|Associated Press |
Johnny Carson dubbed him 'Mr. Baseball.'
But it is in Milwaukee that the 76-year-old has achieved icon status.
By MARK YOST
Wall Street Journal
'Who's chuckin' today?"
That's all the pregame preparation Milwaukee Brewers radio broadcaster Bob Uecker put in before the start of a recent spring-training game between the Brewers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. But entering his 41st season in the booth for his hometown ball club, he was more than ready.
"It's all up here," he said, tapping the side of his head.
"Up here" can be an interesting place. Mr. Uecker is in a league of his own when it comes to baseball play-by-play men. Part comic, part encyclopedia, he can recall an amazing number of pertinent facts when the game is on the line, and have a heck of a lot of fun when it isn't. His crazy side tends to win out more often than not.
Most of his humor is self-deprecating, like his oft-repeated line that during his playing career he once went "O-for-June."
"I never make fun of the players," he said. "I make fun of situations and try and find the humor in things, but it's never at the expense of the other guy."
No one's more amazed than Mr. Uecker that he's hung around baseball this long. When he speaks to Little League groups, he says to parents, "Hey, if I can make it, your kid's got a shot."
Mr. Uecker was born in Milwaukee, but in the Uecker mind simple facts take on a life of their own. By his telling, he was born on an oleo run to Illinois because the family couldn't get colored margarine in Wisconsin.
"I remember it was a nativity-type setting," he said during his 2003 acceptance speech for the Baseball Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence. "An exit light shining down. There were three truck drivers there. One guy was carrying butter, one guy had frankfurters and the other guy was a retired baseball scout who told my folks that I probably had a chance to play somewhere down the line."
He grew up watching the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers. In 1956, he signed with the major-league Milwaukee Braves, which had relocated from Boston in 1953. His playing career, which spanned four teams, including the 1964 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, was less than stellar. He's still in the top 10 for most passed balls by a catcher in a season (1967). But in his defense, he was catching for Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro, whose specialty was the knuckleball, a very difficult ball to catch. After retiring in 1967, Mr. Uecker was briefly a scout for the Brewers. But he was notorious for turning in reports that were unreadable and covered with food stains.
"I knew then that he wasn't going to make it as a scout," said former Brewers team owner Bud Selig, now the commissioner of Major League Baseball. "So we decided to try him as a broadcaster."
Mr. Uecker quickly became a fan favorite. He gained nationwide fame as one of the Miller Lite All Stars in an ad campaign during the 1970s and '80s for Milwaukee-based Miller Brewing Co.; as Harry Doyle, the play-by-play man in all three "Major League" films; as George Owens on the 1985-90 sitcom "Mr. Belvedere"; and as a frequent guest on "The Tonight Show," where Johnny Carson dubbed him "Mr. Baseball."
But that national recognition pales next to the icon status Mr. Uecker has achieved in Milwaukee, which he dismisses with an "aw shucks" wave of the hand.
"He's such a big part of summer in Wisconsin," said Brewers infielder Craig Counsell, who grew up in Whitefish Bay. "It's really almost like he's a friend or a member of your family."
His "family" was shaken last year when Mr. Uecker announced the first of two heart surgeries on April 27. In classic Ueckerian fashion, he started the press conference by saying, "I have been added to the active roster."
He was out for three months and underwent a second heart operation in October, but is now "doing better than I was a few months ago." And by all measures, for a guy who just turned 76, he is.
Walking into the radio booth at the Brewers' spring-training facility about a half hour before game time, Mr. Uecker was well tanned and wearing white slacks, a polo shirt, ball cap and sunglasses. It wasn't until about 10 seconds before airtime that he turned to his on-air partner and straight man, 32-year-old Cory Provus, and asked who was pitching.
A foul tip to catcher Wil Nieves started a half-inning dialogue about how catching—and the game—has changed. In Mr. Uecker's day, he told Mr. Provus and the listening audience, catchers caught with two hands, and the mitts were rounder but didn't provide much padding.
"I used to soak my mitts in a bucket of water for about two days. Then I'd put a couple of baseballs in the pocket and wrap it up with a rubber band," Mr. Uecker said before updating the pitch count. "Today you don't have to do that, because catchers' mitts are more like first baseman's gloves."
And that's how each broadcast goes. A bevy of classic Uecker stories, interspersed with facts and figures—batting averages, RBIs, home runs—that he doesn't need to look up.
"The game hasn't changed," Mr. Uecker said in a pregame interview, "but the circumstances around it have."
He doesn't like the playoff system, thinks fans expect their team to win "more than is humanly possible," and thinks St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Albert Pujols's request for a $300 million, 10-year contract is no more ridiculous than some of the pay CEOs receive.
"Do the CEOs deserve all the money they make? If Albert can get it, good for him. But I wouldn't want to be paying him $30 million when he's 41."
Forget 10 years. What does he want fans to think about Bob Uecker in 100 years?
"That I'm still workin'."
Asked what it's like to work alongside Mr. Uecker, Mr. Provus said, "He's the best remedy for a bad day."
I suspect that's how a lot of the listeners back in Milwaukee feel.