Mark Attanasio, Uecker has never had a contract. He’s always worked on a handshake agreement.
Uecker has endured his share of health scares over the years leading to at least 11 surgeries. In 1991, when he was still throwing batting practice every day for the Brewers, he developed lower back pain and needed surgery for an aortal aneurysm in his abdominal area — a potentially life-threating condition. In 2009, doctors found tumors on his pancreas, which they removed. Uecker has been insulin-dependent ever since. In 2010, his 40th year in the Brewers’ booth, he temporarily lost his vision while calling a game with then-partner Cory Provus at Wrigley Field. An examination revealed a worsening of a leaky heart valve, which required a six-hour open-heart surgery. That fall, Uecker needed another open-heart surgery for a staph infection.
Then there was 2017, when Uecker was changing a light bulb in an outdoor fixture at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., and was bitten on the leg by a brown recluse spider. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he needed a procedure to cut away the affected flesh, and the wound had to remain open to heal. Naturally, Uecker took photos with his cell phone to show friends who had strong stomachs.
“We were laughing about it on the air,” Uecker said. “I said the spider didn’t ‘recluse’ himself from biting me. That was a good one.”
Ueckerstown (and other honors)
Ask who delivered the greatest speech in the history of Hall of Fame weekend, and opinions will surely vary. But there is no arguing that anyone had the audience laughing like Uecker did when he accepted the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 27, 2003.
Watch it. It’s worth the time.
Here’s a taste:
“My two boys are just like me,” Uecker told a crowd that included former President George W. Bush. “In their championship Little League game, one of them struck out three times and the other one had an error allowing the winning run to score. They lost the championship, and I couldn’t have been more proud. I remember the people as we walked through the parking lot throwing eggs and rotten stuff at our car. What a beautiful day.”
There are too many honors to list. In 2001, Uecker was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 2011 and to the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in ’12. He’s in the Brewers’ Walk of Fame and the Wall of Honor. He’s even in the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame after hosting a couple of classic WrestleManias.
Andre the Giant & Bob Uecker at Wrestlemania IV
— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) January 27, 2014
In 2006, the Brewers placed a ring with the No. 50 on the rafters at Miller Park to mark Uecker’s 50th anniversary in baseball. In 2012, the team dedicated a statue of Uecker outside the ballpark; only Aaron, Robin Yount and Selig have been so honored. In ’14, the team dedicated a second Uecker statue in the last row of the upper deck — a wink and a nod to the storyline in many of those Miller Lite commercials. This time, the dedication took place in the afternoon before the stadium gates opened.
“Fifty thousand empty seats,” Yount said in a droll tone. “What a ceremony.”
The time he got locked in the booth
If you’re going to be locked in a room with anybody, it might as well be Mr. Baseball. Uecker made sure nobody lost their cool in the Brewers’ radio booth in 2015, when a group that included fellow broadcasters Joe Block and Jeff Levering, longtime engineer Kent Sommerfeld and Uecker’s assistant, Mary Burns, found themselves trapped for several innings by a broken lock on the door.
“People who are listening to the ballgame, I know what you’re thinking,” Uecker said. “‘He’s ready for the home. He’s cooked. It’s finally happened. He’s seeing ladders and doors without handles.'”
As the game rolled along, fans were treated to dueling play-by-play of the Brewers and Dodgers on the field, and of the handymen who stationed a ladder on the loge level at Miller Park and climbed into the booth to remove the door from its hinges. Finally, Uecker & Co. were free.
Bob Uecker is free, folks. Now he’s overseeing construction. pic.twitter.com/NFf5xt3x7X
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) May 7, 2015
The time he wore a speedo in Sports Illustrated
Even before the pandemic, Uecker had cut down on travel. But when he took a trip to Pittsburgh in 2018, Counsell and Brewers director of team travel Dan Larrea pounced on the opportunity. They quietly arranged for the entire traveling party to wear loud sport coats like the one Uecker made famous on “The Tonight Show,” in Miller Lite ads and as Harry Doyle in “Major League,” donned over T-shirts bearing an image of Uecker in a black speedo. The photo came from the May 19, 2008, issue of Sports Illustrated, which featured a fit Uecker in the background while J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart played poolside ping-pong.
When asked about it later, Uecker quipped, “Oh, you mean my swimsuit issue?”
As a couple of you noticed, good work by Counsell and Sedar on their t-shirts for the Bob Uecker dress-up flight.
Brewers photo on left, and Al Tielemans’ absolute classic from the May 19, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated on right. Ueck refers to it as “my swimsuit issue.” pic.twitter.com/eh86MlNdbz
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) June 18, 2018
The Uecker tree
“Think about the Uecker tree,” said Jim Powell, Uecker’s partner from 1996-2008 who went on to be the lead radio voice of the Atlanta Braves. “We are all these disciples, and we’re spread out all over Major League Baseball. We all have these unique experiences with Ueck.”
Pat Hughes, Uecker’s partner from 1984-95, became legendary in his own right as the radio voice of the Chicago Cubs. His departure for a more prominent job opened a spot for Powell, whose move to Atlanta opened a spot for Provus, whose move to Minnesota opened a spot for Block, whose move to Pittsburgh opened a spot for Levering and later for Lane Grindle.
“I’m not aware of any other tree like that,” Powell said. “You think about the other iconic broadcasters, and it’s not like a bunch spawned from Ernie Harwell. It’s not like a bunch spawned from Vin Scully. But Uecker uses his partner so well. Bob is never the whole show.”
Selig once put Uecker’s impact this way: “The baseball announcer becomes a link to their fans. You go to Harry Caray, or Bob Prince in Pittsburgh, Mel Allen in New York, Vin Scully is legendary, a classic. That’s Bob Uecker here.”
The big five-oh
It wasn’t the way Uecker drew up his 50th season in the Brewers’ booth in 2020, but as usual he made the most of it. The season was first delayed until late July by the coronavirus pandemic, and when it began, Major League Baseball instituted strict protocols limiting who could be on the service level at Miller Park. For the first time since he started calling games in 1971, Uecker was separated from the team.
“I can’t go in the clubhouse,” he said. “It brings back such great memories of teams that I was playing on.”
But he did continue to work, even though his age and medical history put him at greater risk for COVID-19. Uecker worked home games as usual, plus a couple of road games. They were especially challenging in 2020, since none of the broadcasters were allowed to travel. Instead, they called games off monitors from an empty Miller Park.
“I’m on the shortstop side of second base right now. I’m coming down the home stretch,” Uecker said as the season approached. “And I still want to work. I still feel like working, and I don’t think that will change until I make the call that I think enough is enough and move on. We all know down the road is the bottom of the ninth, man. No matter what we do, no matter how we try to take care of ourselves, sooner or later, the time comes.
“But for me, right now, I’m feeling good. I’m happy. I’m glad I’m going back to work. I’ll know when to stop. I’m not going to embarrass myself or embarrass the team. I would never do that. When I don’t feel I’m capable of working anymore, whether it’s 50 years or 51 years or 52 years, I don’t know, but I’ll be the first one to know.”
Now he’s heading into his 50th anniversary season in 2021, and already Uecker is vowing to keep on working.
“I hope things get back to normal soon, I really do,” he said last week. “I miss everybody at the ballpark.”