How did a backup catcher who batted .200 during a famously forgettable Major League career wind up immortalized with a bronze statue outside Miller Park?
Few know that Bob Uecker found fame as a Major League broadcaster because of he failed as a Major League scout. Former Brewers General Manager Frank Lane sent Uecker to grade prospects in the Northern League in 1970. When the first batch of reports returned to Lane unreadable, slathered in the remains of Uecker’s last meal, Lane demanded a change.
MLB Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig, the Brewers’ owner at the time remembered Uecker as “the worst scout in baseball history.”
Selig decided to move him to the broadcast booth in 1971. Because of that seemingly small decision at the time, saving the sanity of his GM, Selig set the wheels in motion. Today, Uecker was immortalized alongside two Hall of Famers and the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
For 42 amazing seasons of entertaining Brewers fans, the Brewers made Uecker a permanent fixture outside Miller Park on Friday afternoon. His seven-foot statue joined similar tributes to Selig, who brought the Brewers to Milwaukee as well as Hall of Fame players Henry Aaron and Robin Yount.
“The baseball announcer becomes a link to their fans,” Selig said. “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.”
Don’t forget. Although Uecker was a slouch on the field, he was never a slouch in the booth. His knowledge of the game, as well as some pretty amazing comedy chops, put Uecker head and shoulders above his cohorts.
Some highlights of the ceremony as seen on MLB.com:
– Uecker, on why he stayed in Milwaukee all these years: “It was a parole thing.”
– Costas, on the statue’s company: “If you walk on the plaza and listen closely, you can hear Henry’s statue begging to be relocated to Lambeau [Field]. When word of this got out, pigeons all over the Midwest relocated to Milwaukee to pay their respects.”
– Yount, via video message, standing in front of the Colosseum in Rome: “He’s been around so long, I think he played here.”
– NBC executive Dick Ebersol: “One thing I want to set straight right now — Bob did not have to pay for the statue. I know that’s been going around.”
– Hall of Famer, Hank Aaron: “I want to go back to the time when we were playing in Atlanta, and I was in a semi slump. You were always in a slump.”
Contrary to the stories he told over the years, Uecker was actually a terrific high school baseball player. He signed with his hometown Braves in 1956. By 1962, he made it to the Majors as a 27-year-old backup catcher. Uecker was traded to the Cardinals in 1964, just in time to win his only World Series ring. Uecker went on to play for the Phillies and finally finished his career with Braves again, this time in Atlanta.
A talent scout for the Tonight Show discovered him at a nightclub owned by jazz trumpeter Al Hirt in 1969. It opened the door to more than 100 appearances with Carson. As a sports satirist myself, Bob Uecker just went from a second rate backup catcher to the coolest guy in the room.
Uecker’s appearances on Carson were followed by his popular Miller Lite commercials, a starring role on the ABC sitcom “Mr. Belvedere” and of course…the Major League series of films. Let’s face it folks. Bob Uecker permanently skewed our view of the game… in the best way possible.
“One of the great privileges of my life, and of Bob’s life, was to really know Johnny Carson well,” said NBC executive Dick Ebersol. Ebersol was head of the network’s Late Night division at the time of Uecker’s debut. “And Johnny told me on more than one occasion, including about two months before he died, in a very raspy phone call [because] he had a form of emphysema … that Bob Uecker was the most original humorist he had ever known, that it all came from Bob’s gut, from Bob’s soul. He was not surrounded by an army of writers. He was, legitimately, in Johnny’s mind, the funniest man he ever knew.”
Ebersol employed Uecker on a series of other shows, including three Wrestlemania broadcasts. Regardless of his success, Uecker never left his spot in the Brewers’ broadcast booth. Selig revealed that even the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner once tried to secretly lure Uecker away.
Other attendees included former Tonight Show band director Doc Severinsen, Hank Aaron’s wife, Billye, and Uecker’s cast mates from “Mr. Belvedere.” Former Braves teammates Joe Torre, Johnny Logan and Felix Mantilla attended as well as former Brewers – Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, Jim Gantner and Gorman Thomas. Nearly 20 current Brewers including Ryan Braun also broke their usual pregame routine to attend.
“We have a rich tradition in Milwaukee here, and we can’t celebrate it enough,” Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio said. “Today is really a blessing, and really, one of the nicest days in my years of ownership.”
Uecker spoke after the big reveal of his statue, which depicts him standing casually with his hands in his pockets. After pulling the curtain away, Uecker turned to emcee Costas and asked, “What do you want me to do?” Costas replied, “What do you want to do?” Uecker responded in typical Uecker fashion… “I want to get my money back.”
Let’s not kid ourselves. If Uecker played today, none of us would have drafted him to our fantasy baseball teams. (Ok. Maybe I would have.) The point is we would all kill for his post-baseball career. Ok. Maybe I would.