They Locked Bob Uecker Out of the Bar, but They Can't Keep Him Out of the Announcer's Booth
updated 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
But don't judge Uecker too quickly. All of his relentless clowning conceals a secret: He is one of the most elegantly artful radio broadcasters in baseball. "People who know him through his comedy expect him to be like that on the air and they're surprised because he isn't," says Uecker's boss Bill Haig, Vice President of Broadcasting for the Milwaukee Brewers. "When he's up on stage, he's a comedian. When he's on the radio, he's one of the best four or five play-by-play men in the business."
Flippant about almost everything, Uecker is serious about radio. "On TV the people can see it," he says. "On radio you've got to create it." Uecker creates a smooth, steady stream of descriptions, statistics, anecdotes and asides that is almost seamless, the perfect background music for a summer afternoon in a hammock.
Uecker trained for his broadcasting career in various big-league bull pens, where he spent much of his six-year career as a second-string catcher for the Braves, Cardinals and Phillies in the '60s. "I used to sit in the bull pen talking into a beer cup," he says. "Of course, I said a lot of stuff you couldn't say on the radio." But it wasn't just Uecker's X-rated chatter that cemented his reputation as a flake. He was also famous for shagging fly balls with a tuba and creating a deck of playing cards decorated with the faces of the ugliest felons that a friend, a Philadelphia detective, could supply.
But if truth be told, Uecker was not quite as bad a ball player as he would have his audiences believe. A good defensive catcher with a strong arm, he was one of the few receivers who could handle the knuckleball, which is not unlike trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. But knuckleball pitchers are few and far between, so Uecker had to make himself useful in other ways. "You throw batting practice, you warm up pitchers, you sit and cheer," he says. "You do whatever you have to do to stay on the team."
In 1968, the Atlanta Braves finally sized up Uecker's talent: They fired him as a player and hired him as a public relations man. His job consisted mainly of speaking on the sports banquet circuit—sometimes six rubber chickens a week. "I did stand-up, weird and ignorant stuff about my career—anything for a laugh," he remembers.
A gig at his friend Al Hirt's Atlanta nightclub led to an appearance on The Tonight Show in 1970, and Uke's deadpan delivery proved perfect for the cool medium. He was summoned back for some 45 appearances with Johnny, hired as a color man for Monday Night Baseball and featured as the resident fool of The Superstars. The philosophy of the second-stringer applied again: "You do whatever you have to do to stay on the team."
Last year, Uecker landed perhaps the best job in showbiz—a starring role in a Miller Lite beer commercial. The first ad, which left him staring with Chaplinesque sadness into a locked saloon, was so successful that it spawned a sequel. In that ad, Uecker gets into the bar—but only by impersonating Whitey Ford.
While achieving quick fame as a buffoon on the tube, Uecker slowly grew as a play-by-play announcer on radio. It wasn't easy. "Initially he had trouble finding ad lib material," recalls Tom Collins, who helped break Uecker in for the Brewers' broadcast team in 1971. "He'd constantly repeat the count and the score, and swing his legs like a pendulum, and smoke cigarette after cigarette." Uecker honed his craft with hard work. "I had everything to learn and I spent 10 years learning it," he remembers. "I didn't try to wisecrack my way through it."
Uecker's average workday would make a memorable vacation for most American males. He saunters into the ballpark about three hours before game time. "I go to the clubhouse, screw around, laugh with the guys, then go out to the field when they start batting practice and screw around some more." He used to pitch batting practice once in a while too, until he found it too dangerous. "Guys foul balls off on purpose," he says with a grin. "Pitch comes in and they just flick it, try to hit you in the crotch."
After schmoozing with players on both teams, Uecker tapes two-minute interviews with Brewers Manager Harvey Kuenn and General Manager Harry Dalton for the pregame show. Then he sits in the broadcast booth, casually perusing each team's press handouts, underlining interesting facts with a yellow Magic Marker, instantly committing the statistics to memory. "You look at them one time, they stick," he says. "It's a trick you learn as a catcher. You remember the hit that beat you, who hit it, what he hit it on."
While the last notes of The Star-Spangled Banner fade into cheers, Uecker props his scorecard in front of him, dangles his cigarette off the edge of his desk, drops his voice an octave or two and lets the stream of talk flow. He sticks to pure play-by-play while the game is close. When it becomes a laugh, he'll find time to gently jibe the game or himself or anything else that pops into his head. Like an Army recruiting ad: "Brewers baseball is being brought to you in part by the United States Army," he reads, before sliding gracefully into parody. "Wanna have your own tank? Have your own motor pool? Bathe each and every day? Call your Army recruiter."
Uecker met perhaps the most absurd challenge of his career one recent night in Yankee Stadium when Howard Cosell appeared in the broadcast booth to harass him. Cosell, an old friend and colleague from Monday Night Baseball, arrived carrying a huge cigar and a cool drink and flashing a well-lit grin. "The man's bigger than the game, he's bigger than the team, he's bigger than the league, he's bigger than the sport," Cosell bellowed. "They talk about a new commissioner. If I had my pick it would be you, Bob Uecker."
But Uecker, whose deadpan double-takes make Mount Rushmore look animated by comparison, kept his eye firmly on the ball.
"I wish I had time," Uke replied. "The pitch to Simmons—hit sharply fair past Smalley and down the left-field line..."