Bob Uecker is surely in the front row of baseball funnymen. Those familiar with the Ueck’s shtick, and with those Miller Lite commercials of a couple of decades back, will understand and agree. In fact, Uecker is nearly as funny as Joe Garagiola thinks Joe Garagiola is. This is high praise indeed. No less a baseball imminence than Vin Scully said, “I can’t think of Bob Uecker without smiling.”
Uecker turned 81 Monday. But, happily, he’s given no sign that he’s anywhere near giving up his calling, which is helping keep baseball fun for Milwaukee Brewers’ fans, and for anyone else lucky enough to hear his broadcasts or catch one of his TV appearances. The Catcher in the Wry (the name of Uecker’s 1982 book) was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and it was Carson who gave him the ironic sobriquet of “Mr. Baseball.” It has stuck, and with good reason.
Few ex-jocks now manning microphones have parlayed a thinner on-the-field résumé than Uecker into a richer media career. Ueck has been the voice of the Brewers since 1971. He’s also served as color commentator for network baseball games, and what amusing color he has dished up over the years. He’s been in a few baseball movies, including the Major League trilogy, and even had a mildly funny TV sit-com, Mr. Belvedere, which lasted from 1985 to 1990. But he’s at his best describing a baseball game or making fun of his less than distinguished playing career.
Uecker has won various awards for his broadcasting, including the Ford C. Frick Award in 2003 for “major contributions to baseball,” the broadcasters’ equivalent of being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2001 he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy with a lifetime Major League batting average of .200.
Uecker, a Milwaukee native, signed a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Braves in 1956 and made his Major League debut in 1962. The good-field, not-much-hit Uecker managed to stay in The Show for six seasons as a back-up catcher with the Braves, Phillies, and Cardinals. He has a World Series ring from the 1964 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he hit .198 with one homerun in 40 games. In those six seasons Ueck hit 14 homeruns in 731 at bats.
Uecker said he could always tell when a team was going to trade or release him because “the manager would say stuff to me like ‘get a bat and go up there and end this rally.’” Or when at bat he would look to the third base coach for a sign and the coach turned his back on him.
Other observations by the great Ueck on playing in the bigs with modest talent:
• “Anybody with ability can play in the big leagues. But to be able to trick people year in and year out the way I did, I think that was a much greater feat.”
• “I was once named Minor League Player of the Year. Unfortunately, I had been in the majors for two years at the time.”
• “Sporting goods companies pay me not to endorse their products.”
• “I had slumps that lasted into the winter.”
• “When I came up to bat with three men on and two outs in the ninth, I looked in the other team’s dugout and they were already in street clothes.”
• “I didn’t get a lot of awards as a player. But they did have a Bob Uecker Day Off for me once in Philly.”
• “Career highlights. I had two. I got an intentional walk from Sandy Koufax and I got out of a rundown against the Mets.”
• “I knew when my career was over. My 1965 baseball card came out with no picture.”
• “The best way to catch a knuckleball is to wait till it stops rolling and pick it up.”
• “I was originally drafted by the Braves for $3,000. That worried my dad because we didn’t have that kind of money. But we managed to scrape it together and I went off to play.”
• “The cops picked me up off the street at 3 a.m. They fined me $300 for being drunk and $100 for being with the Phillies.”
Baseball is supposed to be fun. Uecker understands this. And he helps make it so. I’m sure fans of the Grand Old Game join me in wishing Mr. Baseball many happy returns. And many more years in the broadcast booth.
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